Dog Sports Should Be About The Dogs

Dog Sports Should Be About The Dogs

Rio doing his best impersonation of a rally dog :)

Rio doing his best impersonation of a rally dog 🙂

Rio is my awesome boy.  He does everything that I ask him to do and he really tries to do it with a smile, whether or not he really likes it.  He has competed in rally-o and is actually pretty good at it.  He earned his RL1 title in three “trials” (over a day and a half) and earned it with an award of excellence.  Before our first rally trial he had done absolutely zero rally (Shayne had at least walked through a course before)–not even a walk through.  Even with no experience he scored pretty well, 197, 203, and 207 if I remember correctly (with each run he got better and better).

Even though he showed he could do it and he could do it well, I didn’t have him signed up for the rally trial this past weekend.  It’s not because he couldn’t do it but because he really didn’t love it.  He was doing it because I asked him to do it, not because he was really enjoying the game OR really enjoying working with me.  I’m not sure Shayne loves doing rally but I know she loves working with me and she’d do darned well anything if it meant working with me.  Rio can’t yet overlook the task itself for the joy of working (he’s not as drivey as Shayne in that respect).

I watched video from his first rally trial and decided that I wasn’t going to make him do something that he did not find lots of joy in doing.  It’s no fun making him do something that he doesn’t want to do even if he is good at it and could easily title in and get lots of pretty ribbons in.

The dog sport experiences should be more about the dog having a good time bonding with the handler, practicing an enjoyable skill set, and having a shared positive experience with the handler than about ribbons, titles, and placements.  None of those things are bad and they are representations of the shared journey but they should not be put before the desires of the dog or the relationship with the dog.

If the dog looks like he would rather have his left front paw gnawed off by an angry caterpillar, I’d really like the handler to recognize that maybe that dog sport is not right for them.  If you are having to drag your dog around the rally course (or walk SUPER SLOW to prevent tight leashes), if you have to bribe your dog to run the agility course by having super special treats, have to ‘fight’ to keep your dog on the frisbee fields, or what not, maybe you should re-think the activity.

It really does hurt my heart watching a dog sluggishly walk through an agility course, scratching, yawning and lip licking as the handler desperately tries to get them to hurry up.  Dog sports should be fun for the person and they should be fun for the dogs.  If I’m not doing it for me then why the heck am I doing it (I know I certainly don’t walk around a rally course for my own benefit, proving to the spectators that I can read and follow directions–well, mostly follow directions)?  If I’m doing it for the dog, shouldn’t the dog be enjoying the experience?

Some dogs like the training, enjoy the classes, and have fun practicing but do not like trials.  Perhaps they do not feel comfortable in the busy environment and it’s causing them an increase of stress (which we all know can result in a decrease in reliability).  Maybe the dog doesn’t handle the stress the handler is feeling very well–or maybe they do not respond well to the pressure the handler is putting on them.  There are many reason a dog may like an activity but NOT like trialing in that activity.   For me, I would really have to question my own motives if I were competing with a dog who was clearly not enjoying the experience.

I really am a firm believer that if your dog doesn’t look forward to working in the dog sport (going to class or going in the ring for competition) that maybe the handler should find another activity for the pup.  Maybe she loves Rally class but doesn’t love competing–that’s okay, go to rally class, maybe even fun matches but don’t worry about competing.

It’s not worth damaging your relationship with your dog by forcing them to train/compete in an activity they don’t like just to win a few ribbons or earn some letters after your dog’s name.


  1. Man did I ever need to read this a year ago! My dog loves working. She is super-drivey and loves doing things with me. She has a ton of talent and could be a huge competitor. However. The trial environment, even the fun match environment, is incredibly stressful for the both of us and is just not fun for her or for me. I could work on this, no doubt, spend the next year or so hitting up every trial as an observer, just to get her better accustomed to the environment. But frankly, that sounds incredibly tedious and boring and not at all why I got into agility. One day I’d love to attend a fun match again but if it doesn’t happen, oh well. She adores training and classes and we have a blast playing around together. If it’s enough for her, then I am trying to learn that it’s enough for me too.

    • Kristine, you are such an awesome mom to THE Shivster (that is her new name by the way). It’s hard for people to have impulse control and do what’s best for their dog and their relationship with their dog and you have done that.

      Keep taking classes and have fun with her…maybe create some goals that you’d like to meet with Shiva OR awards for various things you do in class (“perfect” class day of all clean runs, “contact award” for nailing every contact for the whole class, etc)… that way you can appease your natural desire to have tangible achievements while also working were Shiva is most comfortable.

      It was such a hard choice not to run Rio. It’s a bit embarrassing but I felt bad that Shayne would likely get her RL2 and Rio wouldn’t (how silly is that)… then I remembered that those letters arent’ for the dogs at all… they are for me. Rio doesn’t know or care if he’s got those letters behinds his name or not (and the reality is, he’s got his own letters that Shayne doesn’t).

  2. PS. Thanks a million for writing this. I am still feeling a bit sulky about it all so it’s good to know I am doing the right thing. Even if the right thing sucks.

  3. I would like to offer a slight counterpoint to your point of view. While I agree whole-heartedly that dog sports should be about the dogs, I also think that there is value in growing a dog and handler team out of their natural comfort zone.

    I train and trial with 3 wonderfully diverse dogs. One dog is a machine. Another is a joyful goofball. My other dog was a very phobic and fearful little thing. My fearful dog was very well-trained. However, in a trial environment, she would drool and shut down. If she saw me loading my van for a show, she would hide under the bed. Obviously it was unfair and unkind to continue showing with her. SO, I quit. My decision to stop showing her haunted me. My dog remained fearful on walks and phobic about leaves and feathers and roadside trash and any object that was out of place… (the list goes on and on.) Then, I decided that I was going to finish her CD. I just decided that no matter what, I was going to do it. I wrote out a training plan and a desensitization plan and started working. I didn’t haul her to shows, but I DID work on engagement and taught her to drown out distractions. I started working her in high arousal for short bursts and kept our training time together so intense that our sessions became the high point of our day.

    What ended up happening was that our next experiences in the ring were incredible. She was absolutely joyful. She had a blast. We finished our CD and will be starting on our CDX this weekend. She also made it into Excellent Agility in a single weekend after having to be pulled after Novice two years earlier. She now needs one more leg for her RE. She did all of this in the past 2 months.

    The unexpected but amazing side-benefit is this: She is no longer fearful or phobic about ANYTHING. The journey to our CD taught her how to be a happy dog in everyday life. It was magical and transformative. Our relationship has deepened. The process unlocked her joyfulness.

    On some level, I always felt that quitting with her was somehow letting her down. It wasn’t ever about the ribbons. It was about giving her what she needed to be more brave and more connected.

    Certainly every dog and handler’s journey is different and no one needs to show a dog to have a deep and cherished connection. However, if showning is a goal, pushing through the hard stuff just *might* be worth it if you proceed with the dog’s best interests in mind.

    • I get where you are coming from for sure but what hits home to me most is this line: “if you proceed with the dog’s best interests in mind.” I do not think it is in the best interest of a dog to drag it into the ring over and over and over again when the dog looks and acts both completely miserable but also so stressed that it is frequently scratching, yawning, or refusing to give eye contact (when the dog is comfortable giving eye contact in other environments).

      There is a huge difference between a well educated handler who clearly WORKED THROUGH initial show issues and what I see. What I tend to see are handlers flooding their dog and then getting frustrated/embarrassed/angry at the dog who wanted NOTHING to do with the activity in the first place.

      I don’t disagree with you at all that it can absolutely be a good thing to step out of our comfort zones and to try new things but what I tend to see are people who are just dragging their dogs along instead of doing the work, like you did, to help the dog get better, feel better, and do better in the environment/activity that was causing problems.

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