This post definitely devolves into a massive rant!  Read at your own risk.

It’s been over 20 years since I first got involved in the dog showing world.  My introduction came with an 18 month old rescued Black Lab named Katie who needed some training.  I was in grad school and got her as a companion, and she turned out to be a wonderful one.  What I didn’t know was that training her would completely change my life.  Through Katie I was introduced to the world of obedience trials.  At that time (1992) there was little to no agility in the US and rally hadn’t been invented yet.  I know I went to a USDAA trial early on, but there weren’t many.  I loved training and working with Katie and watching my first obedience trial thought “I could teach my dog to do that”.  Actually I did teach Katie all that and much, much more.

But I was ignorant and didn’t even know it.  As we all are when we start down a new path.  I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.  And I’ve spent 20 years learning it.  And I still don’t know LOTS!  Since Katie (who earned her CDX, 2 UD legs, and 2 NA legs before retirement due to a torn cruciate) there have been many other dogs.  Sully the troubled Golden that I just never could quite click with personality wise.  But his behavioral issues forced me to learn a lot.  Then Copper the nearly perfect Papillon who went on to earn MACH2, UD, RN, and tons of other titles.  Then Luna, my little tiny Papillon girl who did agility like a baby BC and made it to Excellent, but had to be retired early due to a luxating patella.  Getting a chance to work with Morgan, the absolute perfect Sheltie.  Truly perfect.  No dog could ever live up to him.  He was so special.  There was Kix the Sheltie with the overwhelming neophobia.  I learned that sometimes the best thing you can do for a dog is to place him in a home that makes him comfortable.  Smudge the crazy blue Sheltie with more drive than sense sometimes.  He managed lots of speed points in agility and only 3 QQs over his career.  He also got a CD and is 1 leg shy of an RA.  Then Zen my first BC and hollee ball addict.  What a great boy!  UD at age 3 and almost RAE2, plus Open agility titles.  His fault is too much enthusiasm, regardless of the activity.  And now Star, my little introvert who loves to work, adores her frisbee, but doesn’t love people.

Each of these dogs has been a unique individual with his or her own set of strengths and challenges.  Each has been well-suited to some dog sports but not to others.  And the same is true for the thousands of dogs I’ve helped train over the years.  I enjoy training and showing, but it is definitely not right for every dog.  Some dogs prefer calmer and quieter settings rather than loud and chaotic agility trials.  I have been reading the book Quiet by Susan Cain (about introverted humans) and thinking how well it applies to dogs.  Some dogs have trouble with the repetition and precision required for successful competition obedience.  Some dogs are physically incapable despite a strong desire to do the work.  Some dogs are just happier as homebodies.

The good part is that every dog we train can teach us an enormous amount.  We will never train the same dog twice, so we should learn to alter and improve our training methods as we go along.  Our dogs should make us better trainers.  Another really good part is the change in relationship you have with a working dog as opposed to a pet dog.  It takes the relationship to a whole other level that most people don’t even know exists.  There is nothing like the connection you can develop while working with a fully engaged canine partner.  Most dogs are probably bored to tears.  They rarely get to use their brains.  We give them that opportunity through training.

The bad part is that people use dogs without thinking about what is actually best for the dog.  They just assume that the dog should go along with the program.  If the person likes agility then they assume the dog will too.  They treat dogs as if they are interchangeable, rather than as unique individuals.  They impose their will and desires on the dog and the dog gets no say in the process.  You can see this in the “my last dog was perfect” syndrome.  When the next dog isn’t a clone of the last dog, and actually requires creativity and thoughtfulness to train, people are unhappy.  The dog needs “fixed” and quickly.  People get a puppy as a performance prospect and jump right in to sport-specific training.  They are in a huge hurry to get this pup into the ring and to start showing.  This worries me for some very valid reasons.  First, pups are not physically ready for the demands of most dog sports.  They need to physically develop and mature.  Second, they are definitely not mentally ready for strong training pressures either.  Yet people push and push their pups and young dogs.

Sometimes they work their dogs into a frantic and hyper state during training.  Then they claim this as evidence that the dog “loves” the sport.  When I see a situation like this I feel so bad for the dog.  Those huge highs and massive overactivity levels verge on hysteria, not enthusiasm.  Typically these dogs resemble crazed lunatics on an agility course.  They are so high and out of their minds with adrenaline and cortisol that conscious thought is not possible.  They are not “having a good time”.  They are chaotic and overactive, which is exhausting and unpleasant.

On the other hand, some people that train obedience really want a passive and quiet dog.  They train the dog to do nothing.  Doing nothing works for the dog because that is a way to avoid getting in trouble.  Unless, of course, you’ve been told to do something and you don’t.  Dogs trained to do nothing often appear quite well behaved, but they are actually shut down and emotionally abused.  They are forced into unpleasant situations and their only way to cope is to become helpless and passive.  That is NOT a well-behaved dog.  It is an unhappy one.

And of course, there are people that blame their dog for their own crappy training.  Oh, and the ones that are convinced they need to be alpha or their dogs will take over the world.  Really?  In 2013 you still think the alpha model is valid?  Read something current on dog training, please!

While the bad is bad enough, the ugly is even worse.  There is outright physical and mental abuse in dog training.  I’ve seen things that still make me cringe when I think back on them.  I’ve seen dogs baited into aggression so they could be severely ‘corrected’ by the ‘trainer’.  I’ve seen dogs with 3 different ‘training collars’ on at one time (choke, shock, and pinch).  I’ve seen dogs ear pinched out to an article pile repeatedly.   I saw a dog at an agility trial being dragged to his crate by one ear.  I actually saw one moron put on chain mail gloves then goad a dog into trying to bite him.  Geesh!  I hope that when we die our dogs get to make the decision about whether we go to heaven or hell.  That would be true karma!

I’ve seen agility dogs that should have been retired long ago still being pressured to compete.  Why?  It’s sad and pathetic.  Is a MACH 15 really worth it?  Let the poor dog have a nice enjoyable retirement.  I’ve seen agility dogs with injuries that their trainers mask or ignore so that they can continue showing.  There’s a whole industry built up around agility dogs with physical injuries now.  Granted, dogs can and do get hurt in a variety of ways.  But some people will ignore the dog’s physical condition until he breaks down completely.  Then they will rush for a quick fix to get back in the ring.

Some people overtrain their preferred sport.  This burns the dog out mentally and often leads to physical injuries.  A friend of mine who is a chirporactor told me the worst canine spinal injuries she saw were from obedience dogs that were trained and shown constantly.  Being forced to hold unnatural positions (such as heads up heeling) for long periods without compensating work leads to  problems.

So if it’s so bad and ugly, why do I still participate and enjoy dog sports?  Because there is still so much good.  There will always be people that do bad and ugly things to dogs, whether through ignorance or deliberate choice.  I can’t stop them.  What I can do is train my dogs with joy and enthusiasm.  I can treasure the short time we have together training and showing.   I can also treasure all the time we have just being together.  But I know that my relationship with my dogs has changed for the better because I am involved in performance events with them.  It has led us to a whole different level of relationship.  It has also led me to meet some really wonderful people and amazing dogs.  And there’s still so much more to learn and do.