To Compete or Not Compete….Is that the only question?

TREIBBAL_FeaturedI was driving home from the store the other morning on a back country road and was following this little suburban with a beautiful yellow lab head sticking out the hatchback window.  I could not help but wonder what he was thinking.  Occasionally he would crane his head and neck upwards, scenting the cool morning air.  He looked content, like he had just had a wonderful morning stroll at the park.  All that was asked of him in that moment was to stay within the confines of the car, a task that he did not seem to mind at all.

What struck me about this scene was the complete opposition of this picture and the picture of a competition “fun match” that was described to me by one of my students who had been in attendance the day before.  My student had emailed me the day before to tell me about how a judge had questioned her about why my student had not “corrected” her dog in the ring for not going into a Down position when asked.  Since this was a “fun match” and not a “real” competition, I guess corrections were allowable.  Not sure how “fun” and “corrections” go together, but nevertheless…..My student told the woman that she did not correct her dog for not downing because the dog knows the cue and knows the behavior, but in this situation he was in a new environment and it was a little scary for a small Rat Terrier.  This is a client who knows her dog and understands that it is far better to know your dog and give them choices than to force them into uncomfortable situations.  The Judge/trainer then asked who on earth my client trains with that she had not been taught how to “correct” her dog… client proudly told her.

I do not discourage my students from competing with their dogs.  I just tend to teach them a little differently than most of the other dog/handler teams in the ring.  Its always about the relationship no matter what, and if competition is negatively impacting the relationship with the dog then competition should be taken out of the equation.  This has led to my clients to be questioned for their training methods at shows… fact, I myself have been questioned at shows with my dogs, however going into the ring and showing the nay-sayers how my dog and I can work positively together and still come out with first place ribbons has been all the proof we need.

Think back to the picture of the dog sniffing out the window and what was required of him in that moment.  Not a whole lot.  In general, we require a lot from our dogs overall, but the question remains will we require that behavior by choice……or by force?  I truly believe that corrections are not needed to teach a dog.  If you look up the word “correction”, one meaning is described as “a euphemism for punishment of various kinds, mainly physical.”  Must we correct/punish to compete?  Not unless we want to damage our relationship with our dogs.  And then we must ask the question of ourselves, if we are willing to damage the relationship with our dog, then why are we competing?  Can we truly say it is “for the dog?”  Don’t we think that if the dog had his or her choice that it might be to hang out the window scenting the air like our Lab friend or chasing a squirrel out in the field?  So if we are going to require MORE from them, such as spending all morning crated up at a dog show and then working obedience in a ring,  what is wrong with doing it in such a way that does make it truly “fun” and does not involve force or physical pain?

Final question, to compete or not compete? It really depends on your motives and how it affects your relationship with your dog.  Only you and your dog can answer that question.

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Positively Expert: Cathy Bruce, CPDT

Cathy Bruce is a VSPDT and a CPDT and the owner of Canine Country Academy, LLC in Lawrenceville, GA. After a successful career as a Broadway singer/actress, she decided to pursue her love of dogs. As a dog trainer, she strives to educate owners on how to better communicate with their dogs using only positive methods.


11 thoughts on “To Compete or Not Compete….Is that the only question?

  1. Linda Overbaugh

    I love to compete with my dogs, and I don't believe in "corrections" either. I don't understand why so many obedience people remain "old school" in that context... A dog learns by making mistakes, just as we do. My dogs learn that they get rewards (praise, treats, pats) when they do something correctly, and nothing when they make a mistake. Easy as that! And, they love to please me, so that works for us. 🙂

  2. Marguerite

    Where on earth are these competitions/matches that demand corrections in the ring? In APDT rally and CDSP obedience trials, you can be disqualified in the ring for a harsh correction, and even be tossed off the grounds.

    I just celebrated my second anniversary in competition and no judge has ever told me I should have "corrected" a dog while in the ring. But then I haven't been competing in AKC at all and only Rally (so far) in UKC. My rat terrier can be distracted at times (he IS a terrier, after all). But my pup is really working for me (ARCHX and RL3 as of March) and the more challenging it gets, the more fun we have.

    But yes, not every dog will be happy competing. I'm going to go very slow with my girl rattie, who came to me shy and reactive. She's so smart and trainable, I'd like to see how she does--but if she shuts down, then I'll have my answer.

  3. Cynthia Gordon, CPDT-KA

    What a beautiful message! It is so uplifting to read something like that when, as a positive trainer, one is constantly questioned about the validity of the training methods. I train my dogs as I trained my children, with intelligence and respect, never fear and abuse. What I get in the end is well-behaved young men and well-behaved dogs. Neither one came out of the box that way, but by being allowed to participate in the decision-making process, and discovering which behaviors result in the reinforcement that is most rewarding to them, each learns to behave in the predictable, calm manner that any trainer (or mother) would appreciate! Thank you, Cathy!

  4. Deb

    I totally agree with what you are saying, we want so much from them but to ask them to do it without enjoying is a double edge knife. I feel that it should be enjoyable for owner and dog. I have actually recommed to clients that they should look at a different activity with their dog because the dog is not enjoying what they are doing. I think it more important to be an equal partner with you dog and enjoy something the to force it to take place.

  5. Jason

    That is so well said. We do disc more than agility. In both sports we see owners upset with their dogs (more in agility) when things don't go as planned. Your students example is a great one. A dog not trained to do a behavior in a variety of environments should not be expected to do the behavior.

    Another angle i faced personally is that i was not happy with my own performance (disc) and for about a week or two made my dogs miserable with my attitude. I was mentally down and not engaged. It was a new challenge for me as a trainer. Winning sort of rewired me to expect to win. i forgot about just playing and having fun. Getting back to fun and play with my dogs was Awesome 😉

  6. Kajen

    Totally agree - i'm an accountant turned Clinical hypnotherapist and would just love to see you even if only for a few minutes sometimes.Your shows are truly inspirational - are you "always" successful?

  7. Dee Seiffer

    Yay! I came to your post via my dog trainer Michelle Douglas (whom my dogs and I adore). My mini Aussie and I just started agility training. We still don't know if we will compete. It will depend on how much fun she has. She loves it in the back yard. The one thing that makes me hesitate about competing is that there will likely be judges who think I am not demanding enough of my girl. Too early to tell, but I share your attitude.

  8. Kim Russell

    I think that the competition part of dog sports is a one sided coin (as in its for the human's benefit, not hte dogs) and handlers need to be reminded that their dogs don't know the DIFFERENCE. Fun matches are proofing, yes. The saying that a dog is "ringwise" is a load of crap and the difference in a dogs behavior in a ring for "competition" as opposed to "fun" is only mirrored in the handlers behavior (stress, ring nerves, fear of being looked down upon by other competitors) Dogs don't talk behind eachothers backs about how poorly Rex did, or "did you SEE how horrible FiFi's run was!?" So each time you enter the ring to "compete" with your dog remind him/her how much you appreciate their company and tell them how much you love them no matter what the will have a better run for doing so!

  9. Laura Jones

    This article is absolutely absurd. First of all, there is no judge at an AKC fun match. Read the obedience regulations, it is right there. Also within those regulations it states that no correction is allowed at a fun match. That means that whomever was in the ring with the above person was there on a volunteer basis and was not a representative of the AKC at all. Per he regulations, any physical correction of the dog in competition or at an AKC sanctioned match is grounds for disqualification and or excusal from the grounds.

    Then, you try to tell us that competition is only about the human. That also is horribly absurd. Both obedience and agility, especially at the upper levels. Are a fantastic display of the human/dog bond. Anyone who competes at that level will tell you with conviction that they are part of a team sport. They would not be able to do it without the full cooperation and effort of the dog and the dog would not perform if the dog did not want to perform.

    Yes, you will see the odd exception. There are exceptions to every rule. However, obedience and agility dogs are some of the happiest, most well adjusted, and most well care of for dogs that you can ever hope to find. Yes, we compete. However, one of the first things I learned when I got into competition obedience was that if my dog is not happy, then she is not going to do it. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you go and watch the high level competitors, I challenge you to find any deeper human/canine bond than you will there. It simply does not exist.

  10. Juli Warfel Bitler

    The article does not say that it was an AKC match anywhere... Could have been any number of un sanctioned or differently sanctioned training events.
    I'm not sure if you read the same article I just read, because I didn't see her say that competition was only about the human anywhere. The main point of the article was that training should be FUN for the dog. Most dogs can be just as happy just working and training with there people, and if we keep the training fun, they will enjoy the competition too, but as long as I still reward my dogs, as long as I keep a happy attitude with them, they couldn't care less about a Q. They do it for us. They may love it too, as long as we keep it a fun and rewarding experience for them.

  11. Hannah

    Hi I was just wondering what sports you have competed in and which ones of them you got your ribbons in?(not showing, I mean obedience, agility, tracking, ect) 🙂

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