How About Dogs?
“Maci you have to find something to do, something that you won’t quit,” Mom said. “Well, how about dogs?” I said. With those words my dog handling journey began.
I’m Maci and my dog is Sammy. I am 13 years old and he is almost 3. In the last two and a half years, we have competed in a lot of things. In AKC, we have competed in Jr. Showmanship, Rally, Obedience and agility. We have also competed in UKC, ASCA and 4-H. It’s been an exciting few years, and I’ve learned a lot about training dogs, especially my dog. There are so many things you and your dog must do before competing in any performance event.
The first and most important thing in all dog showing and competing is establishing a bond with your dog. Since we are all juniors, the dogs tend to like our parents more than us, so we have to teach the dogs to rely on us for everything. Everything includes feeding your dog every night and taking your dog on all of his walks. When you are in your room the dog should be there too. He should sleep in your room if possible. You need to handle all the grooming of your dog, and give him fresh water, vitamins or medicines. If you go to a store with your dog, you hold the leash. You need to be the one who plays with the dog the most and be the one that the dog looks to for safety. You also absolutely must to be the only one who ever trains with your dog. Don’t let your mom or dad ever work with him. Try to make the dog trust and depend on you for everything. If you get this bond with your dog, you’re more than half way to becoming a successful performance team.
The next thing you need is to learn how to train. One of my trainers says “practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect!” If you are new to a discipline, it would help if you could find someone who specializes in that area of training. A training center, like Magic Dog here in my area is a good place to train because it offers a wide variety of disciplines and experts. Another good place to receive more one-on-one training would be to find a mentor. A breeder or even a former junior are generally eager to help. Another good place to start is 4-H. 4-H teaches a lot of the basics and is pretty inexpensive. Attending some shows and talking to the handlers is another place you could find a mentor to help you train. It could be your parent, or a family friend, just find someone to help who knows what they are doing.
The next thing would be to practice at home what you have learned during classes. Write out a plan detailing which exercises you are going to practice and on which days. My dog and I work only five minute sessions about three times a day and only do one or two things each of those five minutes. Also make sure you go faithfully to training classes. You can always learn new things from the trainers and other handlers to help you improve. If you are doing agility you will need some basic obstacles like weave poles and jumps. These are easy to make and inexpensive, too. You can find agility obstacle making books at the library or you can order one online. It is important to have obstacles at home and to practice on them.
With all the training, the dog can sometimes get de-motivated. So it is important to play with your dog before, during and after every training session. Your dog should think “working” with you is the best part of his day. My dog likes to play tag with me and that makes him happy. It’s easy to tell if your dog is bored, and important to change things if he is. Try to play something with your dog that he likes to play. You could do something as simple as throwing a ball, or playing keep away with a toy. It just has to be fun for the dog. Otherwise, the dog will think training is no fun; he could get lazy and inattentive and not want to be biddable anymore. The games and the playing will make it more fun for both of you. There is also a lot of training which you can do without your dog. I often practice patterns, footwork, hand signals and other things without my dog. That way, he doesn’t get bored while I am working on my part.
Finally, you need to learn as much as you can about your sport. It is important to know all the rules of your sport: how it is scored, what is a qualifying score, what is not, and many, many other things. You should own a copy of your event’s rule book and read it more than once. These can usually be bought online from the hosting club (AKC, UKC, ASCA, etc.); some pet shops also carry them. It would also be a good idea to go to shows and observe how people handle and run the courses. Ask questions, talk to people. We have found competitors are very eager to help juniors know more and share their experience with us…as long as they are not about to go in the ring! Another good way get helpful tips is to read books, or you might be able to find some good training videos to watch at home. The AKC website is full of information and references, so familiarize yourself with the website. The more you can learn about the event before you compete, the more confident you will be and the better you and your dog will perform. Going into an event under prepared is not really fair to your dog.
All these points play into your overall performance, and are so vital to learn and master. You must have the bond with the dog, so that the dog will completely trust all of your decisions and follow you without hesitation. The training is important because this is where you and your dog learn to work as a team and perfect your performance. Overall knowledge of the event can be critical so that you know the rules and don’t get disqualified. All of this will probably take a long time to master but will produce successful results in the ring. What is more, these things will produce successful results outside the show ring because sharing your life with your dog and becoming best friends is by far the greatest and most enduring result of all!