"Do More With Your Dog!" is the name of Kyra Sundance's sanctioning organization for the sport of Trick Dog, but it's also a pretty good suggestion for anyone living with a companion dog. The benefits of Trick Dog -- that it "establishes a pattern of learning, teaches skills and focus, is a positive method of training, and promotes a bond between canine and human" -- exist for any good sport taught by positive methods. Plus, most of them have the additional benefit of getting both dog and human up on their feet and exercising for greater strength and flexibility.
It's no secret that I'm a huge proponent of dog sports. Most of our pet dogs don't get enough to do, physically or mentally. It saddens me when I see a dog who's otherwise beautifully cared for -- neatly groomed, well fed, walked regularly on humane equipment, and given a warm, comfortable bed -- but whose owner has neglected the mental aspects of dog ownership because he or she just doesn't have any inkling that it matters. People who would never dream of skipping their dog's heartworm pills or giving him poor-quality food very often don't engage in advanced training because they don't recognize its benefits.
Or, if they do recognize those benefits, they might still write sports off as impossible for their dogs, who are just "regular pet dogs." I can't count the number of times I've been practicing with Pongu in a public area and have had people say "oh, he must be a special dog, my dog would never do that" -- as if Pongu the Insane, a gimpy-legged shelter mutt who was and remains a lifelong behavioral rehab case, was originally "special" in any way that didn't basically mean "godawful crazy."
For the good of our dogs, collectively, I think it's really important that dog sports be emphasized as (a) beneficial; and (b) approachable. The message that "only special dogs can do this, and yours isn't good enough" is toxic.
Luckily, we live in an area where a number of excellent trainers are making efforts to spread the gospel of sports for fun. The crew over at Opportunity Barks, a wonderful school, offers classes in trick training, agility for fun, and occasionally other sports like treibball and Rally. Local trainer Pat Bentz offers regular nosework sessions. And if those students get really hooked, there's a strong network of specialized training clubs ready to take them to the next level -- the competition ring. But even if they don't go that far, both people and dogs benefit by trying the sports.
To that end, the message is always positive, friendly, and welcoming. Newcomers are repeatedly told that the training is "just for fun" -- and it is! Even in the competition ring, these sports should be about fun, always: about building bonds with our dogs and stretching their abilities and marveling at all they're capable of doing so joyously. The emphasis is on trying (and enjoying!) everything until you find the sport that works best for you and your dog.
Which is why I'm so disheartened when I see competitors in one sport badmouthing the others. I feel strongly that as long as the participants enjoy what they're doing and are being trained with kindness and positivity (both dogs and people!), there are no bad sports. None. Agility, freestyle, flyball, treibball, trick dog, Rally -- I think they're all awesome, and while I surely have my favorites, I'm happy to encourage my friends to try every one. That perfect fit's going to be different for each team, after all.
And heaping negativity on Sport A as the "dumbed down" domain of "poorly trained dogs" whose handlers couldn't hack it in Sport B does not make the latter look more attractive by comparison. To the contrary: it sends the message that Sport B is the realm of naysaying sourpusses who can't stand that A has become more popular (in significant part, I should note, because it's genuinely welcoming of mixed breed dogs, disabled dogs, newcomers to the sport, and handlers who want to have fun and talk to their dogs and be able to reward in the ring).
Particularly when we're talking about Rally and traditional obedience, it is genuinely confounding that there should be this persistent bitterness. Rally was originally conceived as a bridge from casual pet training to the competition obedience ring. It hasn't really worked out that way, though, in large part because obedience people seem to be taking every opportunity to push Rally people away. I often hear people tell me that they were drawn to Rally because of its friendly, welcoming, and supportive environment. Guess how many times I've heard that said about AKC obedience? Exactly: zero. (CDSP, a new obedience venue, does have a reputation for being more welcoming, but as I have not yet tried that firsthand I can't vouch for it myself.)
I like competition obedience. I think it's really neat; I admire the precision and the discipline that those dogs display. I am sorely tempted to give it a shot with Pongu when we're ready (which ain't just yet).
But man, it's hard to embrace a sport where people tell you so many times that you and your dog are not welcome, not wanted, not good enough. And if I feel that way, how must someone who's totally new to ring sports feel? Someone who hasn't yet experienced the happiness of a hard-earned high score or seen the joy in a working dog's eyes? It's a big, big turn-off, especially for someone who may still be wondering if their dog is "special" enough to do any sports at all.
And that just hurts everybody.