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We’re very fortunate to have access to dog-friendly hiking and recreation opportunities in our area. It’s a great way to get exercise and enjoy time together. Dog sports are another way to spend quality time with your dog, either in competition or just for fun. Let’s look at some of the most popular activities.
Agility is the most popular dog sport and the one most people are familiar with, no doubt having seen videos of dogs (mostly border collies) racing over obstacles at top speed. It’s exciting and looks like great fun, especially for high energy dogs. Really though, just about any dog from Chihuahua to Great Dane can do agility. Teaching dogs to navigate obstacles is great for their physical and mental wellbeing and develops a sense of fun and teamwork with their humans.
Agility has several classes of competition, from standard to specialty classes with names like Jumpers, Snooker and Gamblers. Each course is run for time and accuracy. There are penalties for mistakes like dropping a jump bar and taking an obstacle in the wrong sequence. The team with the fastest qualifying run wins.
Of course, you don’t need to be a competitor to have to have fun with agility. You can easily set up a small course in your backyard. Check out some online videos or courses (I like the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy) to get some basics and you’ve got a great new hobby with your dog.
If you like to show off your dog’s obedience behaviors, then competition obedience might be a good fit for you. At a trial you work your dog through a series of behaviors (e.g. sit, down, heel, come, retrieve) which are scored by a judge. There are three classes of competition; Novice, Open and Utility.
Rally Obedience (Rally-O) is a less formal, and I think more fun version of traditional obedience. In Rally you traverse a course of 10-20 stations that are marked with specific obedience exercises to demonstrate. The goal is to encourage teamwork between you and your dog, rather than focus on precision.
If you like training your dog to do tricks, then Canine Musical Freestyle might attract you. It’s choreographed trick training set to music. Sounds weird right? The routines can be as varied as your imagination and the ability for dogs to perform complex maneuvers in sync with their handlers is truly mind blowing.
Rally Freestyle (Rally FrEe) combines the format of Rally with Musical Freestyle tricks. It’s a fairly new sport with multiple levels of competition.
If obedience and tricks don’t grab your interest, there are a few sports that work with your dog’s natural instincts to hunt and chase.
Canine Nosework is a fun and rapidly growing sport. Think of it as the civilian’s version of military and law enforcement scent detection work. Dogs are taught to seek out novel odors like birch or clove. They’re generally started with searching through boxes indoors and work up to outdoor scenarios. Many handlers claim that nosework helps fearful and reactive dogs remain calm and build confidence. Smells can trigger strong emotional memories due to how they’re processed by the brain, so if doing scentwork is a pleasurable activity for the dog, they’re more likely to associate previously scary situations with something pleasant.
Barn hunts are perfect for all dogs who love to sniff out rodents. A maze is set up using straw bales, and a rat is (safely) caged at the end. The dog must work his way through the maze to find the rodent. The hunt is timed with different levels to master. The founders of the barn hunt sport are committed to humane treatment of the rats as well as the dogs.
Dogs who love to chase and swim, might enjoy the sport of Dock Diving. Dogs compete for height, distance and fastest retrieve, by jumping off a “dock” and landing in a pool of water. There will be an exhibition at the Roslyn Canine Festival on June 23 and 24 so you can check it out and see if it’s something your dog would like to do.
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Few things are more frustrating than watching your dog run away from you after you’ve called her. Many dogs have learned when you call, it either means nothing, or it means something unpleasant is about to happen. Either way, the dog has learned that coming when called is not a good idea. The truth is, dogs don’t naturally come when called. It’s a learned behavior just like sit, down and stay. By teaching your dog that coming to you is always worthwhile, you can, with time, have a dog who will run to you every time you call. Keep these simple rules in mind:
Set up for success. One of the mistakes we make is to assume the dog will come to us outside because she always comes to us in the house. Not true! Start training with minimal distractions so your dog can succeed most of the time. Start by practicing in the house, and only move outside when she’ll run to you every time. Use very high value treats (something your dog won’t get at any other time), or your dog’s favorite toy as a reward.
Make it fun! Be someone you’d want to run to. Run away and encourage your dog to chase you, or back away and entice her with a happy tone of voice and inviting body language like crouching down, making kissy noises, or clapping your hands. Encourage her with praise while she’s running to you.
Never call for something ‘icky’. Calling your dog and then doing something she doesn’t like (leaving the dog park, ending a fun game, trimming her nails) creates a bad association with the recall cue and your dog will learn to run the other way when she hears it. Instead, use a special cue for the icky stuff; “bath time!”, “time for nails” etc., and keep your recall cue associated with great rewards.
Have a party! When your dog comes to you, reward with wild praise (don’t be afraid to act silly, dogs love it), petting, and a handful of high value treats or favorite toy. Show her that running to you is more fun that anything else.
Practice – a lot. The more your dog gets rewarded for coming when you call, the more automatic the behavior will become. In just a few minutes a day, you can get in multiple recalls. Follow that up with daily fun and praise whenever your dog comes to you on her own.
If she ignores you, don’t get angry. Her choice reflects the value she sees in coming to you. Get closer and try to entice her away with clapping, whistles etc. When she comes to you, reward her and praise warmly. Set up the exercise again with less distraction and reward her for getting it right.
With practice and great rewards you can have a dog who loves to run to you every time.
Let’s teach our puppies to let go of items when we ask, so we don’t have to chase them around the house every time they grab something interesting. This is also a good Resource Guarding prevention exercise, as your puppy learns letting go of things gets her big rewards. NOTE – If your puppy already growls or snaps when you try to take an item away, ask your instructor about dealing with Resource Guarding before trying this exercise.
- Say “take it” and give your puppy a chew bone or tug toy (if she likes tug toys). If your puppy takes things and runs away, hold onto one end of the item so she can chew on it or play with it, but can’t run off.
- After several seconds, put a high value treat on your puppy’s nose and as soon as she lets go of the chew item, praise ‘good!’ and give her the treat. At the same time, remove the chew item from in front of the puppy momentarily.
- After she eats the treat, say ‘take it’ and give the chew item back. Repeat these steps until your puppy drops the chew item as she sees your hand approaching with the treat.
Now we’ll add a verbal cue ‘drop’. (If you use the word ‘drop’ to mean something else, you’ll need a different cue here – ‘out’, ‘trade’ etc.)
- Give the puppy the chew item as before, holding onto it if needed.
- After several seconds, say “drop” and then put the treat on her nose as before.
- It’s important to say the release word ‘drop’ or ‘out’ BEFORE you move your hand to her nose. In order for the puppy to learn that ‘drop’ means let go and get a treat, the cue must come before your hand movement.
- As in Step 1, give the chew item back with the cue “take it” after she eats the treat. Repeat multiple times, making sure your puppy is dropping the item immediately every time.
Troubleshooting – If your puppy doesn’t drop the chew item when you present the treat, try making a distraction noise (kissy noises are great) or switch to a higher value treat and a lower value chew item.
- Start to pause 1 second after you give the cue ‘drop’ to see if your pup will drop the item before you bring your hand to her nose.
- Practice this step until your puppy will immediately drop the item as soon as you say “drop” without needing to put the treat on her nose. Once she drops the item, give her the treat.
Once she’ll drop the item every time as soon as you say “drop”, try letting go of the chew item or toy for several seconds before you say “drop”. Even if your puppy moves away from you, she should still drop it as soon as she hears your cue. If not, go back to practicing Step 2 and 3 again, or use a lower value chew item (empty paper towel rolls can work well) and a higher value treat.
Take the game on the road. Practice in new locations – different rooms of the house, in the back yard etc. Switch up the game by giving her a different chew item or toy. The word ‘drop’ should cue her to let go of any item as soon as you say the cue.
For a good video tutorial try this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMNup72dGyA
Or this one (if your dog likes to tug) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVivnOwiMoA
Several times a week I see videos on my social media feeds of dogs and kids interacting together. Kids climbing and bouncing on dogs, toddlers hugging them, and in one, a couple of youngsters shoving a hamster into their dog’s face and laughing at the dog’s reaction. The videos were no doubt posted by parents who found them cute and entertaining and I’m sure they weren’t deliberately trying to harm or traumatize their dogs. However, the videos illustrate the difficulty most pet dog owners have in reading signs of stress or anxiety in dogs, and this is critical to avoiding interactions which may lead to a dog behaving aggressively or even biting.
We’re all good at knowing if our dog is happy. The mouth is relaxed and may be open, the eyes are soft, and the ears are in a neutral position. The body is relaxed and may be wiggly and the tail wags are wide and low. And most people can identify a frightened dog; the tail (if there is one) is tucked, cowering body, head down or looking away, or the dog may be trying to flee.
Dogs also offer other signals to express a variety of emotions or intentions, particularly when stressed, unsure or anxious, and these are the ones that people often miss or misread.
Appeasement signals are meant to cut off a perceived threat from another individual, as a means of keeping peace in social situations. It’s the dog’s way of saying, “I’m not a threat.” They’re used when greeting and interacting with other dogs and with humans too. Typical appeasement signals are avoiding direct eye contact, turning the head away, a crouching body position, a low or tucked tail (may be wagging some), ears pulled back or raising a front paw slightly off the ground. Some dogs will roll over to expose their inguinal area, and others will lick their lips, or lick at the muzzle of the other dog.
Some of these signals are often misinterpreted by humans as a sign of a dog’s guilt. The assumption is the dog has done something it “knows” is wrong and is expressing remorse when confronted by his human. A recent study dispelled that myth. See my previous article on Guilty Looking Dogs.
Displacement behaviors happen when a dog is conflicted about what to do next. They are akin to a human scratching their head while contemplating a decision. They’re normal behaviors, including yawning, lip licking, sniffing and scratching, but are performed out of context. For example, a dog who sees a novel object and is curious but unsure about approaching it, may lip lick as an indication of conflicting motivation.
A dog feeling stress or anxiety can display a variety of signals in addition to appeasement and displacement behaviors, including panting when they’re not hot, pacing, hypervigilance and refusal to take food. It’s important to look at the context in conjunction with the overall body language to determine whether the dog is anxious.
The next time you see a cute dog video on social media, try watching it with the sound off and just look at the dog. What body language signals do you see? Take the time to observe your own dog in various contexts so you can understand when he might be stressed or anxious so you can intervene to keep him comfortable and safe.
I love the change of seasons, but I’d prefer to skip winter. Frozen fingers and toes, icy surfaces, short cold days and long cold nights. Bah humbug. I’d prefer to stay indoors, snug and warm with a good book and hot cup of tea. I’d like to think my dog feels the same, but it’s probably not the case.
While he may look warm and comfy snoozing on the sofa, he’s likely just sleeping out of boredom. When cold weather keeps us indoors more, we have to get creative to keep our dogs active and happy. Fortunately, there is plenty to do with our dogs when the weather turns frightful outside.
Keep your dog physically active with indoor games. Playing fetch in a long hallway or down a flight of stairs can wear out the ball crazy dog in the family (make sure he’s fit and not prone to joint problems). A game of tug-of-war can burn off excess energy. Set up a mini obstacle course in the family room or garage and teach your pup to go over jumps, or crawl through tunnels.
Solving puzzles and playing training games gives your dog important mental enrichment. Create a simple puzzle by placing some treats under a blanket or mat for your dog to discover. Make your dog work for his food by hiding it around the house and set him loose to find it. Alternatively, feed all his meals out of food-dispensing toys to stretch out mealtimes.
Practice short training sessions or sign up for a class to polish up some manners and enjoy quality time with your dog. To improve your dog’s recall, play hide and seek around the house. Have someone hold your dog while you hide, then let him sniff you out. Have a party when he finds you, so he learns coming to you is fun. Look up YouTube videos on positive reinforcement training and teach your dog some fun tricks. Check out some of the videos on teaching husbandry behaviors to make grooming and veterinary procedures less stressful for your dog.
Even though it’s cold outside, most dogs love to get out and play in the snow, and it’s good for us too. Brisk walks through freshly fallen snow are good exercise and a great way to spend quality time with your four-legged friend. Snowball fetch is great game for the retriever in the family. For the sports enthusiast, check out skijoring. It’s a combination of mushing and cross-country skiing. Your dog wears a special harness and a long bungee leash, and pulls you along on your skis. It’s great for dogs who love to run.
When spending time in the cold with our dogs, we need to keep them safe. Small dogs and short coated breeds can benefit from a jacket to keep them warm and dry. Protect your dog’s paws with booties or use a paw wax to coat the pads. Dogs can get frostbite just like humans. The paws, ears and tip of the tail are most vulnerable. Watch for skin that looks pale or has a bluish/white hue, due to lack of blood flow. Once warmed, the area becomes red, may swell and become sensitive to touch.
Fun indoor activities and safe outdoor exercise can keep your pooch happy and healthy until spring finally arrives.