So, there you are, sitting by the group or BIS ring, waiting for your special’s moment in the sun when it dawns on you that the end of the dog’s show career is no longer some distant dot on the horizon.
You know the dog is not going to be happy leading a life as a couch potato. Looking around the arena, you see dogs competing in obedience, rally and agility. At some shows, you’ve watched dogs doing dock diving. You know from talking with other folks at the shows that there are dozens of sports and activities you can do with your dog. But you’re not sure which, if any, sport would keep your dog happy and stimulated, both mentally and physically, while also being fun for you.
So, what do you do? How do you decide what’s next for your dog?
Well, the first thing you should do is ask the dog what he or she wants to do. That doesn’t mean sitting down and saying, “Well, Rover/Molly, what do you think you’d like to do now that your show career is winding down?” It means discovering what they like doing and finding out whether they have any of the skills needed to do it.
Herding clubs have events where you can get some idea how interested your dog is in herding.
Almost every club for every type of event in every area of the country hosts fun days for people new to the sport. Hunt-test clubs and sporting-breed clubs, for example, frequently have events where they supply pigeons to see just how “birdy” your dog is. Herding clubs have similar events where you can get some idea of how interested your dog is in herding, and lure-coursing clubs have “fun runs” where you can see if your dog has any desire to chase the plastic “bunny.”
Virtually every dog sport holds these “Is my dog interested in this?” events, and the list of clubs hosting these “tryout” events is extensive. So it’s likely you will be able to find one fairly close to home. Holding these introductory events is in the clubs’ best interests, which is why they are so frequent, offering so many different opportunities to try the long list of sports available for your dog.
Hunt-test clubs and sporting-breed clubs frequently have events where they supply pigeons to see just how “birdy” your dog is.
If the number of possibilities for your retiring show dog seems daunting, you should probably narrow your initial trial to a sport that most closely resembles the job the breed was historically developed to do – hunt tests, field trials, herding, draft work, coursing, protection, earth work – and seeing if the dog has any interest in doing it or has the skills necessary to do it at one of the sport’s fun events. If the breed’s historical work isn’t your or your dog’s cup of tea, or the breed’s historical work is either outlawed or impossible to test, there is a plethora of other activities for you and the dog to try, including agility, trick dog, scent work, barn hunt, obedience, rally, tracking, dock diving, flyball, weight pulling, freestyle, search and rescue, and therapy work.
Look at the amount of animation and sheer joie de vivre you see in dogs competing in agility or dock diving. Photo, Kim Langevin.
Some parent clubs have developed working programs that are specific to their breed’s historical activity, such as the American Bloodhound Club’s mantrailing tests, the Dalmatian Club of America’s road dog program, the Alaskan Malamute Club of America’s sled dog and pack dog tests, and the Newfoundland Club of America’s water and draft test program.
Once you have made some initial guesses as to what the dog wants to do, it’s time to get serious about your dog’s chosen sport. If you are a rookie who is training a dog for a sport for the first time and you are planning to do it all by yourself, I’m going to give you some advice: Don’t.
The reason? Even the most experienced trainers make mistakes. If you happen have one of the many breeds that remembers everything that you’ve taught, good or bad, it is damnably difficult to undo a training mistake. What’s more, odds are you’ll never completely “untrain” that problem, and it will always lurk somewhere in the dog’s make-up, only to resurface at some point, most likely when you have the most money or bragging rights on the line – or both.
Even if you have an extremely forgiving breed, you still want to keep the number of training errors you make to a minimum because you are going to have to spend time – and, in a lot of cases, money – undoing that mistake. As a rookie, without some serious guidance from an experienced trainer, believe me, you will make a LOT of training errors that can easily be avoided if you have some expert guidance, as well as handling errors that can cost your dog a qualifying score.
You’ll see greater animation from your dog when they do the breed’s historical job.
Once you and the dog have decided on something that both of you would like to do, you’ll need to find a mentor, preferably someone who has put several titles on dogs in your chosen activity. Or let a professional train and handle your dog or do a lot of the dog’s training while also helping you learn how to train and handle your dog.
More words of caution: Unless your sporting breed is a Labrador, German Shorthair or English Springer, or your herding breed is a Border Collie, or your protection-dog candidate is a German Shepherd or Malinois, be sure your mentor or the pro you select has successfully trained your breed or one very similar to it.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. You can get by with doing things to a Labrador, for example, that with a Golden, a Chesapeake, a Flat-Coat, a Curly-Coat, a Toller, an Irish Water Spaniel or a Standard Poodle could set your training back for months, at minimum, and may never be able to be fixed. As another example, a herding trainer who has only worked with Border Collies can really mess up an upright, loose-eyed breed. So, just as you likely were very careful selecting your dog’s professional handler for the show ring (if you used one), you need to be even more cautious in your selection of a mentor or a pro to help you or to train your dog.
If you plan to have a pro train your dog, you also need to do more than just listen to the trainer extol his or her virtues. There are some charlatans posing as dog trainers, and the worst ones usually are the smoothest talkers. Dog trainers aren’t licensed, and there is no Michelin Guide that provides a rating for them. Essentially, anyone with a board and a bucket of paint can hang out a sign advertising themselves as dog trainers. So, you should not only ask for references – people whose dogs were successfully trained by that individual – but it’s wise to attend some of the events for your sport and ask others there what they know or have heard about a particular trainer.
Bad or incompetent trainers can’t keep their ineptitude or other more serious flaws secret for very long in the dog world. Sooner or later, the word gets out that it’s not wise to trust your dog to so-and-so. On the other hand, the word also gets out about the really good trainers, and one of the best ways to hear that word is at your chosen sport’s events.
Once you have some help lined up, if you plan on being an active participant in your dog’s training, it’s time to start reading books and watching videos that detail ways to train for your sport. But, again, more cautions: Read and watch these resources carefully, but don’t accept everything they say as gospel, because it’s not. Not everything they suggest is going to work with your dog. Every dog, regardless of breed, is an individual, and the worst mistake you can make is trying to fit your dog into a training “program.”
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all training program. For example, with Bo, my current Chesapeake Bay Retriever, his trainer, Craig Klein, and I have not only had to throw away the “book,” we’ve had to write a new one. But it worked, as Bo just finished his senior hunter title, having qualified at four straight tests in an area of the country acknowledged to be the toughest to get a qualifying score at any level. So, with most dogs, you have to have an open mind, be creative and be flexible, which means don’t fall in love with any one training method.
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all training program. For example, with Bo, my current Chesapeake Bay Retriever, we have not only had to throw away the “book,” we’ve had to write a new one.
Once a dog starts in a sport and has had an opportunity to “get into” that activity, if the dog doesn’t seem to be having fun doing it, find another sport for the two of you that the dog does like. One of the purposes of all the dog sports, including those designed to evaluate the dog’s ability to perform the breed’s historical function, is for both the dog and you to have fun doing that activity. If one of the members of the team thinks that training and testing/trialing for a sport are burdensome, boring or a big bother, you are probably not going to be successful at it anyway, so why torture yourself or the dog? There are lots of other things the two of you can do together that will make you both happy.
One of the purposes of all the dog sports is for both the dog and you to have fun doing that activity. Here two Greyhounds participate in open-field coursing.
Evaluate your dog’s temperament and personality honestly, and do the same with your own. Find out what the dog does naturally and find a sport that takes advantage of those natural abilities. If it happens to be what the breed was developed to do and the dog becomes a capable performer in that sport, so much the better. It’s a virtual guarantee that you will experience at least as great a thrill from seeing your dog do what the breed was meant to do as you have experienced seeing him/her awarded a group win or a Best in Show. You’ll see greater animation from your dog doing the breed’s historical job, likely more than you ever saw from in the show ring, even on his or her best days.
A friend’s Silky Terrier goes absolutely crazy at the faintest hint of rat or mouse scent.
All I need for my dogs to begin doing their best imitation of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly is to grab a shotgun and my whistles. A friend who has champion Greyhounds says that her dogs start screaming the instant they see or hear the lure. Another pal has a champion Silky Terrier that goes absolutely crazy at the faintest hint of rat or mouse scent. The same is true for dogs participating in a number of other dog sports that aren’t part of the breed’s historical work. Look at the amount of animation and sheer joie de vivre you see in dogs competing in agility or dock diving, for example. Success in a canine performance sport can be one of the more personally rewarding experiences you’ll ever have with your dogs.