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10 Ways to Stay Competitive in Dog Sports

How do you stay at the top of your agility game? By Brenna Fender


Maybe you've reached a high level of proficiency in your chosen dog sport (or sports), or maybe you're just starting out. Maybe you are somewhere in between. No matter what, you know one thing: you want to be playing these games with your dog for a long time. How do you get to the top levels of a sport and then stay there? Here are 10 ways to help make that happen!

1. Keep your dog in good weight. Bobbie Lutz, who competes in many sports with her seven Whippets, says, "In speaking to lure coursing dogs, although this goes along with any sport, the biggest thing I'd recommend is keeping the weight down. A dog who is an enthusiastic courser as a young dog will more than likely still be enthusiastic as an older dog... but if they're overweight, they certainly can't be competitive." Older dogs (and people) might not expend as many calories during the day as they did in their youth, so adjust how much you feed accordingly.

2. Condition your dog for your sport. This doesn't mean just attending classes or training a lot. This means that you should exercise your dog outside of training or practice in a safe manner. Work your dog on exercise balls or peanuts. Take long walks. Run on the beach. Go for swims. Hike in the woods. Run your dog over cavallettis (very low jumps generally spaced closely together). Get educated on the safest and best way to condition your dog for sports. Include research on supplements and food options as well. Investigate alternative means to keep your dog in shape and comfortable despite the strains of an athletic lifestyle. Many competitors swear by chiropractics, acupuncture, and holistic healing.

3. Make sure your dog loves to train and compete. Melissa Dragovich, who competes in many dog sports with 12 dogs, says, "If your dog is structurally sound and you've done a good job building a solid working relationship, drive, and foundation, it seems to me that most dogs would just continue to work...mostly because they love what they do." Keep training and competing fun!

4. Limit repetitions and vary your activities to avoid boredom and overworked bodies. Kellie Verrelli, who has been competing for 17 years with various breeds, says, "We do lots of other things to keep our dogs fit and wanting to work. Balance balls, swimming, running in fields, working component training rather than drilling long sequences, and sometimes just taking time off and just hanging out." Also, "Avoid pattern training, also called muscle memory," says Angelica Steinker, owner of Courteous Canine who has been a dog sport competitor since 1992. "It is boring and very hard on the dog physically. Change something every time you train (location, position, clothing, toys) to help speed up generalization to avoid excess repetitions," she adds.

5. Break it down. When training, don't do full agility courses or the entire obedience routine in every practice. Tinna Brown, who has been competing in agility for more than 14 years with various breeds, says, "I am not in classes and do not really run courses. I work on jump conditioning, small challenging sequences, polishing and skills once or twice a week integrating tons of play specific for each dog." Working on small parts of the entire course or routine allows you to really concentrate on the details while saving your dog's body (and keeping things interesting for everyone).

6. Only train when you are feeling positive, upbeat, and reasonably energetic. This keeps things fun and motivating for your dogs, plus you'll be able to celebrate correct behaviors in a way that will help your dogs learn faster. If you find yourself getting grouchy or frustrated during a training session, try to end on a positive note by giving your dog an easy exercise and then take a break. It's better to have a short-but-positive training session than a long negative one!

7. Start proofing (testing your dogs with distractions) early in the process. Steinker says, "Play lots of proofing games without corrections, just setting your dog up for success. Use proofing from the very beginning so you can train with fewer repetitions."
 
8. Stay on top of changes in your sport. Read sport-specific magazines and websites, attend seminars if you can, view training DVDs, and attend national and international competitions to see what people are doing in different areas of the country and the world that you might want to incorporate in your training. If you keep doing what you've always been doing, you may not stay competitive in your sport for very long.

9. Practice your part of the game without your dog. Don't confuse your pup as you try to learn improved heeling footwork on turns, your new agility handling move, or a fancy disc-throwing technique. Perfect your handling without your dog and then introduce him to the new move. This will keep from degrading your dog's performance as he tries to learn the new technique along with you.

10. Take breaks if you need them. Sometimes handlers get burnt out, even if their dogs are still motivated. Take a few weeks (or more) off and exercise your dog with other activities so he doesn't get out of shape during your hiatus. Try a new sport. Get your dog certified to do therapy work. Take long walks or find a new place to go for a swim. Or simply cut back on your activities, doing fewer weekends of competition each month or doing only one day of two day trials. Don't ignore your declining interest; do something to spice things up and increase the fun!

Remember that, no matter what, your dogs are your family. A bad day with your buddy in training or competition is still a pretty great day! Keeping competition in perspective will help keep you at the top of your game for a long time.

Brenna Fender is a freelance writer and editor and can be reached at bfender@usdaa.com. She lives in Florida with her husband, two young children, four dogs (a Whippet, A Papillon, a Beagle, and a Border Collie puppy), and two rabbits.

A version of this article first appeared in DogSport Magazine, www.dogsportmagazine.com and is posted with permission.

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