Part one of this entry was a little doom-and-gloom with all of the things to take into consideration before deciding to compete with your dog. But now that’s all out of the way and I’m going to share some of the amazing things about taking your participation in agility, lure coursing, flyball, racing – whatever! – to the next level.
You’ll Meet New People with Similar Interests
My family and primary group of friends are great (I swear!), but the fact is that none of them are involved in agility or any canine-focused activities. They will listen patiently when I start talking about contact-obstacles-this or oh-my-god-look-at-those-weaves while shoving a video in their faces, but it isn’t the same as actually talking passionately about your hobbies with other people who are also passionate about those hobbies. Depending on your personality and how familiar the other participants are with each other, it can take awhile to feel comfortable sticking your neck out and introducing yourself. If you’re lucky, someone will take a moment to help show you the ropes. If not, don’t take it personally. Be friendly, ask for help if you need it, compliment people’s dogs, and eventually you’ll meet some interesting people.
Socialize Your Dog
This does not mean your dog should be allowed to run up to other dogs or people; most events are NOT venues for playdates and free-for-alls! Your dog should be under control at all times for everyone’s safety. Trials and shows can be a high stress environment and even dogs who are otherwise friendly might act out. Handlers may also be very focused on their upcoming turn and even experiencing some performance anxiety themselves. By socializing your dog, I mean that it is good for dogs to get used to walking past other dogs and people without necessarily receiving attention. It is also good for them to get used to so many sights, smells, and sounds and to eventually become relaxed and trust that they are safe. In some cases dogs might be allowed to meet nicely while outside of the venue – but always ask first.
Push Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
Competing with your dog probably won’t be as nerve-wracking as public speaking for most people, but it can certainly teach you to live in the moment and move on when things don’t go as planned. I know that when I run in agility it can feel like everyone is watching me. Although this is rarely the case (people might watch, but I think they are usually reflecting more on what they would do or will do, for training purposes, rather than judging you), it can amplify your feelings of embarrassment or frustration. This is normal and I think it’s safe to say that working through these feelings will be practical for your life beyond canine sports.
Increase Your Bond with Your Dog
How many other situations have you been in where you and your dog have really had to work together? How many times have you had to rely on each other to complete a task? When competing with your dog, you experience success together. The real trick, if you’re truly competing with your dog’s best interests in mind, is making sure that you’re the only one who experiences failure. Your dog doesn’t understand titles and ribbons, he’s just out there to have fun and, often, to make you happy. Staying positive and upbeat with your dog, no matter what happens, is an exercise in patience and making the best of things and your bond will only grow from it. It is also an interesting feeling when you, as the handler, make the mistakes; I find it increases my empathy and understanding for when my dogs make errors. It also draws attention to the fact that most mistakes seemingly made by your dog actually start with confusing signals from the handler!
Give Renewed Purpose to Your Training
If you’ve been training for a long time you might unconsciously be stuck in a rut or getting away with bad habits. When you start competing you’ll come face-to-face with anything you’ve taken for granted and realize your weaknesses pretty quickly. Watching dog and handler teams who consistently win or are competing in higher levels will also give you ideas of new things to try and goals to strive towards. This can invigorate your training and make it more interesting again.
Winning is Fun!
Okay, this should probably be considered the least important reason for competing with your dog, but I’m not going to ignore it. Winning, or at least qualifying (depending on the activity), feels good – you don’t have to be a competitive person for that to be true. However, keep in mind that some dogs may never win a single competition. This can happen for any number of reasons and doesn’t necessarily say anything about the skills of the dog or handler. Because of that, for many sports it makes sense to think like a runner and aim for personal bests. That way you can get that winning feeling more often and also avoid falling into the trap of only focusing on the negative instead of the positive.
The above points are some of the fun that I have experienced while competing in agility with my dogs. Let me know in the comments if you have anything to add, including pros and cons that might be sport-specific.