Training dogs is fun. Obviously I like training dogs or one hopes I would have found a different direction in life. And I’d like to believe that my dogs think training is fun too. Indeed, I go to a good deal of effort to make it fun for them. So how about dog shows and competitions? Do my dogs enjoy that?
Most competitions take place away from your familiar environment, in the presence of strange dogs who may or may not be social, and with a whole lot of stressed-out people. Most events take place without the food and toys and games that make it fun for the dog. Traveling, extensive period of crating, and a complete disruption of the routine may also be a hallmark of competition – from the dog’s point of view.
So what does the dog get for it? A hamburger a few hours later? One to one interaction with their owner and handler?
It’s an interesting question. In my opinion, my dogs that were trained for competition did benefit, but indirectly. When competing, I train much more regularly and with a plan. Competition focuses me and drives me forward. There is no doubt in my mind that my dogs benefitted from that, because they truly love to work. But the dog shows? Those were for me.
So the way I see it is this…. dog shows are for me and training is for both of us. I get to show the results of whatever I learned and I get to progress my skills. My dog gets intense quality time every day. As long as my dog is okay with the dog show, not necessarily loving it but okay with it, then we continue. In exchange, they got the joy of regular training and interaction – it was a good deal all around.
But what if the scenario were different? What if my dog had a sensitive temperament and found the presence of other dog stressful? Or, as an interesting corollary, what if my dog’s behavior were such that it caused other dogs to find their presence stressful? What if my dog did not travel well, or did not particularly enjoy training nearly as much as they might enjoy a walk for an equivalent amount of time? Are we doing our dogs a favor when we take them to the dog show? Participating in training classes with shy or reactive dogs? Desensitizing dogs to things that don’t actually matter to the dog, and are only relevant because of some specific competition interest that we might have?
In my mind, our dogs are doing us the favor! I do not believe all, or even most, dogs should go to competition events. I believe all dogs should be trained in order to make them good members of our families and society, and they can be trained well beyond that if it is enjoyable for both the handler and the dog. But it confuses me when people imply that somehow, a dog is lucky if they have a handler who does competition dog sports with them. Maybe. Maybe not.
Some dogs are lucky, yes! Those dogs love to learn and practice and travel and compete, and they live for the quality time with their handlers. And for some dogs, competing in specific sports, training (and less often, competition) may also give them confidence that serves them well in life as a whole. But I don’t consider this the norm. The normal situation is that the handler wants to compete, and the dog comes along for the ride. The normal situation is that the handler convinces themselves that this is wonderful for the dog as well, despite all evidence to the contrary more often than I care to call out.
I’m not against dog sports. I like dog sports. I think they’re good for the dog-human bond, in particular when the dog and handler have the appropriate temperament for whatever sport they have taken up. I also think a good percentage of dogs truly love training enough to offset the stress of competition. But it’s a mistake to confuse our interests with the dog’s interests – it feels too much like rationalizing to me. If your dog doesn’t particularly enjoy training, or you are spending months conditioning him to crowds because they make him nervous, or your dog makes himself scary or a nuisance when around other dogs, then don’t be confused… you’re doing it for you. Not the dog. Your dog would like to be doing something else altogether.
Which is fine. I’m all about compromise, and if your dog does dog sports for you – because you like it – and they don’t mind too much? Go for it! Learn all you can! Develop your hobby! But remain grateful because your dog is doing you the favor.