Ep. 13: What Comes First, Confidence or Dog Sport?

Sep 23, 2020

Once clients are introduced to the concept of dog sports, a common question is: do I need my dog to be confident before tackling dog sports or will dog sports make my dog more confident? This is actually a rather meaty question and we delve into different ways you can tackle it in this podcast episode!

Dianna L. Santos


 Speaker 1 (00:00):
Welcome to the All About Dog Sports podcast. My name is Dianna Santos. In this podcast, we talk about all things dog sports that can include training tips, a behind scenes look of what your instructor or trial official may be going through and much more. In this episode, I wanted to talk about whether or not you need to have a confident dog to do dog sports or if you can use dog sports to create a more competent dog, basically a chicken or an egg kind of thing. Before we start diving into the episode itself, let me just do a very quick rundown of what Dog Sport University provides. So Dog Sport University is one of our online dog training platforms where we offer online courses, seminars, and webinars. They're designed to help you achieve your dog sport training goals. That can include agility, barn hunt, canine parkour, tri ball tricks and more. So I'd strongly urge you to check out Dog Sport University. You may find something there that would be helpful, but without further ado, let's dive into the Pockets episode itself.

So in this episode I wanted to talk about confidence in dogs and how that may relate to what it is that we're doing with our dogs, particularly with dog sports. And this is a question that I've received over the years while being a professional dog trainer. I think it's helpful if I give you a little bit of background so that you understand where I'm approaching this topic. When I first started as a professional trainer, my focus was working with dogs that were fearful, reactive, or aggressive, and my exposure to the dog sport world was close to nil. It didn't exist. I was just trying to help dogs become more comfortable and safe in their lives, and that could be extraordinarily small and limited depending on what the issues were. Or it could be pretty darn close to what normal living, but you just need to make a couple of adjustments or provide the dog with some more skills.

As I progressed in my own learning and in trying to figure out how we could help these dogs, particularly the ones who were extraordinarily limited in what they could do, I then stumbled upon dog sports as a more formal way of doing things as it were, meaning that I found out about set work in particular and saw how beneficial that could be. I had also been interning with a few agility instructors and saw that that was also extraordinarily helpful as far as helping really timid dogs potentially develop some skills and confidence so they could approach life a little bit differently because doing obstacles in a way that wasn't in a pressure sort of environment could actually help them go, oh, I can do this and not die.

So the reason why I bring all this up is because I started off in a world where dog sports basically didn't exist in my mind, right? I have an appreciation for the way that I think the majority of dog owning public looks at dog dom that they may not even know what a dog sport is. In addition to that, because I came into dog sports basically like through a back door, I can see it through a different lens. And for those of you who know anything about me and have either heard my other podcasts, they read my blogs or whatever, you know that I am not in it for the ribbons. Those are nice. Accomplishing something that even support is great, but that's not my main objective. That's not my main focus. So all of that I think can help give you a better appreciation of why I may approach this topic of confidence in dogs and how it is we can go about using dog sports or if it's true that you need to have a confident dog to do dog sports, I think it's helpful for you to understand my background and where I'm coming at this because you may get a completely different answer from somebody else, and that doesn't mean that they're wrong.

It doesn't mean that I'm wrong. It doesn't mean that either one of us are wrong. This is a question that probably has multiple answers depending on the specifics of what it is that you're talking about, meaning that specific dog, that specific owner, that specific team. That being said, I do think that there are some generalities that everyone can agree upon. The first is that if you are looking to do competitive dog sports, particularly at the upper levels of any sport, I don't care what sport it is, pick one. Having a more confident dog is basically a prerequisite in order for you to do well. Because at some point there's going to be a level of stress, of pressure, of expectation of test at those upper levels that is going to be pushing up against the dog's limits, and that's basically by design, which we'll talk about at a different podcast.

But if your dog is already behind the eight ball, if they're already in a deficit as far as confidence is concerned, their ability to work through any kind of issues or concerns that they may have about the environment, about sounds, about movement, about tight spaces, about pressure, any of those things, you have something against you. You are working with a handicap, as it were, that magnifies as you go up the levels. So when you're talking about I want to go and compete at world teams for agility, which is way out of my pay range that I do not even purport or attempt to know what you would need to do in order to do that, but my guess is that you would not be able to do that with a dog who had a ton of confidence issues. It doesn't seem to line up as far as if your dog is going into a space and going, oh my god, I'm going to die.

But that's a training center they go into all the time, and now you want to go to world, you want to go to teams, that probably isn't going to work out really well. So then people then jump to the conclusion, oh, well that means that I need to have a confident dog in order to do dog sports. And this is where I think things get a little fuzzy. So if you're talking about the super high end of any dog sport, picket agility, try ball, scent work, competition, obedience, it doesn't matter. I agree that one of the most main components that you would need is a confident dog, right? You need your dog to have a certain level of confidence in order for them to be successful so that they can concentrate on tackling the test itself and not being sucked into all of their insecurities about the environment, sound movement, whatever the case may be.

I think that that construct is probably true, but let's talk about all the other levels of competition. So we're not talking about the absolute top levels. We're talking about intro to probably mid level where most of us kind of live. And it's not to say that people aren't able to do this with their dogs aren't talented. That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying we're not traveling the world competing. I'm saying that we are not expecting our dogs to jump eight feet, not that there are dogs that are expected to jump eight feet. I'm just saying as extreme examples, right? This is not the creme de la creme. This is not well, we're really pushing whatever. No, we're talking about the majority of competition levels that everyone would see. I think for this population of dogs, it is a lot trickier to determine does your dog need to have confidence going in or will the activity itself be enough to build the dog's confidence?

And then I also turn that into a different question, which is could you use the activity to build the dog's confidence whether or not they were interested in actually doing competition later? And this is again where my background really keys in because for me, the population of dogs that I have the most experience with are dogs that quite honestly are not going to be comfortable, nor should they be out and competing because of very serious behavioral issues. We're asking them to go out and formally compete would be setting them up to fail, which would be a dereliction of duty on behalf of myself as a trainer, on behalf of the owner, everything else. But that doesn't mean that the activity of the dog sport shouldn't be used in order to help that dog develop more confidence. Again, I think this is where things get really tricky for people because I think as humans we want to be very linear.

We want to be very delineated in how we think about things. So if my dog is doing dog sports, that means that we have to compete instead dog sport, which is not true. It's not true at all. For instance, my prior boy valor, great dog, great behavior, solid as could be, total athlete, amazing, amazing dog. We trained in agility, we trained in agility a bunch on our own. It helped him tremendously as far as being able to be more in tune to me even more than he already was learning how to use his body without crashing and burning. We also use it as a reward for doing other things. He loved it so much, we never competed. So I don't want anyone to get stuck in this trap of if I'm ever going to go into a sport, that means I have to compete in it.

That number one, that is not true. That is not true at all. So once we can accept that concept, we can then move on to, well, would I be able to leverage the benefit that a particular activity could give my dog, even though we may or may not ever compete? And I think that the answer is yes. So for my prior clients when I was first starting out in my career, we leveraged things such as agility, such as scent work, even rally, things like that to really help the dogs build up confidence, problem solving skills, and attention to their person, even though they've never in a million years intended on competing in any of those things. So at this point people are like, okay, so you're saying to get back to the original question that it is your approach that dogs can build confidence in doing the activity.

Therefore, I can take an insecure dog, have them do a particular dog sport, do it for a while, and then I can compete in that dog sport, particularly if I'm not looking for the upper levels. And again, I would say, well, it depends. This is where I think we need to have a delineation. We do need to have a delineation between activity and sport, meaning that you absolutely positively in training can leverage things like agility, parkour, sip work, rally obedience, whatever the case may be to pick out very particular aspects of those activities, obstacle work, body proprioception, problem solving, working through small amounts and incremental amounts of attention on the handler, building on relationship, all those different things within given exercises. Within that given activity, you absolutely and should be leveraging those things to build up all of those different aspects in your dog. That is true.

I also think that we had to be very clear and clear minded that competing is a test and that there are requirements expected upon the dog and the team in order to pass that test. So there are a baseline amount of things that the organization, whichever organization you're competing with, is expecting your dog to already have had in addition to passing the test for the level for the activity that you're doing. You're like, I don't have any idea what you're talking about. Let's take network as an example. That is the sport that I'm the most familiar with. It's the one that I really concentrate all my energies on. So at the very first level of S work, let's say for a KC, you'll have one hide within a search area. So an item that your dog is going into a space in order to hunt for with their nose, the expectation that is not stated anywhere in the rules is that your dog A is going to be able to work on leash because it's very likely you're going to have to do the search on leash B.

Your dog is going to be able to walk into the space and not completely and totally fall apart. And C, they're going to be able to complete the task within a given time limit without being distracted by all the other things that happen at a trial site. And those are just gimmies an expectation. That's something that's not even mentioned. It's just assumed when we're talking about dogs who are particularly sensitive, they're lacking in confidence, they're worried about the world, whatever the case may be, those assumptions are not gimmies at all. That may be the very thing that you're actually working on. Those might be the things that that's why you're doing the activity in order to build up those skills so your dog can do those things. So when I'm saying is that yes, I think it could be extraordinarily beneficial for you to leverage these different activities, these different sports as it were, agility, barn hunt, even scent work, competition, obedience, rally, canine park core, tri ball tricks, whatever the case may be.

Doing any of those things in a training context with the idea of how it is we can help the dog become their better selves. Awesome. You then have to take a step back when you're starting getting bit by the bug a little bit, you're here, you watch your classmates and they're earning ribbons and titles. You're like, Ooh, I think I want to do that. You need to take the step back, talk with your instructor and be like, okay, are we at the point where we actually check off all these boxes so that we are hitting those assumption points so we could actually take the test? More often than not, that takes a lot of time and effort, and that's not a bad thing at all, as long as you are very honest with yourself about it. And it can be exceedingly more difficult in some activities than in others, meaning that in scent work, you can have, first of all, they're open to reactive dogs as an example.

The majority of other sports are not at all. So they're more understanding up to a point. But there's still that expectation. Your dog can come in there, guns blazing to take everybody out. They also can't be cowering inside of their crate as soon as you pull in. So these are the things that people have to think about. So it sounds like a really simple question. I hear about this Santos lady always talking about confidence in dogs and how we can use dog sports. Do I need a confident dog to do dog sports or can I use dog sports to make a confident dog? It's actually a pretty complicated question. We're 16 minutes in already, and I hope you can see how loaded the question actually is.

So for myself, when I'm trying to coach someone into deciding what it is that they should be doing with their dogs, the first thing that we have to do is just really assess who the dog is right now, not where we hope they will be, but who they are right now. Not demonize who they are, they are who they are, and we'll take what they give us. We then have to talk about what the goals are for the person and make a variety of different goals. They may think a goal is to earn the highest title, but then I also want to know, well, that's great. That's going to happen one time. But you're living with this dog for 10, 12, 14 years. What are you doing for the other 10 years? What are your goals in living your day-to-day life? If your dog is able to achieve the highest title in the line, that's great, but if they're completely a basket case the other rest of the time, like 24 7 when you're living with them, I'm thinking that's not overly helpful.

So outlining what it is you actually want your life to be with your dog, what do you want their life to be like? And if that would then feed into, well into going into a program to work towards a title, great. It's possible that that's not the best path, at least not now. Maybe we're just concentrating on building these skills so that your dog could be more comfortable in their own skin. There is nothing wrong with that, and dog sports as an activity can be an excellent way of doing that. So I hope that you can see that the answer is actually like all of the above. It depends on what it is that you're looking for. It depends on where you are in your journey. It depends on what your goals are. The one thing I want to caution people on is trying to take an unconfident dog, bring them into a dog sport competition and expecting them to become confident at the trial. That's not going to happen. Just the opposite is going to happen. It's actually probably going to make it worse. So if you want to leverage the activity and training to build confidence, great, and maybe it gets to such a point that they are in training so much more confident, then you can go to trials. Fantastic. Pat yourself on the bat, that's awesome.

But it can't be that you're trying to build the confidence in the trial itself. I think that's a really important distinction for people to have. So just to try to wrap this very theoretical, high-minded sort of thing, which comes first, a confident dog leads into the dog sport or the dog sport leads to a confident dog. If you are looking to compete at the highest levels of competition in any dog sport, in my opinion, your dog needs to have a certain level of confidence. The more confident they are, the better. That's not a guarantee they're going to do well, but that's definitely a bare minimum doing the activity itself in training, if you do it correctly, if you do it mindfully, if you're thinking about what it is that you're leveraging, what it is that you're teaching the dog, you absolutely can develop more confidence in the dog in doing the activity.

So you can absolutely take a lesson, confident dog, start them in training for the activity, go over that for a period of time, and then start to compete where you could then say, well, I took non-confident dog inserted training, got more confident dog and then did dog sport. Great. That may not work when you're trying to do the upper levels of trialing, and it's definitely not going to work if you're just trying to go from unconfident dogs straight into trial, typically speaking, that's just going to backfire on you. So I don't want anyone to think that only certain types of dogs can do these activities because that's not true. Having the client base that I have over the years, these activities within themselves, agility, barn hunt, set work, competition, obedience, rally beans, canine parkour, tri wall tricks are so beneficial to all dogs. I want more people doing these games. Whether or not those same teams should into competition is an individualized discussion point, right? You have to determine if that's a good idea for you and your dog and then what your journey is going to be while you are competing. But it is absolutely an important thing to think about of, well, what am I starting with? Where do I want to go and are the goals that I'm setting realistic? That's basically all this boils down to.

So this was a rambly podcast. I definitely want to hear from you guys though. Let me know what you thought. Let me know if this made any sense, if you still have any questions about it. If you completely disagree, maybe you think that the way I outlined how I think the confidence in dog sports and to play with one another is incorrect. Hey, I'm always happy to hear from you guys. We'll actually have a post about this podcast episode on our Facebook page for Dog Sport University. So feel free to post any comments or questions you have there, or if you have other topics you'd like for us to talk about, post is there as well. Alright, guys, thank you so much for listening. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.