Being More, Doing Less

by | Sep 7, 2016 | 14 comments

Things are changing in the sport dog world.  We are suddenly immersed in activities to do with our dogs.  We can participate in scent work, dock diving, barn hunt, and more.  Just having one measly agility class a week no longer needs to cut it; we can now attend a dog-related function, be it class, seminar, or competition EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK.  So, should we?

I feel that dog guardianship falls on a continuum these days with most pet dogs still not getting enough in regards to mental stimulation or exercise and most sport dogs being run utterly ragged.  Yes, I said *most* sport dogs.  If you attend a dog-related sanctioned activity that requires enormous amounts of mental stamina from your canine companion every single weekend and one or more nights a week, you might want to reconsider.  Why is it harmful to do too much?  Besides the risk of physical injury, burnout is hugely common in these dogs.  Burnout often comes across as lackluster performances, missed criteria on course, or ring stress.

A far too common example of this is the many people who have very exciting young dogs.  These dogs can jump and tunnel and run VERY fast but often can’t eat on the course, give up a tug toy, look at their handler when there’s equipment around, or hold a stay.  I’d call this a lack of impulse control on the part of the human–just because your young dog is willing and eager doesn’t mean you should skip those fundamentals like flatwork and toy skills.  Teaching them later, when the dog has learned how fun it is to play this game, if much harder.  It reminds me of all the children in this country glued to screens, playing very stimulating video games, who don’t see the joy in running around outside or reading a book.  When you let your dog learn that the game is about equipment and NOT about connection, that is a major error.

My clients who are guiltiest of doing too much are always the ones who are having some sort of performance issue with their dogs.  Either the dog is missing weave poles, stressed in the trial environment, knocking bars, misreading cues, or even lashing out at other dogs at trials.  These are the most dedicated wonderful clients.  These are the clients who are always doing more, in the hopes that the more they practice or train the better their dogs’ problems will get.  The unfortunate thing is that the opposite is usually true.  A well-known European dog trainer who is not involved in dog sports once said that the trouble with Americans is that we are constantly doing and never being.  She is right on so. many. levels.  If you have lost connection with your dog on course, trust me, the answer lies not in the 108th repetition of the dogwalk–it lies in doing less and being more.

When was the last time you decided to just “be” with your dog?  Do you really know who she is? When was the last time you two went on a walk without the aid of a leash and simply enjoyed each other? The competitors I admire most consistently show up as these people–the ones who choose the hike over the seminar, the ones whose puppies may not know a thousand tricks but do know how to swim and run up a rocky hillside, the ones whose old dogs are cherished because of their very special life; not because of the ribbons and medals on the wall.

I made these critical mistakes when Kelso was a young dog.  He was terribly aggressive toward unknown dogs as a puppy and so I dove in.  If he couldn’t be a “nice” pet dog he would be the best sport dog ever! He was in the agility ring by 18 months of age and had his CD at age 2.  He was never a puppy, and rarely just a dog.  He was constantly in class, always training, and competing many weekends of the year.  It wasn’t until I went to college and spent some time not competing or training that I realized how neat of a dog Kelso is; just as himself, titles aside.  We spent a lot of time hiking. I worked seriously on his dog aggression.  I transitioned away from “balanced” training methods and decided I’d ditch the nasty stuff and go a positive-reinforcement-based route for everything.  Kelso and I got to know each other, and went on to achieve more in the sports of Agility and Obedience than most people (including myself) thought possible, given his issues.  When I got Idgie, I vowed not to make these mistakes.  I trained her a lot, of course, but she didn’t see a piece of formal agility equipment until she was a year old and she didn’t get into the ring till she was over two.  I let her teach me, and when she decided some stuff she’d eventually have to cope with were very scary, I dedicated myself to helping her feel safe (which, surprisingly enough, involved a whole lot of being and barely any doing).

So, if you’re struggling with some sport-related issues you might decide to relax a bit.  Go on a hike. Ask your dog what she needs from you. Take a break from all events (not just agility, but all of those other doggy-centric things you love) and see if your dog doesn’t come back fresher for it–I’d bet on it.

idgiemelookingoutIdgie and I, just being. Photo by Tori Self




  1. aagenbroad

    Love this. Really nice.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. T Abell

    Well said!

  3. Ashley Castro

    Reading posts like this one is great. It makes me feel less crazy when I tell students and fellow trainers to just relax and enjoy the journey. Well written!

  4. Cat Abrams

    This article really spoke to me. At 4 months I had my Aussie enrolled in a beginner obedience class and after that a foundation agility one and then two. He seemed to LOVE agility until some unfortunate things happened on the dog walk and teeter. He was very stressed out and I did not think that was good but being new to all this relied on the experience of others. But my inner voice told me STOP AND TAKE A BREAK NOW. I got the cold shoulder from my instructor as a result, but it was the best thing we ever did. We relaxed and just had fun together, a teeny bit of training and lots of just being together. Now we are in a different agility class and he is so much happier and doing so much better. We have become closer with a better bond just from spending time just enjoying each other’s company.

  5. Jilian Rakow

    I love this post!! I am guilty of forgetting to be with my dogs. It is important to remember that the value of our dogs is in who they are, not what they do. This lesson was brought home to me recently when my 4 year old Search and rescue Dog was found to have an ocular tumor and his eye had to be removed. I was initially crushed as he is my working partner. He, however, has bounced back from the ey loss and is happy and yes.. healthy. I appreciate anew his resilient and optimistic attitude. His bidability and willingness to always have some fun. In short, I have been forced to just BE with him while he recovers and adjusts to the eye loss. It strikes me that this lesson is an important one to apply to our human relationships as well.

  6. Mel

    Awesome! I almost made the same mistake with my 10 month old puppy. He is now an agility school dropout (for the time being) and is learning how to swim, play tug, hunt moles, birds and squirrels, and be a dog with me. Thank you for reaffirming my decision.

  7. Jocelyn

    I have been trying to explain this to people. Thanks for the article. Sometimes more is not better. I know so many I can share this with.

  8. S Fryer

    I couldn’t agree more.

  9. Sandra Yearsley

    Great post! I have Fame who is related to your Sheltie Ticket 🙂 Sent you a friend request on FB.

  10. Trudy

    Bravo for writing this!


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