Thursday, December 31, 2009

Balancing multiple sports

I was going back through some of the comments on the blog this week, and I reread a comment from Lora asking I how balance training multiple dog sports. I thought going into the new year, it was a good topic for a blog post.

First, I think everyone needs to figure out what their personal dog training goals are. Some people just want to enjoy time with their dog. I commented recently to a friend as we watched another local competitor run his dog that he needed to be thinking about a new puppy since his dog was starting to show her age. My friend turned to me and said, "With him, it's not about doing agility, it's about doing agility with this dog." Wow, what an insightful comment.

Do you just want to do agility and excel in it? Do you love a particular breed of dog, and you want to do dog sports with that breed? Maybe you have family obligations and you can only attend local trials. Think not only about your dog and your life, but what are your resources (time, money, access to training, access to trials, ability to travel to trials, etc.)?

I think everyone needs to have a realistic goal for their dogs and their lives. Dog training should be about the Journey and not just about the titles and the trophies (but that's another post that I did back in August!). So I think the discussion about doing multiple dog sports or doing multiple venues of one sport needs to start with your goals and resources.

For me, dog training is about the accomplishment of working with a canine partner to achieve as high a level of training as possible. If someone holds out a goal in front of me and thinks my dog and I can do it, I'll go for it.

Here's a couple of examples from my situation. Ian is mildly reactive and people-shy, but he showed incredible performance abilities as a puppy. We tried conformation when he was very young, and he learned growling at judges made them go away (to his credit he really didn't know what he did the first time he growled at a judge, but it worked so he repeated it).

Since conformation wasn't my favorite sport, it didn't break my heart to end that part of his career. I knew he'd also never be an obedience dog, because to earn a CD he had to do a stand for exam where the judge goes over him. So Ian became an agility dog. I chose this puppy because of his performance abilities; and while we had several rocky periods, I knew he had the ability to be an excellent performance dog. His agility career speaks for itself, and when rally came along (another non-judge intrusive sport), he again proved his abilities. So for Ian, I considered his limitations, and we selected sports he would excel in - and he excelled to the highest levels.

Devon has been a completely different story. I originally got her to do agility and obedience; I wanted a MACH UDX Golden. Gayle asked me to put a JH on her, and I agreed. I figured what the heck I'd learn something new and it wouldn't take too long. I found an excellent pro trainer willing to give me private lessons, Mitch White. At our first lesson when Devon was 5 months old, Mitch was throwing a duck for her and she was retrieving it back to him like a big dog. Mitch said, "Devon you go tell you Mommy you want to be a MASTER Hunter, not a Junior Hunter!" That day a dream was born and a new sport was added to our list.

When Devon passed her tracking certification test at 8 months of age, she indicated a 48-hour old cross track. Steve Ripley told me what she had done, then asked me how far I wanted to take tracking with this dog. When I said I was thinking of getting a Champion Tracker, he said he would help me get there. That day another dream was born and another sport was added to our list.

And I love Devon so much, I jumped at the chance to get Page and work both girls in multiple sports. So now I have two amazing girls, and I have high level goals in four sports. Although I enjoy other venues of agility (USDAA, CPE), my goals are too broad based to do multiple venues of one sport. Because AKC offers me high level titles in all four of my sports, it has become my venue of choice.

I learned several years ago that achieving high level titles means foundation, foundation, foundation. So in the girls' early weeks they were started with foundation for every sport. At about 5 months, I began concentrating in areas depending on the season. Spring, Summer and fall have been about field work and tracking since those sports are outdoor sports, and late fall and winter have been about obedience and agility since I can do those sports inside.

The other thing to keep in mind when balancing multiple sports is that as you begin to train the tough, meaty content of the higher levels of each sport, other sports must take a backseat. It's impossible to train advanced levels in all sports without something slipping.

This year was a good example of that for Devon. In the spring her VST tracking looked really good. We worked hard on tracking from late February into early June, and I began to think about VST tests in late fall. But in late June I began a serious push with advanced field work to get Devon ready for her Senior Hunter tests in September. By August, Devon's tracking fell apart and she lost confidence.

I was frustrated, but I knew the problem was our focus on field work and training at high levels in both sports. As difficult as it was at the time (and I appreciate Janet and Steve Ripley forcing the issue), I decided to back off the tracking and push through on the field work. Devon was much closer to the SH in the fall than the VST. It was the right decision, because now that we've gotten through the SH and given her a break, her tracking looks much better.

And going into 2010, I'm faced with another difficult decision: getting the VST title or pushing on to the Master Hunter. The jump between Senior and Master is a lot less than Junior to Senior, and most dogs earn their Master Hunter fairly quickly after their Senior. However, pushing on to Master would leave Devon's tracking in limbo for at least another year, and I'm not sure I want it to stagnate that long.

The other factor in my decision making is Page. She isn't mature enough to handle Junior Hunter tests yet, but she is working VST very well right now. So it's looking like in 2010, field work will take a back seat to VST training (and that's a preview for another post on goal setting!)

When you are working multiple sports and getting into the higher levels, something has to give. You cannot maintain many sports and push the dog in all of them when the difficulty increases. For me that has meant less time spent on sports I really enjoy (agility) and pushing off other sports until later that my instructors would rather not see me do (obedience).

But in the end it all comes back to the Journey. And on my current Journey, I have two amazing girls, and I'm enjoying every bit of training we're doing.

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