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Canine sports: Putting the fun into dog training

By jim Published: October 13, 2009

By LINDA LOMBARDI
For The Associated Press

Too often, dog training seems like it's all about saying "No."

"People have the knee-jerk assumption that they seek training to fix something," says Victoria Schade, author of "Bonding With Your Dog."

But if all you think about is stopping bad behavior, you miss the real joy of training: being able to talk to the animals. "Training is about changing the way you communicate with your dog. It's giving you a common language," says Schade.

So how do you train your dog by saying "Yes," rather than "No"?

One way is to get involved in canine sports. And the good news is that they're more available to dog owners than ever before.

The classic traditional obedience exercise is to sit, stay, and do nothing silently. For the dedicated competitor, it's a fascinating challenge and a suspenseful three minutes, but for the rest of us and our dogs it might be a little, well, boring. And if you've seen those agility competitions on TV, where dogs run, jump and climb a course of obstacles, you might worry you're not as athletic as the handlers who are racing alongside.

But a relatively new canine activity, Rally Obedience, combines features of both of those sports in a way that's fun and teaches your dog useful skills. In Rally, you and your dog perform commands in sequence, somewhat like in agility, but without complicated equipment.

"It's real-life training, put to a numbered course in a ring," says Linda Sperco, national Rally coordinator for the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), which first introduced Rally competitions in 2001. "For instance, you are heeling with your dog on the leash, not pulling, and you come to a sign that asks you to stop and ask your dog to sit."

Rally exercises like this are practical __ think how handy it would be if your dog would stop and sit nicely every time you wait to cross a street. This also allows you to incorporate the training into your daily routine. "You can practice when you're walking your dog, or just out goofing around in the backyard," says Sperco.

And one important feature is that unlike traditional obedience, there are no restrictions on talking to your dog. "Rally allows unlimited communication," says Sperco. You can repeat commands and encourage your dog all you want, just like in your everyday interactions.

Competitions in Rally Obedience are held all over the country by APDT, the American Kennel Club (AKC), and the United Kennel Club (UKC). And the AKC has recently joined the other groups by changing their rules so that mixed breed dogs as well as purebreds can compete. As of Oct. 1, mixed breed owners have been able to enroll their dogs to be eligible to enter AKC competitions starting in the spring.

Rules for Rally differ slightly in the three organizations, but Sperco says that all agree that the point of the sport is "to build a better relationship with your dog." Even competitions, which can sound a little intimidating compared to just taking a training class, are meant to be a positive experience. "It's a fun day out with your dog," says Lisa Peterson of the AKC.

Trainers agree that the skills gained in training for organized dog sports transfer to real life. If there's one thing we all want, it's a dog that listens to us. And, Sperco says, "the people who are most successful are those who work first on attention."

A dog that's engaged in these kinds of activities will have fewer of the behavioral issues that stem from boredom, and the techniques you learn will also help you solve what problems do arise. You learn to really observe your dog, says Schade, and break behavior down into smaller parts that make it possible to attack bigger problems step by step.

But perhaps the most important result is learning what both you and your dog are capable of. For many people, says Schade, the breakthrough is learning that their dog "isn't stupid after all." And, she says, "Training doesn't take whispering abilities or special gifts. Once you understand how it works, everyone can do it."

To find trainers and classes with the Association of Pet Dog Trainers: http://apdt.com/

To find AKC clubs that offer training classes: http://www.akc.org/events/obedience/training_clubs/

To enroll in AKC mixed breed program: http://www.akc.org/mixedbreeds/

Victoria Schade's Web site: http://www.lifeontheleash.com/

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