Dog Training For Dummies
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In addition to obedience competition, you and your dog can participate in numerous other performance events. Many are conducted under the auspices of the American Kennel Club (AKC), and some, such as Schutzhund trials, aren’t. The AKC awards more than 50 different performance titles in eight different categories. And other organizations have an almost equal number of titles. In this article we discuss the AKC competitions and more, including Flyball competitions and Schutzhund trials. We also include a discussion of service dogs who work for a living.

Agility Events

Agility is an exciting and exhilarating sport for both owner and dog. The popularity of agility competitions has experienced phenomenal growth since 1994 when it became a titling sport in the AKC, and with good reason: Dogs love it, human participants love it, and it has enormous spectator appeal. AKC agility events began in England and were then introduced in the United States. You may have seen agility competitions on television on one of the channels that specialize in televising dog events and on primetime channels as well. This figure shows a dog competing in an agility trial.

dog in agility trial A dog in action during an agility trial.

In agility competition, the dogs, under the direction of their owners, negotiate a complex obstacle course that includes walking over a teeter, a 5-foot high A-frame, and a 4-foot high plank with ramps; weaving in and out between a series of poles; jumping over and through objects; and going through tunnels. To compensate for the size differences among dogs and to make the competition fair, seven height divisions exist.

As with obedience, the level of difficulty increases with each higher class as does the number of obstacles. Other than the exercises themselves, some significant differences exist between agility trials and obedience trials. We outline the differences in the following table.

Differences between Agility and Obedience Trials
Agility Obedience
Your dog must be able to work on both your right and left side. Your dog works on your left side.
You have minimum time limits during which you and your dog have to complete the course. There is no time limit (within reason).
The obstacles and the order in which the obstacles are to be negotiated vary. The exercises and the order of the exercises are always the same.
Continuous communication with your dog is encouraged. During your dog’s performance of an exercise, you can’t talk to your dog and can give only one command.
No doubt, part of the appeal of agility competition is its seeming simplicity. Almost any dog in reasonably good physical condition quickly learns the rudiments of the various obstacles. And, almost any owner who’s also in reasonably good physical condition can compete in agility. But few things are ever as simple as they appear.

Beginning agility is deceptively simple, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Because the courses you and your dog have to negotiate are never the same, your ability to communicate with your dog is important. Any lapses in communication invariably result in Buddy’s failure to complete the course correctly. You’re also competing against the clock and have to make split-second decisions. In addition, you need to memorize the course before you and your dog compete.

Agility is wonderful for dogs with both high prey drive and pack drive and teaches your dog to work with you as a team, turning it into a pack drive game (Chapter 2 describes pack drive in more detail). Dogs that belong to the Herding, Working, Sporting, Toy, and Nonsporting groups all do well in agility. One of the fastest dogs is the Border Collie.

You can see what makes agility so exciting. The two of you really need to work as a team and to keep your wits about you. We highly recommend that you try it. You’ll be amazed how your dog will take to it. We aren’t suggesting that you try to set up an agility course in your backyard — few people have the wherewithal to do that. Find out from your local dog organizations where agility trials are being held and then take a look. Most communities have a group or an individual who holds classes that meet on a regular basis where you and Buddy can get started. Even if you aren’t interested in competing, agility courses are good mental stimulation for Buddy as well as good exercise for both of you.

Tracking titles

The dog’s incredible ability to use his nose and follow a scent is the basis for tracking events. Any dog can participate, and if you enjoy tromping through the great outdoors in solitude with your dog, tracking is for you. Tracking also is potentially the most useful activity you can teach your dog. Many a tracking dog has found a lost person or lost article. Dogs that like to use their noses do well in this sport such as Beagles, Bloodhounds, and German Shepherds, though almost all dogs can be taught to track.

Your dog’s sense of smell is almost infallible. Local law enforcement often uses dogs to sniff out bombs, drugs, and other contraband. Researchers are even using them to detect cancer in a person.

Buddy can earn three tracking titles:

  • Tracking Dog (TD): The track has to be at least 440 yards, but not more than 500 yards in length. A person lays the track 30 minutes to 2 hours before the event, and it has three to five turns. It doesn’t have any cross tracks or obstacles.
  • Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX): The track has to be at least 800 yards, but not more than 1,000 yards in length. The track has to be not less than three hours and not more than five hours old. It has to have five to seven turns. It must have two cross tracks and two obstacles, such as a different surface or a stream.
  • Variable Surface Tracking (VST): The track has to be at least 600 yards, but not more than 800 yards in length. Age of track is the same as for the TDX. It has to have four to eight turns. It has to have a minimum of three different surfaces, such as concrete, asphalt, gravel or sand, and vegetation.
The principal differences between the classes are the age of the track and the surface. Your dog has to complete only one track successfully to earn its title, unlike obedience or agility titles, for which three qualifying performances are required.

The basic idea of successful tracking is the dog’s ability to follow the track layer’s footsteps from beginning to end. A dog that veers too far away from the track and has obviously lost the scent is whistled off and doesn’t qualify on that particular occasion.

Barn Hunt AKC

Barn Hunt grew out of the dog’s natural instinct for hunting rats and mice in barns and in the country. This sport requires teamwork between you and your dog. The dog must indicate when he has located a rat inside of mountains of hay bales. Rats are contained in safe cages so they don’t come into direct contact with the dogs hunting them. Therefore, no rats are harmed.

High prey drive dogs are best suited for this category, but any dog that can get into a tunnel of straw that is 18 inches wide and the height of a bale of straw can give it a try. The Barn Hunt association claims that a “Barn Hunt tests the nose, speed, agility, and surefootedness of dogs that have a history of above-ground vermin hunting.”

An instinct test for beginners at most Barn Hunt competitions is pass or fail. Several levels and titles are available, and with each level the number of hidden rats increases with other distractions and diversions.

Lure coursing

Another event that relies on your dog’s desire to chase moving objects is Lure Coursing. Instead of running behind a living prey such as a rabbit, the lure is a mechanized white plastic bag on a laid-out string that is motorized and zigzags around the course. A remote controls this machine so that the plastic bag stays just out of the dog’s reach, and yet the dog can catch it at the end for the dog to pretend kill, catch, and shake in order to keep up the dog’s motivation.

Lure Coursing can be so fun for dogs with plenty of prey drive. It keeps Buddy happy and fit while you provide an outlet for his extra energy. A group, club, or even an individual can purchase the Lure Coursing machines that move the mechanical bag. Lure Coursing is a great way to burn off that prey drive energy and to meet people and their dogs, too.

Schutzhund training

The word Schutzhund means “protection dog.” Schutzhund training, which is one of the oldest organized competition, originated in Germany in the 1900s and is the precursor to obedience exercises, tracking, and agility. In fact, many of its exercises have been incorporated into today’s performance events.

Schutzhund training all began when the German Shepherd came to be used as a police dog. German Shepherds were thought of as being the only true multipurpose dog and were expected to guard and protect, herd, track, be a guide dog for the blind, and, of course, be good with children.

As a police dog, a dog’s main responsibility is to protect his handler. He also has to be able to pursue, capture, or track down suspects. Searches require great agility, perhaps jumping into windows and negotiating stairs and even ladders. Naturally, he has to know all the obedience exercises. It wasn’t long before competitions began among police units to see who had the most talented and best-trained dog. Dog owners became interested and the sport of Schutzhund was born.

Schutzhund training consists of three parts: protection, obedience, and tracking. To qualify for a title, the dog must pass all three parts. When obedience and tracking were introduced in this country, they were patterned after the Schutzhund dog. Agility competitions derived in part from the Schutzhund obedience exercises, which include walking over the A-frame as well as different jumps.

Schutzhund training, which is rigorous and highly athletic and one of the most time consuming of all dog sports, isn’t limited to German Shepherds. Other dogs of the guarding, working, and herding breeds, which have the aptitude such as Rottweilers and Belgian Malinois, can participate. Even some of the nonguarding breeds can do it, although you won’t see them at the upper levels of competition.

Flyball competitions

Flyball is a relay race consisting of two teams with four dogs on a team. The course consists of two sets of four hurdles, set up side by side and spaced 10 feet apart. At the end of each set of hurdles sits a box that holds a tennis ball. At the same time, each team sends the first dog to retrieve the ball. The dogs jump the hurdles, retrieve the ball, and return over the hurdles. When the first dog crosses the finish line, the next dog starts and retrieves the ball until all four dogs on each team have completed the course. The team with the fastest time wins, provided no errors were made, such as a dog going around one or more of the hurdles, either coming or going. For information, visit the North American Flyball Association’s website. Dogs high in prey drive do well in Flyball.

Freestyle performances

Canine Freestyle is a choreographed musical program performed by a dog/owner team, sort of like figure skating for pairs. The object is to display the team in a creative, innovative, and original dance. In Freestyle, the performance of every team is different, although the various performances often share basic obedience maneuvers and are put to music.

Started in the early 1990s as a way to bring some levity to obedience training, Freestyle has caught on like a house afire. Chances are you have seen it on one of the TV shows featuring dog activities. Freestyle is fun to watch and fun to train. Any dog high in pack drive will do well. In competition you see almost all breeds competing. For more information, visit The World Canine Freestyle Organization’s website.

Dock diving dogs

If Buddy is a retrieving fanatic and loves to swim and jump into water, then Dock Diving Dogs is for him (see the following figure).

dock diving dog Photograph by Diana Rockwell

A Dock Diving dog.

Here are the basic rules: You throw your dog’s favorite toy off a dock. On your command, Buddy runs and jumps into the water and retrieves his toy. The goal is to match your throw and Buddy’s jump so his launch is as long as possible before he lands in the water. Dogs can also compete for height and distance.

Detection dogs or scent work

After man discovered the dog’s incredible scenting ability, the detection dog was born. Humans have approximately 10 million olfactory cells compared to dog’s 200 million olfactory cells.

Because of their keen senses, dogs are now routinely used to detect drugs and explosives and search for victims buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings and avalanches. The dog has even replaced the pig to hunt for truffles, probably because he isn’t as inclined as the pig to eat the truffles he finds.

AKC Scent Work is a titling sport where detection dogs locate a specific scent and then indicate that he has found the scent. This new sport has become quite popular because nearly any dog can do it. With practice you discover how to read your dog as he locates the hidden scent in a room or outside in a searchable area. Your dog is judged by how he lets you know precisely where the scent is located.

AKC Scent Work uses anise, birch, clove, and cypress. You can easily find all as essential oils and they’re easy to use. The oil typically is used on a hide, which is a cotton swab hidden for your dog to find. Buddy must indicate to you that he has found the scent by sitting, pawing, barking, or showing a similar type response. As the levels get more difficult, Buddy has to find more hides. The scent can be buried or placed high above his head.

Working as a service dog

The term “service dog” was first used to describe police dogs and dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. Training for this job started in Germany with the German Shepherd. Over the years, the tasks of service dogs have multiplied to an astonishing degree. You now can find seizure-detection dogs, cancer-detection dogs, and blood sugar-level-monitoring dogs, as well as assistance dogs such as emotional support dogs. The following section describe two of the most common service dogs and their duties.

Assistance dogs

Assistance dogs are used to help individuals in need. (See the following figure for a look at a working assistance dog.) The following list includes the main types of assistance dogs:

assistance dogs wear vests You can recognize assistance dogs by their jackets.
  • Guide dogs for the blind: The use of dogs to assist blind individuals dates back to 1930, when the first training centers were started in England. Guide dog organizations tend to have their own breeding programs in order to cement the physical and behavioral traits necessary to become a reliable guide dog. Guide dogs undergo the most extensive training of any of the assistance dogs.
  • Dogs for the deaf and hearing impaired: These dogs are trained to react to certain noises and to alert their masters. For example, a dog may jump on the bed when the alarm clock goes off, tug at his owner’s leg when someone is at the door, or take his owner’s hand to alert him to the presence of an unexpected guest.
  • Dogs to assist the physically handicapped: A good assistance dog for the handicapped can respond to about 50 different commands, such as retrieving objects that are out of reach or have been dropped, opening and closing doors, pulling wheelchairs, or turning light switches on and off. Excellent retrieving skills are a must for assistance dogs for the handicapped.
  • Therapy dogs: The main purpose of the therapy dog and his handler is to provide comfort and companionship to patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions. The training is based on the Canine Good Citizen program with some added requirements. Any well-trained dog with good social behavior skills can become a therapy dog.
In addition to their specialized skills, all assistance dogs play an important therapeutic role for their owners, especially children who have impairments that can cause them to become physically or emotionally withdrawn from society. Each type of assistance dog has trusted organizations that provide training and/or dogs to help people — children, adults, therapy, blind, deaf, and so on. Search online for more specifics to suit your needs that an assistance dog can aid.


Every year a new sport or competition trends for you and your dog to try. You’ll always need the basics in obedience to enjoy a wonderful relationship between you and your dog. From reading assistance dogs at the local library where kids read to dogs to competitions that title your dog to great heights, a trained dog is capable of almost anything. A favorite motto to adopt is “A trained dog is a free dog.” So keep training!

More than likely, you have a dog that serves as a pet and companion, a living being that’s devoted to you. Your dog is always happy to see you and doesn’t argue or complain.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Wendy Volhard is internationally recognized for her contributions to dog training. At the heart of her teaching is the “Motivational Method” for people who value dogs as companions.

Mary Ann Rombold Zeigenfuse, LVT, has been working with dogs and their owners for over 40 years. She runs Best Friends Obedience in Lexington, KY.

Wendy Volhard is internationally recognized for her contributions to dog training. At the heart of her teaching is the “Motivational Method” for people who value dogs as companions.

Mary Ann Rombold Zeigenfuse, LVT, has been working with dogs and their owners for over 40 years. She runs Best Friends Obedience in Lexington, KY.

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