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Dog Sports: tracking, field trials, obedience, sledding, shutzhund

For thousands of years dogs have lived in a close working relationship with people. Whether working sheep on the farm, retrieving game for the hunter or keeping rats in check at home, the dog was a constant companion with a job to do.

In the last few decades however dogs have been facing a serious employment crisis. Skills that have been selectively bred into dogs are no longer in demand. The result? A lot of keen-to-work dogs but no jobs and, as with humans, unemployment easily leads to problems of boredom, misbehaviour and obesity. The solution? Dog sports!

Today, there are a myriad of dog sports to choose from that can provide not only the mental and physical stimulation your dog so desperately needs but also the foundation for a special relationship that comes from learning to work together for a common goal.

Competitive Obedience Trials

The stated aim of obedience competition is to demonstrate the usefulness of the dog as the companion and guardian of man (Rules for the conduct of Obedience Trials ANKC 2000). The dog and handler progress through a series of prescribed tests increasing in difficulty from Novice, through Open to Utility level. All tests are scored out of a possible 200 points with a score of 170 or higher required to qualify. Three qualifications are required at each level to successfully gain the obedience title.

The Novice test consists of:

  • Heel on lead (includes sit, stand & down) 30 points
  • Stand for Examination 20
  • Heel off lead (includes sit, stand & down) 40
  • Stand Stay 20
  • Recall 30
  • 1 minute sit (in a line of dogs owner at a distance) 30
  • 3 minute down (in a line of dogs owner at a distance) 30

Total 200

As the dog and handler progress through the classes, the dog is required to do more advanced work. In Open, all heel work is off lead, the dog is required to retrieve a dumbbell on the flat and over a jump, to drop when running on a recall and perform longer sit and down stays with the owner out of sight. In the Utility class the dog may be required to find a dropped article, send away from the owner, use scent to retrieve specific articles, respond to hand signals only, close and at a distance, refuse offered food without the handler looking, and speak on command. Successful completion of each class gains a different title which is then permanently recorded on the dogs pedigree or registration papers. The Novice Test gains the Companion Dog Title, the Open Test gains the Companion Dog Excellent Title and the Utility Test gains the Utility Dog Title. Outstanding obedience dogs attaining repeatedly high scores may also gain an Obedience Champion title.

Getting Started:

Competitive obedience is a well organized activity throughout Australia and New Zealand and indeed around the world. Join any dog training club and chances are they will automatically begin teaching you the basic requirements for obedience trialling. (See useful contacts). As dog training clubs use volunteer instructors costs are kept to a minimum and this is probably as inexpensive a sport as you will find in today's world. Equipment is also minimal. A good, non-slip pair of shoes, a dog, a collar and a lead are all you really need to get you started in Novice level. A few inexpensive retrieve articles are required in Open and Utility but the necessary jumps are generally provided by the clubs.

Competition

Obedience competitions are conducted under the auspices of the Australian National Kennel Council and their affiliated State bodies. (See useful contacts). You must be a financial member of your State Canine Council to compete and your dog must also be registered with them. Pure bred dogs are listed on a Main Register while most State Councils have a Supplementary Register for neutered, crossbred dogs enabling them to participate in obedience competitions also. Advertisements for trials normally appear six weeks before the event in The Council's monthly magazines and must be entered on official entry forms.

Gaining even the Novice, Companion Dog Title is a big challenge and achievement for many people. Others get hooked on the sport and set their sights on the highest accolade: an Australian Obedience Champion title. Top obedience competitors spend long hours in training and often have private coaches to help them perfect their performances. Points are lost not only for failing to complete a command but for minor imperfections in heel position or speed of performance. Strict rules apply to conduct in the ring including the limited use of voice and signals including praise. But for those who love the sport these rules only add to the challenge and the satisfaction of a well executed test always striving for that rare but possible perfect score of 200 -a living testament to a perfect understanding between handler and dog. Suitable for: any breed with owners who enjoy training and striving for perfection.

Dog Dancing

Dog dancing or canine musical freestyle as it is officially known, is one of the newest canine sports to reach our shores. Imagine the basic heeling skills acquired for an obedience test, add some imaginative spins and turns, put it all to music and soon you're dancing with your dog!

Dog dancing has grown quickly as a demonstration sport because of its obvious spectator appeal. Whenever dogs are asked to put on a show such as at nursing homes, hospitals, schools, council days and fetes - a dog dance is an obvious inclusion.

Getting started

Any breed or cross breed of dog is suitable for dancing just as long as you choose music that suits your dogs individual personality and movement. The great thing about dog dancing is that you can't really make any mistakes as long as you and your dog are having fun. While a few instructors and clubs are beginning to offer lessons, for most people its going to be a matter of checking out Freestyle websites on the internet, buying videos and simply playing around with dog dance steps. Pal up with a fellow dog dance enthusiast and you can work together, critiquing each others routine. Alternately plan a group dance. Working together is a great way to build skills and confidence, provides a support network to keep you practicing and enhances the fun/social aspect of the sport. Country western dances, square dances and line dances are all great places to start and can often be done on lead for dogs with less advanced training.

Perhaps the most important element of your routine will involve choosing the right music. Listen to lots of different types of music from the classics to movie favourites to modern chart toppers. As you listen, move with your dog to see how the music fits. The next step is to make a list of behaviours your dog can do such as heel work left and right, spin, bow, walk on hind legs whatever. Is there a special trick or behaviour that would look great you could add to your dogs repertoire? Link the behaviours with movement around the arena and soon your choreography will begin to take shape. You can add variety to your routine simply by altering the direction of the behaviour - either forward, backward, parallel to your side, diagonally or circular rather than linear. Let your imagination run wild! Don't be in a hurry to link all your skills and movements together with your dog until you've perfected everything separately.

The final step is to consider your costume and/or any props you may need. Your outfit should enhance the story of your dance but neither costume nor props should overpower the movement and flow of the dance.

Competitions

Most countries recognize two flavours of dog dancing, Heel work to Music and Canine Freestyle. Heel work to Music is a direct descendant of traditional obedience put to music with an emphasis on precision heeling. Although there are no prescribed movements the dog predominantly stays in heel position only leaving the handler momentarily to perform twists and turns. While Freestyle also incorporates traditional obedience as its foundation, choreography is bound only by the handler's imagination and creativity and the abilities and safety of the dog/handler team. The dog may work at any distance from the handler and perform any jumps, tricks or manoeuvres which are in keeping with the music.

Both Heel work and Freestyle are judged out of a perfect score of 10 on Technical Merit and Artistic Impression. The emphasis is on the athleticism and artistry of the dog and handler working as a team in rhythm and harmony to the music. Dogs who achieve a certain standard will be granted titles such as Musical Freestyle Dog, Musical Freestyle Excellent and Musical Freestyle Masters.

Suitable for:all breeds with owners who love music, dance, creative training and having fun with their dog.

Retrieving Trials

Many of our most popular breeds today were first developed as hunting companions. The coincidence is not too surprising when one considers that many of the traits needed in a good gun dog are also useful in a family pet such as an even temperament, sociability to other dogs and people, a willingness to work, a soft mouth and a desire to fetch and carry.

Field trials carry on the tradition of hunting live game with dogs. Different breeds of gun dogs are tested for their individual skills. For instance the main function of pointers and setters is to search the ground and point or freeze when the quarry is spotted alerting the hunter. Spaniels are most often used to flush out game from rougher scrub and work closer to the hunter. Labradors and golden retrievers traditionally are bird dogs willing to jump into freezing water to retrieve shot game in a soft mouth that will not bruise the eventual gourmet meal.

Hunting was once a regular part of life for many people but changes in Gun and Conservation Regulations have taken their toll on the number of participants and ease of organizing this traditional sport. Regulations vary from State to State so if you are interested in Field Trials contact the ANKC to track down your regulating body. If you like the idea of being out in the field with your retriever but the idea of actually hunting isn't quite your scene, there are other options you and your dog may enjoy.

Gun dog Working Tests

Gun dog working tests are the simplest retrieving tests often put on by dog training clubs or gun dog breed clubs in conjunction with shows. They are designed to test the natural retrieving instinct and basic obedience of gun dogs Using whistle, voice or hand signals, the Novice dog must heel, sit stay, come when called and retrieve a dummy or pigeon at a distance of 50 meters. In Open level, the dog must also sit, stand or drop when asked to do so at a distance of up to 30 meters, retrieve two thrown objects plus a third blind retrieve meaning that the dog does not see the dummy fall and must search and/or be directed to it by the handler.

Non-slip retrieving Trials

Non-slip just means the dog is off lead. These retrieving trials aim to emulate hunting conditions as close as possible; however their focus is on the work of the dog. Guns loaded with blanks are used to maintain the prevention of gun shyness developing in the breeds and also to test that a dog doesn't breaks early on the gun rather than on the handlers command. Dead pigeons substitute for live game and are provided by the organizing club.

According to the Rules for the Conduct of Non-slip Retrieving Trials for Gun dogs published by the ANKC a good retriever should:

Seek and retrieve fallen game, when ordered to do so. He should sit quietly with handler or in the blind, walk at heel or assume any station designated by his handler until sent to retrieve. When ordered a dog should retrieve quickly and briskly without unduly disturbing too much ground, and should deliver, tenderly to hand. He should then await further orders.

These trials are of a much higher standard than Gun dog Working Tests involving greater distances, rougher ground and water retrieves. Gun dogs may start competing as young as six months eventually advancing through three levels Novice, Restricted and All Age - with the ultimate aim of becoming a Retrieving Trial Champion.

Retrieving Terminology

  • Single mark Retrieve - where only one object is thrown to be retrieved
  • A Double Mark Retrieve -2 retrieves which may include land and water.
  • A Blind Retrieve -where the dog cannot see the object fall before being sent to retrieve.
  • Decoy - plastic or painted wood left in the retrieve area as a decoy which must NOT be retrieved by the dog.
  • Firing Point -the point where the handler fires a gun and directs the dog retrieve
  • A Stake is a competition consisting of at least 3 retrieves (except a Puppy Stake which consists of 2).
  • A Water Test consists of 2 retrieves 1 from water and 1 across water.
  • Breaking - a dog that starts to retrieve before being told to so by the handler.

Getting Started

Field trials, Gun dog tests and Non-slip Retrieving Trials are open to all gun dog breeds such as pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers. Contact the Australian National Kennel Council to find your nearest training club.

Suitable for: Gun dog breeds only. Owners who like to spend time in the great outdoors and like to watch their dogs doing what they were bred to do.

MUSHING/SLED DOG RACING

Mushing is derived from a French word meaning to 'march' but in Australia this sport is referred to as sled dog racing. Dogs have been and still are a viable means of transport in many snow covered environments. From this vital service developed the sport of sled dog racing - the most famous event being the Iditarod held each year in Alaska which covers an astounding 1,150 miles.

The Siberian Husky Club of Victoria was the first to try to bring sled dog racing to Australia in the late 1980s. Unfortunately most of our snowfields are found within National Parks and it became a real struggle to allow dogs into the Parks even under carefully controlled conditions. It became obvious that the sport could only really grow in Australia if dogs could pull their sleds on dirt. By 1990 Australian flavoured sled dog races began shorter sprint type races using lightweight sleds of varying designs over forest tracks.

Getting Started

Although Huskies and Malamutes are the traditional sled dogs any medium sized dog pure bred or mixed breed is welcome to participate. In fact many of the best dogs for the shorter distances are hounds, setters, and pointers perhaps with a northern breed mixed in.

The first step to become a musher or driver is to contact the Australian Sled Dog Sports Association for loads of information on equipment and training. For starters you will need a lightweight sled (such as a scooter or altered bicycle) ,a harness, lines and a helmet and of course at least one willing and fit dog. You'll soon be fit too as the best way to help your dog around a course is to skate similar to a cross country skier with one leg on and off your sled.

Competition

Races are held in the winter months only when temperatures are below 15 degrees Celsius. Races are roughly set at 2km per number of dogs so two dogs would run a 4km race. The main idea is to have fun and people of all ages with all kinds of dogs and sleds take part.

Sled dog Terms:

  • Musher or Driver - a person who runs dogs
  • Track - the trail the dogs run on
  • Lets go! - encouraging the dogs to go!
  • Gee - turn right
  • Haw - turn left
  • On by - go straight ahead and/or leave a distraction

Suitable for: any medium sized athletic dog with an active, fit owner.

Contacts:

Australian Sled dog Sports Association Inc. http://assa.flix.com.au

Sled Dog Central (Australia & N.Z.) http://www.sleddogcentral.com

Schutzhund or Dogsport

Schutzhund began in Germany just over a hundred years ago as a test of the working ability of German Shepherd Dogs. Although schutzhund literally means protection dog, Schutzhund Trials are a complex mixture of skills. In Germany only Shepherds who successfully pass a Level 1 (Novice) , 2 (Intermediate) or 3 (Advanced) Schutzhund Test are bred from. Today, other working/guarding breeds such as Rottweilers, Dobermans and Boxers also participate and competitions are held in many countries around the world. The term Dogsport sometimes replaces the term Schutzhund to better reflect its nature and international popularity.

Schutzhund involves three phases of training and competition:

  1. Tracking -involves the dog following a track of various ages, over mixed terrain, with changes of direction and articles to be found.
  2. Obedience- includes heeling, sit, stand and down, acceptance of a gun shot, retrieve over a one meter jump and a six foot wall, down stays and a long send away.
  3. Protection - involves the dog searching, chasing finding, barking, attacking, holding and releasing the padded sleeve of a trial helper or agitator. The most important feature of the protection work is that the dog remains under the control of the handler at all times and willingly lets go of the agitator when commanded to do so. Protection work is designed to demonstrate a courageous, confident nature which at all times is biddable to the handler's commands and weed out dogs whose temperaments may be fearful, reactive or generally aggressive.

Getting Started

You will need to join a club and receive expert tuition to learn about training your dog for Schutzhund. It is not for weekend warriors interested in personal protection or attack training but rather a complex series of exercises designed to develop a confident, trustworthy and obedient dog.

Contact: The Australian United Sport dog Club http://www.sportdogaustralia.com

Suitable for: Working/guarding breeds and owners who are willing to commit a lot of time to training and are able to take direction.

TRACKING

Tracking is a wonderful sport that utilizes and demonstrates the dogs amazing scenting abilities. Dogs don't really need to be taught to track - they already know how and do it every day on their walks. What they need to be taught is that there are rewards for following the track of our choosing. Handlers need to learn to read their dogs movement so they can understand when the dog is on track, searching, or off track. The novice handlers most common mistake is not to trust their dog and to try to guide their dog instead of following. When it comes to tracking dogs usually nose best!

Getting started

Tracking is run under the auspices of the Australian National Kennel Council so for a club near you check out their website. To get started you will need a tracking harness to fit your dog, a ten meter lead, a couple pairs of old socks, some track markers and a reward such as a toy or container of food waiting for your dog at the end of the track.

Start by having a friend your dog knows hold your dog walk away about 20 feet and hide behind a bush. Let your friend encourage your dog to find you and reward. Next, go about the same distance but swap and let your partner hide. Reward with both the finding of the person and a game or food treat. Continue to use someone your dog knows and likes while slowly increasing the distance. Some dogs will quickly track just for a toy or food reward while others are really motivated by actually finding the person. As your dog learns to understand the tracking game you can start following tracks laid by people your dog doesn't even know.

Competition

Tracking titles are awarded to dogs successfully completing six increasingly difficult test tracks. The day before the tracking trial each track is marked out with coloured flags or markers by an experienced track steward. On the day of the trial each track is walked by a tracklayer who removes the markers and waits with a good book out of sight at the end of the track. After the designated time has elapsed the dog and handler commence their track followed by the Judge and track steward who with the help of a sketch map determine whether the dog and handler are on track.

In all but the first level the dog must track an unknown person. The length of the track increases from 800 meters to 1200 meters as does the number of turns, the angle of the turns and the age of the track up to 3 hours. Decoys are added to the more advanced tracks by having a known person cross the track once or twice after it is set. Natural unplanned decoys also occur such as rabbits, kangaroos and horses capable of distracting all but the most determined trackers! Dogs are required to follow the track precisely cutting across country even if the person is found is not permitted. Some dogs keep their nose low to the ground while others hold their head higher sniffing the air and vegetation above the ground and crossing the track laterally (known as quartering) many times. Weather conditions can also make a difference to the quality of the scent: damp conditions hold scent better than dry ones while windy days can move the scent around. Provided the dog is continually working, variations in tracking style are permissible. Titles gained are Tracking Dog, Tracking Dog Excellent and Tracking Champion.

Suitable for: all breeds many small dogs also excel. Owners who love watching dogs do what comes naturally and enjoy spending time in the bush.

Useful contacts:

Australian National Kennel Council www.ankc.aust.com

New Zealand Kennel Council http://www.nzkc.org.nz

For loads of information on all these activities visit Australia's own Canine Events page www.k9events.com

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This article first appeared in Dogs Life Magazine Nov/Dec 2005 and is reproduced with kind permission of the author, Karin Larsen Bridge, part owner of Get S.M.A.R.T (Successful Motivation And Reward Training) Dogs in Sydney - a dog training school specializing in positive training classes for pet dogs. She is a Delta Accredited Canine Good Citizen (TM) Instructor and writes and lectures frequently on dogs and dog related issues such as positive training methods, behavioural problems and responsible pet ownership.