Training as Enrichment

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by Emily Fisher, CPDT-KA Scratch and Sniff Canine Services, Guelph

How much fun is teaching a dog not to jump on people, to get off the couch, and to stay off the counters? How about the stress of living with and training a reactive, aggressive, or fearful dog?

Dog training is too often seen as a chore, or even as optional. There’s a whole world beyond puppy socialization and basic manners. Training should be engaging and entertaining for both you and your dog, giving each of you critical skills in inter-species communication.

Enrichment is critical for all dogs, and positive training can play a crucial role in providing this for them. Mentally active dogs are happy dogs! Providing your dog with enrichment toys, such as Kongs and Nina Ottosson puzzle toys, is an excellent strategy to relieve boredom, but it doesn’t compare to the relationship-building that happens when you are actively engaging your dog in training.

The best training is based in the dog working to gain something they want to have. That could be treats, toys, or even access to another activity they want to engage in. Training that is based in stopping a dog’s behaviour tends to be stressful and frustrating for a dog, shutting them down, and doesn’t act as enrichment. Look for a sport or activity that your dog seems to take particular joy in. That could be because they inherently enjoy the process, or it could even be that they were bred for that purpose.

There are many different activities you can get your dog involved in, and some will require you to be far more involved than simply going to a single training class. Here are a few that most owners haven’t heard much about:

Scent Detection

You can train your dog in scent detection just for enrichment, for competitive sport, or even as a career (for example, bed bug sniffing). You will teach your dog to look for a specific odour and then “indicate” to you that they have found it, for example, by sitting in front of the location of the odour. The great thing about this sport is that it requires very little space and can be trained in your living room.

Tracking

Tracking is similar to scent detection in that it involves using scent to find something, be it a track or an item. A tracking dog will learn to use scent to follow a trail a person has travelled, and the dog will “indicate” dropped items in a similar way to a scent detection dog. Tracking requires a larger outdoor space in which to train.

Treiball

Treiball is a relatively new sport that looks like a combination of herding and soccer. Dogs are directed from a distance to move several large exercise balls across a playing field into a goal net. Any breed or type of dog can participate in Treiball, not only herding breeds.

Herding

Many breeds of dogs have been bred specifically for herding ability. They will move livestock such as sheep, goats, and cattle across distances and can separate individuals for vetting or other procedures. The best candidate for herding will of course be a herding breed; however, many non-herding types have successfully been taught to herd livestock. The major difficulty with herding is finding access to livestock and a knowledgeable instructor to ensure safe, happy dogs and livestock.

Rally Obedience

Rally is a great introduction to obedience sports without the same pressure of competitive obedience. Rally is frequently taught in group-class formats and can be structured as anything from a fun sample class to building a solid foundation for competition. Owners and dogs learn various obedience movements with the goal of navigating a course of 20-plus signs that indicate which movements to complete. The stations are primarily obedience based but include aspects of agility as well.

Tricks

Tricks is a broad topic and can be anything from a simple paw shake to a walking hand-stand. Tricks are too often “poo-pooed” as being silly and unnecessary, when they are actually an excellent way to teach (and learn!) training skills without the pressure of competition, manners, or formal obedience. When you think about it, everything we teach our dogs is “just a trick” in their mind! If you are stuck in a rut tricks can make training fun again. Did you know that you can even get titles in trick training?

Freestyle

Freestyle looks like a combination of obedience, tricks, and crazy dance moves. Owners will teach the tricks they want to include and then put together a routine to music to show off the dog’s ability to chain multiple tricks together in one fluid performance. There’s so much room for creativity in freestyle!

Rally FrEe

Rally FrEe is an up-and-coming new sport that combines rally and freestyle. A course is assembled with signs at each station indicating which movement is required. Unlike rally, it incorporates movements that would traditionally be used in trick training or freestyle rather than obedience.

Skijoring/Bikejoring/Urban Mushing

These sports are great for the great outdoors enthusiasts among us, both human and canine. These are particularly good options for dogs who are bred for running and pulling. The dog is hitched to a bike, scooter, or a person on skis and learns to take direction as they pull their owner. It’s critical to have a properly fitted harness that is designed for pulling.

Carting/Weight Pull

These are two different sports involving teaching a dog to pull heavier weights, either dead weight or a cart. As with the last sport, it is critical to have an expertly fitted harness that is specially designed for pulling heavy weights. There’s significant risk of injury if an improperly designed or fitted harness is used on a dog pulling significant weight.

Are you excited to try a new activity with your dog? Contact your local positive-reinforcement trainer about classes, or search the web for a local organization for the sport that interests you.