Hey WOOW Fam, today we have something really special for you!
We sat down with Deborah Katz, a retired lawyer, certified yoga instructor, and IGP dog trainer to learn about her journey in training dogs for sport.
It all started with Atena, a dog Deborah rescued on the side of the road. For Atena to recover to full health, Deborah realized, there was an emotional component that needed to be worked on, not just her physical state, which wasn’t in great shape either.
So she hired a trainer that could help her with basic obedience training and gain a better understanding of how dogs communicate with humans and vice versa. This is where things began to unfold.
From there she bought her Border Collie, Catire, to train him for sport. She learned by working with her coach, took courses on how to better understand dog behavior, read books on the subject, and began the process of training Catire to compete.
With her coach, she would meet with him, do exercises with him, and practice them in her own time. She would record herself drilling the exercises he had instructed her to do, send them to him, and would then apply the corrections he would make. But most of all she learned by experience.
Experience taught her that training dogs are a passion that requires sacrificing a lot of time, money, and discipline. The complexity and dedication it demanded motivated her to keep doing it and taking the right steps to get her dogs titled for competition.
“The communication and connection that you create with your dog, though, is what has kept me,” she says.
Today, 9 years from when she rescued Atena, Deborah has trained three dogs, one at a basic obedience level and two for sport. She currently trains Roe, her work of art, to compete at the IGP level.
Training dogs for sport, Deborah tells us, is a process that starts when they are about 7-8 weeks old. Before that, however, two important factors considered in a dog being chosen for work or sport are their bloodline and their breeder. These factors play a major role in determining the capabilities and potential of the dog.
After the breeder and bloodline are accounted for, dogs are evaluated by professionals to see if they have what it takes to be an athlete. Their bite, sense of smell, and temperament/nerve levels are all characteristics that are taken into consideration when evaluating a dog. Whether they can follow your hand and their ability to subordinate to their handler are also important aspects.
“Anybody that wants a dog, whether to train for sport or as a pet, needs to know what their objectives are with the dog”, says Deborah. “If you like to run, and you want a dog to run with you, or if you just want a companion dog to have at home, you have to be clear on your goals to pick a dog whose bed is right for those goals and objectives,” she continues.
Based on that, Deborah explains, you choose the right breed for your goals and you as a type of person. Each dog has their personality, behavior, and temperament, so choosing a dog that matches your goals for that dog, your personality, and the way you will handle them is extremely important.
After you choose the dog that is right for you and you bring them home, you begin the process of accommodation. “For the first weeks of their lives, they were living with their mom and siblings, so when you take them home you are supplementing that relationship,” Deborah tells us.
In dogs intended for sport, you begin training them almost immediately after you bring them home.
“You want them to feel like they are playing and not that you are training them, though, so you reward them with treats when they behave expectedly and don’t when they do not” Rewarding them at the correct time is also extremely important, Deborah teaches us, for them to understand that the reward correlates directly with the expected behavior.
For the first six months, you also feed them from your hand, allowing them to become extremely attached to you. Deborah says, “You create a strong connection with the dog during that time, and you become like a team.”
Slowly, you begin to attach names to the things you are trying to teach them, and the training begins to have structure. After that, you begin implementing the norms of training, such as respecting the handler, not getting bored or distracted, and respecting the field (not pottying on it).
Throughout the initial process, you not only reward their good actions but also their positive attitude. This allows them to understand that a positive attitude gets them rewarded, keeping them motivated.
There are two ways dogs learn, classic conditioning, which is an automatic behavioral response that is associated with a certain stimulus, and operational conditioning, in which the dog learns proper behavior through being rewarded. In the latter method, the dog is discovering for itself what is right and wrong.
To properly train a dog, Deborah explains, you mix both ideologies and use your hand, which should have some sort of stimulant, to “lure” the dog in the direction you want them to go.
Deborah trains her dogs every day for about 20 minutes per session, and sometimes twice per day. If there are other things she needs to work on, like barking on command, for example, she’ll practice that separately about two to three times per week. She gives herself, and her dogs, one day of rest to relax and not burn out.
An obedience trial lasts about 12-15 minutes of focus and concentration. The focus point is the armpit, where the handler holds a ball or another motivator that the dog likes to keep their attention.
Deborah explains that the important part of training your dog's attention is not when you have the ball or motivator under the armpit, but when you don’t. “You need to develop your dog’s commitment to you, not to the reward,” says Deborah. “At first they are there for the reward, but slowly they build the commitment to you, and want to do what they are told for you.”
Concentration is developed stationary, with the dog on your left side, and the motivator in your hand or under the armpit. If the dog gets distracted or turns around while you begin to walk, you correct them and when they do it right, you reward them.
Deborah trains her dogs for the IGP, a three-part competition consisting of tracking, obedience, and protection.
The tracking portion of the competition consists of dogs searching with their nose, the most important organ in their body. Dogs have 200 to 300 million nerve endings in their nose, Humans, in comparison, have about six million.
A dog naturally smells with their nose up in the air. However, for the tracking competition dogs must be trained to dip their nose to find three, small rectangular objects being laid out on the field in a figure predetermined by the judge. The three objects, one made out of leather, one out of carpet, and the other out of wood, contain the smell of their handler. The difference in smell and surface type between the objects and the rest of the field is what the dog must detect.
Once they find it, they must demonstrate it by either lying, sitting, or grabbing it with their mouth and returning it to the handler. The method of indication is informed to the judge before the start of the trial. If the dog is laying to indicate, it cannot touch the object either with the mouth or paws.
The obedience part of the competition consists of multiple parts, one in which the dog and the handler walk together, also known as “heel” or “fuss”. In this part the dog demonstrates changes in velocity, turning in different directions, turning around its own body, and more. There are also exercises in which the dog has to stop, sit or lay immediately on command while the handler continues walking. The last component of the obedience trial is the search and return of a dumbbell that is thrown by the handler. The handler throws the dumbbell, and the dog must run and jump over a bar or slanted wall, and return the same way at the same speed, returning the dumbbell directly in front of the handler.
A well-trained dog will be able to resolve more complex situations. Deborah gives us an example during one of her competitions in which she had thrown a dumbbell which Catire had to jump over the slanted wall and return with the object.
After she had thrown it, the dumbbell hit a rock and landed in an imperfection on the ground where Catire couldn’t find it. He didn’t return to Deborah empty-handed, however. Instead, he looked in circles until he found it, and returned it as he was trained. To this, the judge celebrated Catire’s training and how knew he had to return with something in his mouth, and until he didn't have it he wasn’t going to return.
Lastly, the final component of the competition is protection. At this stage, dogs are evaluated on how they can guard the helper, their bite, their obedience and confidence in themselves, and how they demonstrate aggression. The dog demonstrates aggression by looking at the helper in the eyes, lifting its lips, and showing its fangs.
In this component of the competition the dog demonstrates they can canalize their instincts, by shifting from one instinct to another without any conflicts.
Understanding your dog
“When you have a competition dog, you have to understand that you have an athlete in your home,” says Deborah. They need proper nutrition, vitamins, sleep, and water. They have to be in great condition, and you as a handler have to understand how they are feeling and if they are in good shape to compete.
Like humans, if dogs have any injury or discomfort, they won’t be fit to compete, so knowing your dog and how they communicate through their tail, eyes, ears, and attitude in a normal state is important in understanding when they are in discomfort.
Handlers and/or trainers must also make sure the dog is in their best health by taking them to the vet to get yearly blood tests, making sure they have all the right vaccines, and ensuring they are protected against worms and fleas, etc.
Dogs are incredible, intelligent animals that provide their service to humans in various areas: sport, medicine, military, police, search and rescue or just as friends and companions within our homes. They provide unconditional love and support, at times when nobody else does. Because of this, we should always treat them with the respect, love, and care that they deserve.