I confess, I love precision. I swoon over a tight finish, precision heeling and beautiful straight fronts. While showy precision is not necessary for service work, there are aspects of competitive dog activities that can compliment the training of a service dog.
From Rally, combinations of different behaviors, pivots, weaves and various obedience cues are all terrific skills for a service dog to practice and these are skills that can help a service dog working in a tight environment. Freestyle, agility and Nosework are all activities that can be fun for service dogs. Trick training can help keep a service dog’s training skills fresh or may even facilitate adding a new task. Classes in dog sports can be a wonderful way for a service dog handler to maintain the dog’s skills over time and even expand on them.
However, there is a caveat, the last thing a service dog with a demanding work schedule needs is additional pressure from a schedule packed in with training classes and competition events. Service dogs that work all day long in complex public settings need unstructured down time. A quiet walk in a park or simply time napping in a comfortable dog bed at home is appropriate down time for a hard working service dog.
As with many things in life, this is not “one size fits all.” Not all service dogs have the same type of day to day routine. Some service dogs perform many tasks throughout the day, some work in complex settings, while others work primarily in the owner’s home or are only needed to assist with activities of daily living for brief periods of time. For a service dog with a demanding schedule, working in complex environments on a daily basis, a class or competitive activity is too much pressure. However, for a service dog with a less demanding daily routine, a group training class or occasional competition event could be beneficial by helping the owner maintain the dog’s training. In addition to the dog’s work demands, additional considerations in selecting “service dog extra-curricular” activities include:
- Is the activity physically risky for the dog? If the answer is yes, consider whether there is a way to reduce the risk, for instance, by lowering a jump.
- Does the activity encourage any behavior that would be unwanted in a service dog? Herding might be fun for some dogs, but it could trigger or encourage stalking, chasing and barking behaviors. As always, this depends on the individual dog. Herding might be a good fit for some service dogs and inappropriate for others.
- Does the training for the activity conflict with the dog’s training as a service dog? For instance, an attention heel that is proofed with all kinds of distractions, should not be trained so solidly that the dog stops performing a needed medical or hearing alert.
- Is the activity accessible for the dog’s owner? If not, can the accessibility of the activity be modified?
- Would the dog genuinely enjoy the activity? If the answer is no, it’s not a good fit.
- Would the owner enjoy the activity? Again, if the answer is no, it’s not a good fit.
An objective perspective can be helpful in making decisions. Dogs just like people, have different preferences at different ages. It is always helpful to step back, look at the dog’s behavior and body language, and periodically re-evaluate to make sure everyone is still, really having fun.
Want to check out a service dog in competition? Here is Mr. Sulu, whose usual routine involves working mostly at my home, in the rally ring: