When the Collars Come Off: Dog Sports, Egos and the Struggle for Power

“It just doesn’t seem like he really likes his dog, “ I said as the trainer moved rigidly and robotically in sync with the dog at the end of his leash. They were practicing a precise heel, and as they moved through the exercises, the trainer rarely celebrated his dog’s success. Instead, he focused most of his attention on correcting the dog’s mistakes.

Meanwhile, I was frolicking in the ocean with my dog, laughing loudly as he bounded through the waves. I threw the ball, we played, and as we did, we tuned out the world around us.

Granted, I have been accused of liking my dogs too much. But that’s beside the point.

Anyways, every time I saw this particular trainer, he was practicing rigid obedience. He was stoic as he moved, posture stiff and erect, tone steady and somewhat ominous.

Shep 2
Photo credit @ Frank Wisneski http://www.BlackDogsRule.com

The dog moved next to him like a robot. He wasn’t happy. He wasn’t sad. He wasn’t anything really. A pair of unfeeling, unemotional robots moving in sequence in front of me.

 

There were rewards. But they were lackluster. And the two never played….I mean, REALLY played. They just moved together. Day in and day out. Heeling, sitting, downing. Rewards were applied quietly and rigidly. And corrections were doled out in the same monotonous manner.

Outside of the routine, he didn’t engage much with the dog. He always seemed stiff. Void of feeling or emotion. Never letting his guard down.

In fact, I came to find out that, like many competitors in their sport, the trainer opted not to spend time with his dog outside of prepping for trial. Their relationship consisted of nothing but their sport and their training. And that was all the dog knew.

Occasionally, I saw the dog swing away from his handler in avoidance, the holes in their relationship showing through their robotic routine. A glimpse of emotion clawing its way to the surface in an otherwise emotionless exercise.

I watched them out of the corner of my eye as I loaded my dog in his transport kennel, shifting my attention to my other dog who had been waiting so impatiently for his turn to play. As I approached, he began to wag his tail, the kennel rocking wildly as he did. He spun frantically, brimming with anticipation for what would come next.

I opened the crate door and he waited, pulsing with energy, struggling in that moment to hold the down stay that was commanded of him. With my word, he launched out of the crate, his feet hitting the ground with force, his gaze fixed on me as he nearly crawled out of his own skin with excitement.

We weaved obedience commands in and out of play and games. He was so engaged in what we were doing, he could have cared less about the rest of the world around him. I was his world, our game was his world. This was a stark contrast to his rigid counterpart who moved so methodically up and down the beach. My dog was excited, perhaps too excited at times, and instead of swinging away in avoidance, he consistently punched his toy into me, begging me to play and getting a bit pushy with his demands.

I celebrated him. Snapped photos of his amazing self as I’m so smitten with his face, I can’t help but fill my phone with photos of it. I cheered him on as he swam out to retrieve the toy, and he returned to me with speed, brimming with pride as I celebrated his awesomeness.

The contrast between my dog and the other trainer’s dog was startling.


When did dog sports become so ego driven?

Alright, here’s the rub. As I watch dogs and their handlers day in and day out, I often find myself wondering, when did dog sports become about handler’s egos? I see it all too often. Handler after handler, not seeming to actually enjoy their dog, walks robotically onto the training field to practice their rigid routine. Handler after handler treating their dog like a means to a trophy. Handler after handler, caring more about the next title than the dog that will get them there. Handler after handler participating in dog sports for their own ego and need for recognition.

As such, I see dogs forced to sit in crates or runs all day, never allowed to really live life and just be a dog, but instead living only to compete. I see dogs who are coerced into working, who don’t pulse with energy for the work but only know it as a way of life. A job. Their crate becoming a metaphorical cubicle, and the training field becoming the office that they go to not by choice, but out of necessity.


“We need to shift from control centric to an empowerment centric culture,” my colleagues regularly coach as they visit organizations to teach about leadership development.

It’s no secret that I work with former Navy SEALs teaching leadership and behavior change to organizations and individuals.

As they teach people how to empower their workers, my mind often drifts to the dogs that I watch on the training field day in and day out.

We regularly coach people about the suffocating of innovation that occurs in a control centric environment. In such settings, power resides with a manager, and the manager does everything he can to protect that power. As a result, mistakes are frowned upon and punished, fingers are pointed, and blame is placed. And as a result, innovation is suppressed. Sound like anyone you know on the training field?

Alternatively, my colleagues teach that in an empowerment centric organization, innovation thrives because power is multiplicative, being shared by those that have the most influence – the workers. Mistakes are celebrated as learning opportunities, and employees are confident and continually encouraged.

I often think about dogs competing in high level sports when I hear this portion of the talk. I think back to handlers who seek to control the dog at the end of their leash. I think of the handlers who think that their dog’s mistake is a direct threat to their authority, and the training process becomes a power struggle. And then, in contrast, I think about those dogs whose owners seek to empower them. Those handlers who realize that their success or failure in trial depends wholeheartedly on the dog at the end of their leash. Those handlers who realize that the dog controls everything. And those who seek to empower the dog to make the right choices.

A stark contrast in ideologies that so very well illustrates the power struggles that plague high level competitive dog sports, as well as so many other arenas of our society and culture.


Now I’ll warn you that I swing FAR in the direction of empowerment. Perhaps a bit too far. I have no problem admitting it. Like I said before, perhaps I like my dogs a bit too much.

These control-centric relationships between dog and handler have become an epidemic in dog sports, and more specifically in protection sports. When the dog’s success has a direct effect on his handler’s ego, and training becomes a struggle for power and control, it’s time to reevaluate. This is a sad shift in the sport that results in the destruction of the relationships trainers work so hard to build.


I hate to break it to you but….

At the end of the day, your dog holds all of the power. In trial, your leashes and collars will come off. In trial, when your dog is 30 feet from you, you can’t control anything. In trial, your dog has to make decisions in the moment. Your dog is the one that has the power to dictate your success.

Yes, you must have influence over your dog. And yes, your dog must respect your wishes. I’m not getting all rainbows and butterflies on you. But I am saying that if you think you are in control, you’ve got a big surprise coming.

Relationships are important. And without a solid relationship, I guarantee you’ll struggle through your entire competitive career.

In fact, I’ve watched control centric, ego driven competitors regularly struggle on the trial field, attempting each leg of their respective sport over and over again as their dog makes the wrong choices. I’ve watched them become flustered and angry, and I’ve seen them take it out on their dogs.

But who is really to blame?


You don’t have to swing so far into empowerment centric dog training as I do. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it. But you shouldn’t be in the sport if you don’t love your dog and enjoy spending time with them. To be clear, dog training shouldn’t be a way to stroke one’s ego. Controlling the dog at the end of your leash shouldn’t be your goal. In fact, having a dog is a wonderful gift. It shouldn’t be taken for granted as simply a means to an end, as a way to make a name for yourself, a way to feed your ego, or a way for you to get attention or recognition.

Step onto the field for the right reasons, and have respect for the dog at the end of your leash. Only through the foundations of a relationship built upon trust and respect will your training truly thrive. So be willing to relinquish some control. After all, your dog is the one calling the shots when the collars come off.

Article by, Megan Karnes

Courtesy “The Collared Scholar” April 27.2016