Dog training provides untraditional entertainment for professors

Anne Osborne

The sharp crack of the teeter-totter slamming to the ground drifts across the grass, swift paws scrabble over the blue and yellow dog-walk.

Over! Here, come! Tunnel, go, go, go! The handler’s quick, cheerful commands are mingled with the sharp barking of her delighted Border Collie. He clears the last jump and in one final bound lands ecstatically in his handler’s arms.

This isn’t football or basketball or any other traditional game. This is the world of canine sports, a world which is oftentimes just as competitive, demanding, rowdy and rewarding as is that of human athletics.

And as is the case with traditional sports, dog activities are beneficial in many ways to the people who participate in them. Alleviating daily stress, the opportunity to stay in shape, the chance to help other people, and the option to have fun are just some of the advantages students can gain via canine sports.

We all need to do things with our lives besides academia, Lee Boyd, Washburn professor of biology, observes, and the training is fun.

Boyd competes in agility, one of the most popular sports in today’s immense variety of dog activities.

Put simply, agility is a course composed of different obstacles through which the handler directs his dog. These obstacles can be anything from a six-foot tall A-frame to a teeter-totter and also include tunnels, tires, weave poles and various types of jumps.

In order to qualify, a dog-handler team must complete each obstacle in the designated course within a set amount of time, Boyd explains. While both speed and accuracy count in agility, the eventual placements are determined by the dogs with the fastest times and the cleanest runs.

It is fast-paced and challenging with lots of calling and clapping on the part of the handler and a fair share of enthusiastic yapping from the dog. Boyd also made the observation that everything about training for agility must be kept positive. There is no other way to teach a dog this sport, and a handler must practice a fun-loving attitude when working at it.

A key component to agility, however, is the handler’s control over the dog. Basic obedience training is a big help if a person wants to run agility, and now handlers have the choice between regular obedience trials and rally obedience. While regular obedience concentrates on precision exercises like scent discrimination and retrieving the correct one out of three gloves, Boyd suggests that rally is perhaps the best sport for dog and owner to begin at the training level.

“One of the very nice things about rally is you can talk to your dog throughout,” said Boyd. “You can’t do that in obedience. But with rally you can pat your leg and coax them and tell them good dog.”

Rally is built around basic obedience exercises such as heeling, staying in the required position, and coming when called. However, like agility rally is also timed and revolves around stations in the ring. The handler must start at the indicated station and then continue through the entire course, completing each task in the correct order. The sign at one station might tell the handler to call the dog, send it around clockwise behind his knees, then to keep walking forward with the dog beside him. Or the handler might have to drop the dog into a down position while he is still walking and go around behind it.

Similar to obedience but with its own variations is the German sport of schutzhund. Mose Hugghis, owner of the Canine Obedience Training Center in Topeka and one-time Washburn student, explains that this activity consists of three trained areas. At each of the three levels of schutzhund, the dog is judged in obedience, tracking and protection skills. It is often associated with the work required of police dogs, the main emphasis being the dog’s ability to protect his handler while remaining under control in potentially violent situations.

Hugghis is quick to clarify, though, that a protection dog is very different than a vicious dog.

Protection is not going out and just biting a person. It is the control that you have with the dog to find a person in the right area.

He adds that once the so-called ‘bad guy’ is found the dog must wait for the command to chase and bite, thus allowing it to apprehend the attacker. The dog must then release its hold on the attacker when told to do so and return to the handler.

Hugghis maintains that there are few if any security systems more dependable than a well-trained dog. His German Shepherd lies attentively close by as Hugghis walks about the room, talking to other people and helping them with their own dogs. The big Shepherd never takes his eyes off of his master but still lies motionless, ready for whatever might come.

Yet Boyd points out that the humans aren’t the only ones who benefit from working with dogs.

“So many dogs were bred to do a job that they don’t get to do in our modern world,” said Boyd. “Working with them gives them something to do, and a tired dog is a good dog. They’re much less likely to get into trouble.”

Specific sports, often tailored to the instinctive talents of only certain breeds, abound in today’s pet-friendly society. Anything from herding trials for the breeds designed to gather and move stock, to earth dog events for most terriers. Each breed has its own original function and a sport that encourages that natural instinct today.

One of these sports has survived the millennia to take a place in modern American canine games. This is lure coursing, once performed with live prey and the intent to put dinner on the king’s table. Today the coursing of sight hounds has been modified to pulleys, a motorized wheel and three plastic trash bags.

Russell Jacobs, a professor of philosophy at Washburn, is actively involved in the sport of lure coursing with his Basenjis.

“Lure coursing is best understood as an artificial way of trying to reproduce the natural coursing of hounds,” said Jacobs. “It is unique in that there’s very little training involved. It’s just the natural chasing instinct of sight hounds.”

Sight hounds, like Whippets and Irish Wolfhounds, hunt by sight rather than by the scent of their prey and are eager to chase anything that moves quickly. Thus, they don’t give a rip whether it’s a racing rabbit or a fluttering garbage bag just as long as they can get out and chase at top speed.

Whether a dog competes in lure coursing, agility or schutzhund, it needs to stay in top condition. Agility requires running and coordination by the handler, and schutzhund can involve an hour or two of walking. Jogging, biking or just walking with a dog are reasonably easy ways to keep both dog and handler fit and trim. And working with dogs often has a good effect on the trainer’s own attitude.

“I talk about the dog competitions as keeping me humble and reminding me of what students go through,” said Boyd. “I was always an excellent student and I never had test anxiety. But I sure do going into the obedience and the agility ring! I have a breed that’s much more difficult to train. I wouldn’t trade them for the world, but they do keep you humble because they make stuff up. They will do things in competition that they’ve never done before or since.”