The dog agility community has recently experienced a tragic event when a judge was badly bitten by a dog in the ring at a trial. This has understandably stirred a strong response and definitely served as a reminder that working and playing with animals is never completely without risk. As an agility judge, a longtime competitor, and a dog trainer with a lot of experience in working with aggressive dogs, I know that there are many different perspectives that you can see this tragedy from.
I completely understand why the judging community has been shaken up by the this event and have a lot of sympathy for the judge who was injured. It was a harsh reminder that this could happen to any of us any time we step into the ring. My background as a dog trainer makes me feel pretty comfortable reading dog body language, but sometimes things happen quickly and there isn’t time to react. I would think that a judge in any sport should be able to tell the difference between a friendly dog thanking the ring crew for volunteering and an aggressive dog who means harm, but still wonder if more time should be spent educating judges about subtle changes in dog body language instead of just how to fill out the incident paperwork if something bad happens. This seems especially important for breed judges, who have to physically touch every dog in their ring.
As a competitor, I am well aware that my breed of choice isn’t what most people would select for an agility dog. Some dog trainers would say that breed doesn’t matter because the laws of learning are the same across species, but if that were entirely true we wouldn’t have so many breeds of dog developed for so many different and really specific purposes- there would have been no need. Yes, reinforcement drives behavior in all breeds, but what each breed finds reinforcing or the hard-wired ways they may respond the the environment is not the same at all. Where this comes into play is that when policies or ideas are introduced about how dogs “should” learn agility, be rewarded for playing, respond to distractions, etc, they are almost always biased towards the herding breeds that dominate the sport. This can result in misunderstanding, judgement, and gatekeeping that can drive people to change breeds or leave the sport entirely.
Here’s the truth from someone who has done agility with the “wrong” kind of dog for a long time- agility is hard, no matter what breed you are running. No one enters trials without training for quite a long time, usually more than a year. It’s also expensive, so there’s not a lot of incentive to enter if you really don’t think your dog is capable of running. Sometimes, really often, dogs do things in trials that they don’t do in training. This may be a result of not being prepared, but can also be because it’s next to impossible to fully recreate the noise, crowds, and overall energy of a trial in a training situation. The way dogs respond to this pressure varies, but if you pay attention you will start to see breed tendencies. Some breeds, like herding dogs, will become more focused on the handler for information. You will see this when Border Collies get “sticky” and creep down contacts or when Shelties spin and bark at their handlers. More independent breeds are likely to respond to pressure by engaging with their environment. This can be sniffing, zooming, or looking for a weak spot in the gate (Alice, I’m looking at you…..). When dogs do this they aren’t necessary trained any worse, less, or even differently than the more handler focused dogs- they are showing you who they are as individuals. Yes, it’s still a training issue to work through, but that doesn’t mean that a dog who leaves work in the face of pressure has no business being at a trial in the first place.
Coming from the perspective as a dog trainer and dog sports instructor, I think it’s important to remember that dog sports are a luxury activity for both humans and dogs. While every dog needs training, not every dog needs to learn a sport and not every dog is behaviorally sound enough to compete. If a person really wants to do sports, there is no reason why they shouldn’t choice a dog based on their goals. Not every dog is going to excel at every activity and many dogs are safer and happier as stay at home pets. I think it’s great that there are more dog sport options than ever, but worry that sports like Fast CAT and scent work have made it too easy to compete with dogs who really aren’t as safe or stable as they should be to attend public events. Yes, instructors can and should encourage students to make the right choices for their dogs and the public. Ultimately though, the decision lies with the owner of the dog. I don’t think there is an instructor out there who can honestly say that all of their students follow all of their advice all of the time. At the end of the day, they are not our dogs, and instructors have to accept that students will sometimes make choices that aren’t what we would do.
I know this probably raises more questions that answers and I really don’t think there is a black and white solution. We all want our sports to be as safe as possible while remaining as inclusive as possible. In general, most humans and dogs are doing the best they can in the situation they find themselves in. Maybe the way to make things better is to simply try to recognize that there is more than one right way to dog things and to find some grace for people who make different choices than we do.