So... You think you want a working dog?
You have been bitten. You’ve been bitten by the dog training bug, and you have decided to take the plunge and buy a working dog. Maybe you want to compete in Agility, or Dock Diving. Perhaps it’s a biting sport like Schutzhund, Mondioring, or Frenchring. Your ambitions are high and your enthusiasm is wide. You’ve read the books and seen the pictures. You’ve spent hours on YouTube.com. You’re confident and up for the challenge.
Stop right here! Adding a working dog to your life is a major decision! It will be a reality for the next 10 to 12 years, and it will remain a part of you for the rest of your life.
I did it. I bought a Belgian Malinois puppy. I bought a Belgain Malinois puppy from the best working stock, from the most highly regarded trainer in the United States. I bought Haiku du Loups du Soleil as a working dog to compete in Mondioring. Haiku is not only an athlete and a genius, but also an adrenaline junky. I have had her for nearly 7 years now, and have already come to some realizations that I would like to share with others considering adding a working dog to their lives:
The first question one needs to ask oneself before getting a working dog is, “Am I a morning person?” Working dogs are genetically encoded for high energy levels. These levels are called drive. There are different kinds of drives, but suffice it to say working dogs all have one drive in common – 6th gear, full speed ahead! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYnEePO3NO0
This high-octane activity starts as soon as the dog wakes up, and continues until they are put to bed (notice I said ‘put to bed’ as one of these dogs would never choose to sleep on their own accord).
As a working dog owner, you need to be prepared to exhaust your dog’s energy, as well as a great deal of your own. Do you work eight hours a day? You can easily tack on an extra four hours of dog-work (cleaning, feeding, training and exercise) just trying to care for and ‘take the edge off’ your drivey companion. Competing with your dog will comprise about 5% of your time as a dog and handler team. The rest of the time, you must live with the beast.
Exercising and training is tough to do in the house, especially if you value its contents. The second question you need to ask yourself is, “Do I enjoy the snow, the sleet, the sun, the rain, the heat, the hail, the humidity, the dry air, the pollen, and the cold?” You have invested in an energizer bunny. It keeps going, and going, and going. Your working dog cares not about the weather, so neither shall you.
Schlepping rain-gear, snow-gear, layers of clothing, sunscreen, and dog-training gear is a regular part of your day. Let us assume that you have the space (in the car, in the house, in the garage, and in the closet trickling out into the hallway) for all of this ‘dog gear,’ often lumped into the category of crap.
So, now you are full of crap, and have accepted that schlepping and working is a part of your new life because you are focused on the end-goal. Are you patient enough to understand there’s a long road in between? It takes years to master any skill, and there are two parties participating in the learning during dog training. It takes practice to perfect your communication with your dog, and your dog needs thousands of repetitions of all of the new skills you are trying to teach it.
Be prepared to work long, uncomfortable, frustrating hours with your working dog. Bernard Greenhouse, a world renowned professional Cellist at Julliard, was once asked “At 93 years old, why do you still practice Cello two hours a day?” Bernard replied, “Because I’m finally starting to see some improvement.” Studies show that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to master anything – piano, ice skating, chess, even criminal behavior. Dog training is no different. You must practice and practice and practice. Therefore, the next question you ask yourself is, “Can I make time?”
All of this early-riser-dog-work-practice-schlepping-crap stuff is stressful! It’s best to take a Freudian approach and share your misery with others. Ask yourself “What human relationships do I need to form to be successful?” Get involved with other like-minded individuals. Join a training group or a club. Most of the skills taught in any dog sport require more than one set of hands, and eyes. It is much easier to stay on track and accomplish your goals if you have some help.
Speaking of help, no matter how much you promise, or how hard you try, going it alone with your working dog is impossible if you have a family.
Aaron Myarcle put it best on a web-board “Do you have the family support? The kind of support that isn't going to roll its eyes or make snide remarks as you leave for yet another Saturday at the club, when the kid has a ball game or the spouse would rather you be doing yard work? Do you have the kind of spouse that understands that the dog is the first priority after the kids, but before seeing that new movie, or going out to dinner, or having a BBQ with the neighbors? The kind of spouse who will consider it the child's fault for breaking the ‘no running when the puppy is in the yard’ rule, instead of the puppy for pouncing on said running child? The kind of spouse who isn't going to say ‘Why do we even have a dog if the kids can't play with it’ after the ten millionth time you have to remind the kids to stay away from the dog's crate/kennel, or leave the dog alone when it's sleeping? To quit petting the dog, it's had enough? And that’s just dealing with the family....”
What about John Q. Public?
"IS THAT A BELGIAN MAL-I-NOISE? Can I pet it? My neighbor is a cop and he has one."
Sure, you can molest my bite-trained Mondioring 3 dog, no problem. You should kiss her. No really, right on the nose. NOT!!
The dogs you admire, you know, the ones on Youtube.com; Those dogs were raised by someone providing the dedication, and leadership necessary to achieve their goals. Chances are they did not allow anyone who wasn’t directly participating in a training exercise, or under strict instruction, to pet that cute little puppy. That means no playtime at the dog park, or pats by the neighbors on walks. Do you like to repeat yourself? Before you get your working dog, you should practice saying “No, you cannot pet my dog, he's in training….” about 200 times per day.
Another exercise you can practice and repeat often is reaching in to your wallet, pulling out a crisp $20.00 bill, and handing it to the nearest bystander. Let’s put aside food and vet bills for a moment, and strictly discuss the ‘working’ aspect of your new dog. Entering a Dock-Diving competition (one entry) costs $25, as does any Agility competition. A Schutzhund or Mondioring competition entry typically costs around $75. Most titles require several (usually 3) qualifying scores under different judges. Club memberships cost money. Hiring a trainer costs money. That crap you’re now full of, costs BIG money. Every dog sport has it’s specialized equipment.
Now go ahead and factor in your food and vet costs. Your energizer bunny is likely to hurt itself, as it has little regard for personal safety. Irregular heartbeats, palpitations, and sucking wind in terror are part of my daily routine with Haiku as I watch her fall, tumble, stumble, spin, spring, bonk, leap, and juke through her life, at 7 years old.
Athletes have special nutritional requirements, to optimize performance. I buy supplements, and feed a raw, all natural diet. We can split these line items between cost and the ‘crap’ compartment, as there is an entire freezer dedicated to dog food in my garage. And oh ya, that stuff is expensive!
Now that you’ve really thought this through, and you have decided that you are game for early mornings, late evenings, schlepping, burning money, and heart palpitations, I leave you with a Haiku:
There once was a little puppy
Her owner thought very lucky
She spring and she sprung
She worked all day long
And she cost a whole bunch of money.
This puppy’s name was that of a poem
Her handler thought ‘Now I can show ‘em’
A trainer I’ll be
Champion Mondioring 3
Practicing day and night until I’m done-in.