Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cross Training

Sometimes I wonder if I am actually doing my dogs a disservice by training multiple sports with them instead of focusing in on one.  I have thought about this a great deal, and there are certain benefits and particular drawbacks to cross training multiple sports.

The Benefits

1.  Variety of Skills

Training in multiple sports produces a dog who has a wide variety of skills.  While many sport skills do transfer and overlap from one sport to another, some are particular to a certain discipline.  Where a dog will primarily build skills on the left side of the handler through Rally, the dog will become adept at working on the right through Freestyle.  Where a dog will learn to work close to the handler in Rally and Freestyle, the dog will learn to work more independently at a distance in Agility.

A dog who trains in 2 or more sports will be far more well-rounded in skill than a dog who trains exclusively in one.

2.  Overlap of Skills

Many skills transfer from one sport to another.  Pivots, which are a set exercise in Rally, can become a dance move in Freestyle, and can serve to build hind end awareness for Agility.  A Freestyle switch can serve as a foundation for switch in Agility.  Dean has actually done very little formal study of Rally.  Almost all of his Rally skills came through Freestyle.

I have often been surprised at the way that some skills can transfer from one sport to another.

3.  Physical Balance

When training in multiple sports, the dog is highly unlikely to get into a physical rut of the same repetitive movement.  I have heard that some dogs develop issues later in life after many years of training in Obedience due to always walking on the left side of the handler with eyes raised toward the handler.  In Agility, the dog gets the opportunity to run straight ahead, eyes on the equipment.  Freestyle balances heelwork between the left and the right, and incorporates physical twists and turns that break up the straight forward movement.  I started some Freestyle with Maddie later in her life to improve her physical conditioning for Agility and it was very beneficial to her.

4.  More Fun

I enjoy doing different things with my dogs, and my dogs seem to enjoy doing different things with me.  Tessa seems to like the variety that she experiences bouncing back and forth between Rally FrEe and Agility.  She loves trying out new tricks and learning new moves.  She also enjoys Agility skill drills.  If she doesn't like mixing her activities up, she is a very good little actress because it really seems that she revels in getting out in the ring to do different things.

5.  More Confidence and Relationship Building

This goes along with variety of skills, but I have found that the more I do with my dogs, the more confident they become, and we develop a closer bond through the experience.  I can't say that wouldn't happen if we were focused only on one sport, but it does seem that mastery of many skills, and different experiences in the ring, do seem to provide confidence building opportunities that a single sport might not.

The Drawbacks

1.  Jack of all Skills, Master of None . . . 

With a limited amount of training time, true mastery of higher level skills does seem to suffer when that time is distributed among many different behaviors and exercises instead of honing in on a more limited amount.  I know there are excellent trainers out there who do help their dogs achieve a high level of mastery of complex skills between different sports, but it does seem that the vast majority of "the greats" do tend to choose one sport to focus in on.

If I made a list of all of the skills that I would like to train Dean and Tessa to execute with a high level of competency, it would actually prove to be an impossible list to complete.  That often leaves me with the choice of training more skills to a lower level of capability, or letting some skills go to improve upon others.  And sometimes I decide one way and sometimes I decide the other, but the bottom line is that it will never all get done.  I will always have to make these kinds of choices.

2.  A Tough Mental Game

Sometimes I find it difficult to switch, mentally, between one sport and another.  Sometimes I get "in the zone" with Agility and that is pretty much all I want to do.  But a Freestyle competition is coming up and I need to break away mentally and prepare for that.  Or, I get into Freestyle mode, and switching over to Agility is difficult.

I know that part of the disconnected feeling that I experienced at Periland this weekend was caused by the fact that I have not yet mentally come back to earth after the Rally FrEe competition.  Tessa and I were able to muddle through the Agility trial on the skills that we have, but I couldn't conjure up the focus that I had at Westminster.

I'll get back there.  We have two more Agility trials coming up in May and I am fairly certain that I will get my brain back to where it needs to be.

I have to wonder if my dogs experience anything similar . . . 

3.  Limited Competition Resources

Competitions and trials cost money.  There are entry fees, travel costs, and only so many weekends that can be set aside for dog events.

When splitting those resources between two, or more, sports, and sometimes even between venues within those sports, icing can end up being spread think over a large cake.  With less opportunities to qualify, there is less opportunity to earn titles.

Maybe Maddie and I could have earned her CATCH had I not taken some of her potential Agility weekends to do Freestyle with Speedy, or Rally with Dean.  Who knows?  Maybe not, but we may well have gotten further along than we did.

Because I compete in multiple sports, I tend to minimize my participation on competition weekends to save time and money.  I will often enter only one day of a trial, as I did at Periland this weekend, and only run once or twice.  I almost never attend both days of a Freestyle competition, and I will probably only attend one day of future Rally FrEe events in Altoona.

To get to the higher levels, you need more than skill - you have to set aside the resources to attend enough events to climb up through the ranks.  Since I divide my competition time between several sports, I don't allow as much time for this as I would if I were focused in on one sport.

So, to some extent, I do trade the opportunity to get to the higher levels faster for the chance to enjoy different things.  I may be at the lower levels doing those different things, but I am able to enjoy more than one activity.  To me it is a worthwhile trade.

In Conclusion

Whether or not to cross train and compete in multiple sports across multiple venues is a highly individual choice.  I can understand why some people choose to focus in only one one competitive sport.  At the same time, I have come to the conclusion over and over that, in spite of the drawbacks, of which I am very, very aware, it is just way too much fun to participate in Freestyle and Agility, along with some Rally, and now in Rally FrEe, to cut any one out.

And so we will continue . . . .



  1. I found your blog via the bordercollie.org forums, and I'm enjoying your posts.

    I have one of those "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" type of dogs with my Aussie. I don't regret it for a second. She's my first performance dog, and has been an excellent introduction into just about anything that struck my fancy, be it agility, obedience, rally, freestyle, disc, flyball, tricks, public performance events...

    She'll never have that flash of a Border Collie on an agility course, or the happy intensity of a sport Golden Retriever in an obedience ring but the skills she's learned along the way have proved to be very versatile. I also find myself going through phases where I lose interest in one sport and get intense about another which I subsequently lose interest in and get intense about yet another... Apparently I'm fickle, and having some flexibility has been great.

    I've vowed to always put obedience style titles on a dog who participates in sports if only to even them out a bit. I know too many flyball dogs who know nothing more than how to run to the box and back. I need to live with my dog in the 95%+ of the time when we're not sporting/training and it's in my best interest to have as well rounded a dog as possible.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment! I'm glad you are enjoying the posts!

    And I agree - a well rounded dog is definitely a joy to have in everyday life!