I gave my working dog a job and it transformed our relationship
Taking my border collie to agility classes strengthened our bond more than I could have imagined
Before I brought home my dog Fenwick, I spent a lot of time deciding what breed would be best for me. I knew that I loved border collies, but I spent a lot of time questioning whether I had the right lifestyle for one. I knew that they’re a breed infamous for needing lots of mental and physical stimulation, but in the end I committed myself to doing whatever I needed to in order to keep my dog happy and mentally and physically healthy.
Unfortunately, this commitment was almost immediately curtailed by Fenwick being ill for extended periods of time as a puppy. After eight months of on-and-off bouts of sickness and total disinterest in food, she was finally diagnosed with a severe chicken allergy - which led us to look into the best dog food for allergies. If you’re ever worrying over the question ‘is my dog sick?’ read this vet’s 10 warning signs.
The damage of not being able to properly socialize or train Fenwick during those formative puppy months had been done. I then had to spend the next year working in conjunction with a behaviorist and a dog trainer to curb Fenwick’s car and dog reactivity. My dreams of taking Fenwick to agility classes were put on hold as I spent countless hours doing all of the socialization that she’d missed as a puppy.
Lara Sorisi is a science-based and force-free dog trainer that has been working with dogs for many years. She is accredited by the APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers), which is one of the most rigorous dog training qualifications available. Lara holds a bronze-level qualification with UK Sniffer Dogs, which means that she is an accredited UK Sniffer Dogs instructor. Lara has trained her own dogs to be trial winners and dedicates her time to helping other dog owners in group and one-to-one sessions.
Finding the right solution for Fenwick
However, at the start of this year my dog trainer Lara Sorisi and I decided that Fenwick was finally ready to attempt a more formal training regime. I would often joke that Fenwick was like a high-end sports car without a steering wheel, as she so clearly had the drive and energy of a working dog, but none of the focus or discipline to be able to put it to use.
In fact, I was often embarrassed by Fenwick’s behavior, as she would only selectively listen to me and would often totally ignore me if there was something else minutely more interesting. Hoping that agility classes might help with this, I asked Lara whether working a dog has the potential to build a better relationship between the dog and its handler and she emphatically affirmed that it does.
“Giving a dog mental stimulation and engaging them in fun activities that work their brain builds such a strong bond between the dog and the handler. Every time I have a 1-2-1 session with a client for a behavioral issue, I always end up concluding the session with creating a training plan, but also trying to get the owner to understand the importance of giving their dog proper mental stimulation to prevent training issues from arising in the future.
“The most popular breeds in the country are all originally working breeds, from Golden Retrievers to Dachshunds. Even mixed breeds such as Cockapoos are bred from working dogs. They were all designed to do a job, not lay at home all day. They don’t need to be a gundog or herd sheep, but you need to give them something else to do to give them the right balance of stimulation for a good quality of life.”
Giving my dog a job with agility classes
My first 1-2-1 agility session was definitely a mixed bag – while our fantastic instructor remarked upon Fenwick’s obvious natural drive, her behavior was less than exemplary. In fact, I had to do the entire session with her lead on, as the minute it was taken off she would run away and completely ignore me. If I’d been embarrassed by Fenwick’s behavior before, I was absolutely mortified by the end of the session. I even sheepishly asked the instructor whether he even wanted to see us again the next week!
However, despite a rocky start, Fenwick absolutely blew me away in every other session after that. Each week I saw her confidence and her drive to work grow as she discovered just how much she loved the structure of agility. After just three short months, Fenwick went from needing a long line so that I could stop her from running away to happily working off-lead and sticking to my side like glue whenever she’s not running the course.
How agility transformed my relationship with my dog
No matter how amazed I am by Fenwick’s progression at her agility sessions, I’m even more pleased by how it’s impacted our bond outside of the sport. Each week, she becomes more of a ‘velcro-dog’, sticking to my side and always wanting to be around me. One of the most obvious changes I’ve seen is calling her in from the garden – where it used to take a certain amount of bribery to bring her in, it now simply takes stepping back into the house for her to immediately and enthusiastically follow.
I’ve also seen Fenwick’s reactivity get markedly better since we began agility as well. She’s now able to walk along busy roads (which is truly a milestone I never thought we’d reach) and she’s getting far better at being able to exist neutrally around other dogs without getting over threshold. In fact, in my latest training session with Lara I was able to take Fenwick off-lead and recall her past a six month old puppy – which is, again, something I never thought I would see.
Working together with Fenwick at her agility training has not only given her confidence, but it’s improved my own as well. I can give her commands and feel reassured that she’ll listen to me, rather than deciding to selectively ignore whatever she doesn’t want to do. My big end-goal with Fenwick is being able to take her on an off-lead walk and stop off at a cafe with her afterwards – and suddenly, this previously lofty goal doesn’t seem so unrealistic now. I know that I still have lots of work to do, but I also know that Fenwick’s only at the beginning of her agility journey – and there’s so many more successes yet to come.
In need of more training ideas for your pooch? Don't miss our vet-led guide to crate games for dogs.
Get the best advice, tips and top tech for your beloved Pets
Louise Carey is a freelance writer and the Editor of sister website Top Ten Reviews. She has been working in publishing for seven years, contributing to publications including The Independent, TechRadar, Digital Camera World and more. As the proud pet parent of a reactive border collie with a food allergy, it’s been necessary for Louise to explore a variety of fun and exciting ways to enrich an energetic dog that can’t always go on walks. She’s passionate about sharing the information she’s learned to help other pet owners as well.
By Abby Driver