How to Make Your Dog a Star Competitor

By Morieka Johnson, Mother Nature Network

Champion!Champion!

As a stay-at-home mom who home-schooled her children, Kimberly Chiles Lanum wanted an activity that she could call her own. The solution came with four legs and a tail. She had grown up in a home filled with dachshunds, so that felt like the perfect breed to teach her three boys about responsible dog ownership. After doing her homework, Lanum purchased a retired American Grand Champion long-haired dachshund named Beamer (aka Taxvalpar Andromeda Moonbeam) and began competing in dog shows around the state. Eventually, her older two sons joined the effort, competing with Beamer - and winning.

But boys do two things very well: eat and grow. After a few years, her oldest son towered over their pint-size pooch, so the Lanums added whippets - a taller and more athletic breed - to the family mix. At age 12, her son David and his dog Wink (aka Grand Champion Snow Hill Body Sport) won Best of Breed together, defeating several adult competitors. Dog show competitions are now part of the kids' already packed schedule, along with basketball games, handling classes and other activities.

"Animals change children," Lanum says. "It's work. But it's fun and it teaches them how to take care of something, and how to show that living thing in the best light that you can. And they learn to lose."

Beyond simple games of fetch or long walks in the park, there are long-term benefits of keeping dogs mentally and physically active. Activities such as canine freestyle, nose work and dog show competitions also help pets and their people address behavior issues, build stronger bonds and simply have a good time together. Dog lovers offer tips on how to get started with a few fun, dog-friendly activities.

Canine freestyle - dancing with dogs
Canine freestyle involves teaching your dog a sequence of movements, then linking those movements with music, says dog trainer Kate Jackson of Jabula Dog Academy in Georgia. She fell in love with the quirky sport after watching a YouTube video of championship duo Carolyn Scott and her dog Rookie performing to "You're the One that I Want," and started practicing with her dog Winston.

"One of the first little sequences I ever taught him was to 'Who Let the Dogs Out?'" Jackson says. "If that song is ever on, anywhere, his little ears perk up." (Check out the company spokesdog in action.)

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How it works: Most dance movements are actually variations on basic obedience tricks, such as spinning in both directions, weaving through the handler's legs, taking a bow or backing up, Jackson says. Active heeling - when dogs walk beside handlers and make eye contact - connects each movement.

Select a playlist: Pair the music tempo with your dog's natural pace. Winston, a Labrador, can handle fast or slow music, but Jackson prefers to pick up the pace when dancing with Wick, her pint-size terrier. Perhaps Lulu and I can break out the Beyonce and try a little freestyle this weekend.

Getting started: Enroll in a basic tricks class and start building a repertoire of moves. If courses are not available in your area, grab a bag of treats and let YouTube be your guide. Pick one movement and incorporate it into playtime with your pooch. It also helps to keep training sessions short and end each practice on a positive note, Jackson says. When you get frustrated or annoyed, you've missed the point and the fun of canine freestyle.

"Every dog can do this," she says. "[Winston] had more fun doing this than any other thing he's ever done. For me, it was the relationship building that happened through the process."

Resources: The Canine Freestyle Federation Inc. offers an international network of classes, competitions and demonstration events around the country. Also, check out the World Canine Freestyle Organization, which sanctions clubs and titled events around the globe, including a July 20 competition in Gauteng, South Africa.

Canine nose work
Friends may tease her, but Amy Peacock enjoys the idea of "going sniffing," with her dogs. After enrolling in training classes to address her schipperke's leash aggression issues, she decided to check out a new course on nose work at K-9 Coach in Smyrna, Ga. Peacock and Bello, a 7-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback, completed beginner courses and moved on to the next level, with goals of competing in regional events.

"My dog has fun," she says. "I enjoy doing something that involves spending time with my dog."

How it works: Dogs use their noses to sniff out target odors, essential oils, dabbed on cotton swabs. In competitions, dogs must detect targets in various locations within a set time limit. Nose work classes initially teach dogs to look for high-value treats located in boxes. Then dogs graduate to food hidden next to targets laced with birch oil. Eventually, they learn to recognize and detect the scent alone.

"After four months of nose work classes, Sophie has really matured into a great dog," says K-9 Coach student Paige Miller. "When she locates the finds, you can really see her sense of accomplishment and wanting to locate more. It is really all about her and as her owner I am always there to support her. After every nose work class, my ride home is very quiet because I have a very happy, sleepy dog."

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Getting started: Peacock notes that any dog can excel at this activity, regardless of age. "I was volunteering at a trial this weekend and there were blind dogs doing it," she says. "In some ways, the dog is in charge."

To practice canine nose work at home, Peacock recommends playing hide-and-seek with treats or your dog's favorite toy. Use high-value items, and offer plenty of praise when dogs locate the target. Once you have practiced a few times, check out local dog training facilities for course offerings. K-9 Coach offers a six-week package for $185. Students say the rewards can come quickly.

"The real change has been in our understanding of our own dog," says Nicole Bennett, who enrolled in K-9 Coach classes with her dog Milo. "It has really opened our eyes to how much dogs rely on scent and helped us to watch and understand Milo's body language.

"Overall, it has helped improve our communication between dog and owner."

Resources: The National Association of Canine Scent Work offers resources to help dog lovers get started, including a calendar of upcoming events and referrals to certified instructors around the country.

Dog show competition
Competing in dog shows can be expensive. Lanum easily spends about $200 on entry fees so that she and the two older boys can compete in shows around the Southeast. Competing with pedigreed pooches also involves travel expenses, dog handling classes and upkeep costs for grooming. But the process begins with creating a winning team, and that requires finding the right dog. Lanum says prospective dog show competitors should take time to find a reputable breeder who knows their line of dogs and can make matches based on temperament.

Related: What your dog's breed says about you

"You can spend upwards of $800, and that would probably be a steal," she says. "Good breeders want their dogs in good homes so they will grill you. They want to know that you are providing a good home."

How it works: Dog shows allow people to show the best example of a particular breed. Judges evaluate a dog's appearance, construction, gait and temperament to evaluate the best in show. With each competition, dogs and handlers move up the ranks, eventually competing in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show. That may be a long-term goal for the Lanums. But for now, they are happy to simply spend more time together as a family. When not competing, the entire family enjoys meeting with other whippet owners. The breed's athletic ability makes it a natural for racing events in the backyard. Dad even joins the action. The boys also spend time practicing daily so that they are ready to shine on show days.

"When you are in the ring and everyone is watching you, it makes you feel kind of nervous, but it makes you feel really great, too," says 10-year-old Matthew Lanum, who earned an award of merit with Spice (aka Ableaim Kazbar Spicer Bay), his 2-year-old female whippet. "Competing - and winning - against grown-ups feels great; it feels like, 'oh yeah!'"

Getting started: David Lanum advises prospective dog show competitors to check out competitions and talk to the pros. The American Kennel Club lists local clubs on its website, along with upcoming events. He also recommends plenty of one-on-one time with the dog. Proper tools also make a difference. Matthew notes that grooming gear and quality dog food can make a big difference. Win or lose, rewards overflow daily.

"When I wake up," he says, "they just run up to you like you are the most special person."

Resources: Check out the American Kennel Club website for events, local breed clubs and tools for junior competitors.

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