In just a little over a year, more than 3,000 dogs have gone through the American Kennel Club’s My Dog Can Do That program. It draws owners of non-registered dogs, both purebred and mixed breed, to AKC events around the country, exposing them to the world of dog shows, agility, obedience and rally.

“When people are at home and see a trial or show, they think, ‘My dog couldn’t do that,’” says Penny Leigh, program manager for AKC Canine Partners,which oversees the program. “But when they come to an event and their dog goes through the tunnel or goes over a little jump, they see the light.”

That illumination, of course, is the fact that their dogs can, indeed, do the things they see other dogs doing on TV.

A miniature Poodle happily prances through an agility tunnel during the My Dog Can Do That Program at the Harrisburg Kennel Club show in April. Photo by Ashbey Photography.

Agility obstacles are set up in a ring, and a certified dog trainer helps each owner individually teach his or her dog how to master, or at least make an effort at, a few of them. All dogs are leashed, and several dogs and owners are in the ring at the same time. It’s not, however, a place for agility competitors to practice, Leigh points out.

About 70 percent of the dogs that have participatedare purebreds,however most have never entered an AKC event, according to Mark Dunn, assistant vice president of Canine Partners. The program is working as it was intended. Of the dogs participating in My Dog Can Do That, about 75 percent are signed up for Canine Partners or Purebred Alternative Listing by their owners. Leigh says, “It’s an incentive for people to list their dogs with AKC, and we hope that the people who are coming will get them into a training program, then participate in AKC events.

“Our target audience is the pet dog, as opposed to the conformation or performance dogs,” she adds.

A Mastiff’s owner coaxes him over a jump at the Mid-Peninsula Kennel Club, while Penny Leigh, project manager for AKC Canine Partners, runs the course with him. Photo by Ashbey Photography.

Dunn estimates that each dog taken to a show, trial or other dog event for the My Dog Can Do That program has two and a half people with it. “We believe that at least 90 percent of the participating dogs are brought in by people who do not usually or may never attend dog shows,” he says. “That means we have drawn additional gate of over 4,500 people to the eight kennel club dog shows we have done.”

Pet expos and community dog festival-type events have also seen the program bring in dog lovers, for a total of about 20 My Dog Can Do That events thus far.

“We are really ecstatic,” Leigh says. “This program has exceeded our expectations. We have people who drive more than two hours to come to these events just because of My Dog Can Do That. Sometimes they’ll stand in line for two hours,” she says, to wait for their turn in the ring. “People don’t complain about standing in line because they like to watch the other dogs moving through the equipment. We have some people who just sit and watch the MDCDT ring all day. They enjoy watching these new dogs.”

A Dalmatian shows off his pause table skills during My Dog Can Do That at a community dog event. Photo courtesy © American Kennel Club.

A big benefit of the program has been people learning about the American Kennel Club, and, after doing the program, feeling included, whether they have a dog with a known pedigree or not. “That’s good for everyone involved with AKC,” Leigh says.

“They are just across-the-board really excited. First of all, to bring their dog with them, and then to be able to do something with their dog. The majority of them have had little training, maybe a puppy class, a basic class, or just some training at home. It’s amazing how many dogs come into the ring, and they just light up. By the end, they’re running a complete agility course.

“We want to promote dog training. We want them to pursue training. We always have a list of dog trainers everywhere we go.”

AKC has done some post-program surveys. Leigh says the “overwhelming majority who reply say they are pursuing some kind of dog training or have already enrolled in a class.”

Louisville Sparked the Idea

She says the concept is really quite simple, and Canine Partners got the idea after the Louisville Kennel Club hosted the Shelter Olympics at its March 2011 shows. “They invited dogs that had been adopted through local shelters and rescue groups for a little competition,” via an abbreviated agility course and a miniature rally course. “It was a wonderful event,” Leigh recalls.

“What we thought was, ‘What about the dogs that haven’t had any training?’ We started talking about how to make it a training opportunity.”

A young dog owner works with her miniature Poodle as it takes a jump in Harrisburg. Photo by Ashbey Photography.

The only real problem at the moment is being able to staff the events. “We just can’t be everywhere. One thing we’re exploring is how can we make this program bigger and get to a lot more places. The Port Chester Obedience Training Club [in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.] is going to do one on its own in conjunction with October obedience and rally trials. We’re excited to find out how that goes with them.”

In the future, AKC may be able to provide promotional support and materials, then let clubs, whether they are breed- or performance-oriented, do the program on their own. “We hope that will be a possibility,” she says.

Portland and Harrisburg Give It a Try

The Dog Fanciers Association of Oregon, which hosts two shows in the Rose City Classic each year in Portland, included My Dog Can Do That in its offerings in January 2012.

“We were just sort of one of the pilots,” says publicity chair Patti Strand. “We had heard that it was very successful back at Springfield.”

The event wasn’t an automatic sell for the show committee, she says. “The concern was that we’d get all these untrained dogs off the streets. It’s a pretty big break with tradition.” The club also had to figure out where to put the ring without taking away space from people who enter the show.

They figured it out, though, and the event was an “absolutely huge success,” Strand says. “The people who came in, I cannot tell you how excited they were.” She saw a lot of “joy and happiness,” she says, and it served as a “kind of bridge” for people who had never attended a dog show or performance event. “Of all the extra, unique things we’ve tried in the last few years, it was in the top two or three. This is the thing that brought the extra people. There’s no question about that.”

Sandbags can’t keep this Mastiff from walking off with a tunnel at the Mid-Peninsula Kennel Club. Photo by Ashbey Photography.

In addition to bringing in regular dog lovers, and seeing what a good time they had, Strand says she was impressed by something else. “I was really struck by how nice everybody was to the newbies. People went away feeling really good about the dog show and the dog people.

“There’s something really nice, refreshing and energizing about seeing people who are clearly new dogs owners participating in something like this. They went away better dog owners,” she says.

Gail Wise, treasurer of the Harrisburg Kennel Club show in April 2012,offered to help the AKC staff when they put on My Dog Can Do That. “Having done a few open ‘try it things,’ I thought this ran very smoothly,” she says. “For us, on that day, we did have more folks come in the gate than the year before. So anything that can increase the number of folks that come in is a plus. I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

It’s New, so Prep Is Important

Despite the program’s success in Portland, Strand urges other clubs considering My Dog Can Do That to think it through carefully. “We were very concerned, and we really tried to get out ahead of whatever problems there might be,” she says. “We did put out good public education in advance,” she says. “We’re a very experienced club that does a lot of extra stuff: CGC, agility, Meet the Breeds.” The whole show is very public-outreach oriented, she says.

During the shows, they did public-address system announcements about My Dog Can Do That and also provided everyone with a handout. A separate entrance was set up for anyone with a dog that wasn’t entered in conformation or performance events.

Wise says there were a few poorly behaved dogs at the Harrisburg show, and she recalls a “big guy who came in with a pitbull on a chain instead of a leash. He was pounced on by a bunch of us. The dog was wonderful, and [the man] left with a nice leash on her. Guess he was just trying to look ‘bad.’”

She also reports that one exhibitor was upset because the fact that non-registered and mixed-breed dogs would be present wasn’t included in the premium. “She said, ‘If I had known that every fleabag, parvo-infested mixed mutt was going to get brought in here, I would have never come.’ For some reason, she thought that Harrisburg had a parvo problem –not true – and she thought we would get all kinds of dogs coming in.

“I did find out later that she had brought along a very old dog who wasn’t entered and she also had a 4-month-old puppy there all day for the matchafter the show. That’s why she was so upset. Funny how the folks that break the rules can get so vocal about things they don’t like.”

Weave poles can be one of the most challenging agility obstacles, but this Dalmatian seems to be figuring it out. Photo courtesy © American Kennel Club.

To alleviate concerns from performance exhibitors, AKC advises dog owners who have pre-registered for My Dog Can Do That to proceed directly to the area set aside for it. Once there, they receive a handout outlining the basics of dog show etiquette. In addition, the ring is situated away from regular agility and rally rings to reduce potential distraction of untrained dogs and people who haven’t attended competitive events.

After the newbies have signed in for the program, “We want them to go around the show and watch the events because we want them to get excited about doing something with their dogs.”

Well before the show and performance events get under way, the AKC does an email blast to everyone in the area who owns an AKC-registered dog, has a dog with a Canine Good Citizen certificate, or whose dog is enrolled in the Companion Animal Recovery lost-dog program, informing them of the upcoming My Dog Can Do That event.

Leigh says some competitors have expressed concern about the general public taking their dogs into official AKC events. In addition to the distraction possibility, fleas, lack of vaccinations and just movement around rings have been of concern. “I can happily say we have had no problems,” she says. “We have been very careful about working with the club about the placement of the ring. We try to not be near obedience and rally because those tend to be events where the handlers don’t like a lot of distractions. The conformation rings have been no problem.”

The Canine Partners team has received letters from people who had been skeptical about non-AKC dogs being on the grounds, but who found the event enjoyable and not a problem, Leigh says.“Exhibitors come over in their show clothes and take their show dogs through,” she says. “We have no problem with that. If they want to get into another sport, that’s great with us.”Spectators always include conformation exhibitors, Leigh adds.

She’s seen a number of older dogs participate at each event as well. “They do really well. As long as they‘re in good physical condition, an older dog can come out and do this too. It is amazing, and it’s very heartwarming to see that people still take their older dogs out to be involved, have fun and do stuff.”

The next My Dog Can Do That program is set for AKC’s flagship event in Raleigh, N.C., for Responsible Dog Ownership Days in September. Whether you just want to watch or take your own dog, you’ll be welcomed with open arms.