As seen in action movies like Casino Royale and The Bourne Legacy, the popular human sport of Parkour originated in France in the mid-1900s and grew out of military obstacle course and martial arts trainings. Parkour participants move their bodies through outdoor spaces as swiftly as possible without the assistance of equipment to “trace a path.” This includes vaulting, climbing, jumping, and balancing on anything from rooftops and bridges to mailboxes and brick walls.
In 2011, Adventure Unleashed Dog Training owners dog trainer Karin Coyne and veterinarian Abigail Curtis began to explore how their personal experiences with Parkour could benefit dogs in their state of Ohio. With time, they developed the titling, noncompetitive organization called International Dog Parkour Association. Dog Parkour combines elements of human Parkour and dog agility to create an accessible activity for dogs and humans alike.
Weary of teaching basic manners, SF ACC Behavior and Training canine evaluator and class training instructor Paula Benton found herself wondering if shelter volunteers and dogs were feeling a bit bored when walking around the shelter’s neighborhood. Having no budget to provide agility equipment or lavish play structures, Benton and a handful of dedicated shelter volunteers started looking at the surrounding environment with a renewed perspective, pondering what would and could a dog physically do here. Inspired by Dog Parkour, Benton said, “We simply followed the dogs’ lead and embraced what they were showing us. What I originally thought of as antecedent arrangement limitations became wonderful mental and physical enrichment opportunities. Nothing was too silly as long as dogs were safe, having fun, and positively reinforced.”
Ideally, dogs will spend a minimal amount of time in the shelter environment. Often arriving with little to no previous training experience, shelter dogs rely on volunteers to provide companionship and consistency until they find their forever home. To expedite this relationship building between dog and stranger in an exciting and positive way, Barkcore’s 15 mix-and-match ideas combine scenting, urban agility, impulse control, and play. Unlike human Parkour — which focuses on precision and disciplined physical feats — Barkcore is entirely play-based with mostly lured behaviors like balancing on top of a fire hydrant, scenting out a hidden treat trail on a staircase, or weaving through bike racks like an Olympic skier. Some of Barkcore’s best ideas came directly from imaginative shelter volunteers, such as “PB Trees,” invented by a volunteer, Diane. Before each walk, she will spoon a dollop of peanut butter on actual tree trunks lining the walk route. This provides a high-value “find it” opportunity at dogs’ nose height for some fun, variably reinforcement. Channeling a dog’s curiosity this way elevates an average walk to an occasion for mental stimulation, environmental engagement, and focuses attention on their handler.
Volunteers and staff find Barkcore a wonderful tool that helps shy dogs build environmental confidence and energetic, rowdy dogs learn impulse control and focus. “One of the many challenges we face is to decrease stress in our shelter residents, certainly when they are new to the floor but even more so for long-term guests,” said ACC Behavior and Training Supervisor Ariana Luchsinger. “The lack of consistency, structure, and choice in such a chaotic environment can really lead to a decline in overall wellness. Once they have hit the ceiling of their resiliency here, we’ll see an increase in stereotypic, frustration-based behavior on leash that makes it harder to find them the right home. This innovative program makes the social keystone of their shelter experience — the walk — engaging, enriching, and helps build responsiveness to the handler by keeping things interesting. And not just for the dog, but for our volunteers as well.”
Possibly the best element of Barkcore is the shift in perspective. The program encourages volunteer participants to take a dog’s-eye view of the surrounding environment and find creative ways to explore the urban landscape. To spice up your own monotonous neighborhood walk, take a good look around. What doorstep might be fun to rebound off of? Where is a good (and safe) place to hide a surprise treat for your evening stroll? What ledge can give your dog the space to practice elevated puppy push-ups? Take a moment and look around from your dog’s viewpoint. There is a lot more to explore than just the sidewalk!
See SF ACC staff and animals doing Barkcore tricks here on YouTube:
Paula Benton and Ariana Luchsinger are certified professional dog trainers that make up half of SF Animal Care & Control’s Behavior & Training Department. In addition to their shared love of canine behavior and cognition research, you can find them working on behalf of the city’s many dog residents both in the shelter and on the street using humane, science-based methods. For more information on SFACC, please visit www.SFAnimalCare.org.
Main article photo by: Photos courtesy of San Francisco Animal Care and Control Behavior & Training Departmen