There are a whole host of great dog sports that you and your pooch can get involved in. This article will delve into what is involved in the likes of agility, flyball and competition obedience and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about these subjects.
- Why would you get involved in a dog sport?
- Find the right sport and introduce it at the right time
- The importance of picking a good club
- 1. Dog Agility
- 2. Flyball
- 3. Nosework (sometimes also called Scentwork)
- 4. Obedience Trials
- 5. Heelwork to Music and Canine Freestyle
- 6. Canicross
- Dock Diving
Why would you get involved in a dog sport?
Increase your bond with your dog
Taking part in a sport that your dog enjoys and that involves training, using positive reinforcement methods, is a great way to increase you and your dog’s bond. It is a time when you will be solely focused on them, without the distractions of general daily life. It will likely also let you appreciate your dog and their talents in a whole new way.
It can also be a great way to help boost the confidence of a shy or nervous dog if introduced in the right way.
Being involved in a dog sport and training in a positive fashion can greatly increase your existing bond with your dog
It often gets you and your dog out in the fresh air more
Many dog sports take place in the great outdoors. Getting involved with one of the activities will likely involve you heading to training at least once a week and, if you want to get involved in the competitive side, you will no doubt be involved in regular outdoor events in all sorts of weather.
This is great for your dog but it is also great for you, especially if you have a job where you are stuck in the office all day!
It can help keep a high energy/bored dog more stimulated
Does your dog have a ton of energy? Do you need to walk for miles before they seem to tire even just a little? Can your dog be destructive in the house if they have not had a big enough walk?
If the answer is yes to any or all of these you likely have a dog with lots of energy. Maybe they are a young dog, perhaps they are a breed that is known for being very intelligent and high energy. Whilst it is not a complete solution, you will also have to provide them with other outlets for their energy around the home and garden too, taking part in a doggy sport can be fantastic for giving your dog the extra exercise and enrichment they need.
It can help your dog if they have obesity issues
Do you have a dog that is carrying a few too many pounds? Have you been advised that they would benefit from losing some weight? Whilst diet plays a huge part in this it can also be good to gradually introduce some extra exercise.
If your dog is seriously overweight, you will likely have to wait until they have shed some of their pounds before you start introducing any sport at a serious level. Overweight dogs are more at risk from heart problems and joint issues and you don’t want to be putting unnecessary strain on your dog by introducing a high impact sport when it is not appropriate. Check with your vet before starting anything new.
Getting involved in a dog sport can be great for helping your dog to shed a few excess pounds
Find the right sport and introduce it at the right time
Not every sport will be suited to you and your dog. You have to find one that works for you both if you want it to be a success and a long-term pursuit. Below are some of the things you should consider when helping you decide what to opt for.
Consider what your dog enjoys
Do you have a dog that is super ball focussed? Maybe they would be well suited to trying flyball. Do you have a dog that just loves to run? Maybe Canicross could be for them.
Think about the things your dog loves doing and what may match up well to this. Sometimes you do just have to go along and try the sport out with your dog though to find out what sparks their enthusiasm so don’t be afraid of going for a trial session and seeing if it clicks for you both.
Consider their breed traits
Some dogs have particular traits as part of their breed that may mean that they will have a particular drive for certain types of sport. Clever, athletic chasing breeds like Collies are often great at agility. Dogs that are ruled by their nose like Spaniels can be great at Nosework competitions.
Regardless of your dog’s breed though, don’t limit your options. I have seen Chihuahuas thriving when completing an agility course and Canicross!
If you have just adopted a new dog or have a fearful dog
If you have just brought a new rescue dog home, it is probably not a great idea to organise to take them along to an introductory flyball session the first week they arrive. You need to give your dog the chance to settle into their new home environment and have time for you to observe their general behaviour and disposition. If they are nervous of other dogs, people or noisy environments this will likely mean that going along to a busy club with lots of excited dogs will be too much for them at the moment. Give them time to relax and settle into their routines and work out whether you feel they are ready for some new experiences. Don’t overwhelm a new dog, always introduce things slowly and gradually.
For fearful dogs, it is important to ensure that the activity and the environment is not something that they are finding too stressful. If you are keen to introduce them to the activity, find a good club that is willing to support a nervous or reactive dog and work with you and your dog to ensure that they have the space, positive training and peace that they need.
Some dogs may never be suited to a busy club environment but that doesn’t mean that you can’t give them the opportunity to be involved in a sport they may enjoy. There are often opportunities to have private tuition, some places allow you to hire their gear. You can also set things up in your own yard or secure private space.
If you have a young, not fully matured puppy
Puppies that are still developing physically will not be suited to certain high energy, high impact dog sports until they are fully grown. Trying to introduce these sorts of activities can cause damage to their soft and flexible bones and this can create potentially serious problems further down the line. It is important to ensure that you are not introducing your dog fully to sports like Canicross or Flyball until they are fully matured.
If you want to get them used to the club environment there is nothing stopping you taking them along and doing some quiet training work, socialisation, introduction to kit etc and this can help them have a positive association with the space for when you want to get started for real.
Whilst you should be careful not to introduce any high impact activities and you should not over exercise puppies it can be good to start introducing them to pieces of kit from an early age to help them have a positive association with them
If you have an injured or elderly dog
Elderly dogs should not have to miss out on fun and engaging activities but it is all about making sure that they are appropriate for their age and health levels. So an elderly dog will not perhaps be best suited to Canicross but the more sedate, but no less engaging, sport of Nosework may be a better option.
If your dog is injured it is important to wait until they are given a full and clean bill of health before getting involved in any high energy activities. You may need to build your dog’s fitness levels back up if they have been on rest too.
The importance of picking a good club
Whilst some of these activities can be done without the support of a club and not at a competition level it is good to find a reputable club to become part of. They can provide you with good advice and guidance, set you up with the right gear and equipment and it can be good for you and your dog to socialise with like-minded individuals.
It is very important to look for a club that has a good reputation, is supportive and knowledgeable about working with the dogs using force-free training methods and that are good at making sure that you and your dog are comfortable in the environment and not pushing you too hard or fast.
1. Dog Agility
Probably the most popular of all the dog sports Agility involves athleticism, skill, bond with the handler and boundless enthusiasm from your canine partner.
You and your dog really do have to work together as a team and you will also likely get fitter, running around an agility course alongside your dog.
The sport was first introduced when there was a demonstration at Crufts Dog Show in the UK way back in 1978.
It involves the dog running around a pre-planned route with a number of set obstacles to negotiate along the way. There are usually somewhere between 14 and 20 different items for your dog to jump, climb, stop on etc. The handler must lead the dog around the course and make sure that they hit the obstacles in the right order and also hit the marker points (on some obstacles the dog must touch certain parts or stop on them for a certain period of time).
The dog will go over a number of different jumps (these will be set at a height appropriate for the size of the dog), tunnels that are normally around 15 feet long, an A-Frame which the dog must climb over, a seesaw (the dog must touch the contact points at each end), weave poles and a pause box or table.
When introducing the dog to agility the dog may often initially need to be lured around the course with treats and encouraged over the jumps and through the obstacles. Certain obstacles may be more challenging due to their unusual nature for the dog. They may need some encouragement to go through the tunnel or over the seesaw. The weave poles are known for being the most difficult obstacle to master. When working on this keep the sessions short, fun, clear and positive.
Everything needs to be built up very slowly, with lots of praise and with a sense of patience. It has to be a fun experience for your dog and whilst you do want their confidence to grow trying to force them or move too fast can put your dog off or potentially even be unsafe on certain obstacles. Remember it is meant to be fun for you both!
Whilst not every dog may be suited to the competition environment, any dog can give agility a try regardless of their size or breed. Don’t forget that puppies should not be doing any of the fast high impact exercises until they are fully mature but that should not stop you from introducing them to a tunnel or a pause box from a young age.
If you want to give agility a try at home first or you have a dog that is too nervous for a club environment you could even consider setting up some obstacles in your own garden. There are starter kits available online to allow you to give it a go.
Many agility nuts explain how addictive the sport can be for owners and their dogs.
Dog agility is the most popular of all the doggy sports out there
Phew! This sport is not for the faint-hearted. It can be extremely fast and furious so it is not suited to very nervous dogs or those that like a more sedentary, quiet lifestyle.
This competitive sport is basically a fetch relay race. In a competition environment, there are two lanes set up for the two different teams. There are four equally spaced jumps placed down the lanes and then there is a box at the end that, when pressed, throws a tennis ball out.
The dogs are released at the same time and then race over the four jumps, press the box to retrieve the ball and then race back to their owner before the next dog in the team is released to perform the same task.
If you have never seen flyball in action it can be quiet an overwhelming experience. In a top competition environment it is so fast it can be hard to keep track of what is going on and the dogs are so excited and raring to go that they will often be barking frantically on the sidelines waiting for their turn.
So, not a good option for a nervous or dog reactive dog really but for a very high energy dog that adores fetching and is very athletic, this could be the perfect option.
Some dogs will just not take to this sport at all but the ones that do usually absolutely adore it.
For ball obsessed dogs that can develop an unhealthy obsession with a ball, perhaps guarding it or never wanting to stop playing fetch, this can be a healthier outlet. Your dog is learning to retrieve and release (all in return for a yummy treat or an alternative favourite toy). They are able to use that inbuilt drive but they are also learning self-control.
Flyball is perfect for those ball obsessed doggies
3. Nosework (sometimes also called Scentwork)
Is your dog very focused on searching for their toys or treats? Do they have their nose to the ground sniffing most of the time you are out on a walk? Perhaps they spend all their time in the garden sniffing out unexpected objects from the flower beds?
If you have a dog with this sort of focus it is likely they will be well suited to giving Nosework a try.
Whilst dogs have been used for their scenting abilities for hundreds of years, the competitive sport of Nosework is relatively new and was introduced officially in 2006. The sport involves training dogs to track down a specially selected scent (commonly clove, birch and anise oil are used). The scent will be stored in a specific area often in a sealed tub, in a certain area in a room or garden space. The dog is taught to search for the scent and then should ‘alert’ their owner letting them know when they have found it.
In the competitive environment, the owner/handler will not know where the scent has been placed so they have to rely completely on their dog’s skill to locate it.
This is a great sport for developing a strong, calm bond with your dog. All training should be done using positive reinforcement. The dog is rewarded with very yummy treats or their favourite toy and lots of praise when they correctly alert their owner.
Your dog enjoys having a job and purpose and it can be a great confidence builder for nervous dogs. It is good as they are not having to interact with other dogs or people whilst completing their task. If you have a dog that is reactive to other dogs you will be able to keep any contact with other dogs to an absolute minimum, even in a competition environment.
It is a great sport for dogs of any ages, even growing puppies and elderly dogs can compete and enjoy this sport.
Nosework can be a great activity for dogs that love to hunt for scents
4. Obedience Trials
Competitive Obedience involves a handler guiding a dog to respond correctly to a set of very particular trained commands. The behaviours that they perform are designed to show the handler’s control over their dog and the level of preciseness from the dog.
One of the oldest of the competition dog sports, this is a low impact option so great for dogs that are young, elderly or have body limitations that some of the other faster and high energy sports will not allow for.
Depending on the competitors level they may be asked, amongst other things, to perform a minute sit-stay with the handler across the other end of the ring, off-leash heeling, retrieving over jumps and scent-based retrieves. The level of difficulty increases as you move up the competition ranks.
If you plan to get involved with this doggy sport be sure to get involved in a club that promotes force-free training techniques. Because of the history of this sport, there is still a tradition of punitive training methods. This style of training means that there are lots of unhappy dogs who are performing for their owner because they have to rather than because they are enjoying it and they want to. The whole point in taking part in a doggy sport is to increase your bond with your dog and to give them a fun outlet for their energies, by using aversive methods you are not going to achieve this.
If the serious nature of the competitive Obedience environment does not appeal to you or your dog you could try Rally Obedience. This is a much less formal format and the focus is on fun, praise and encouragement.
Competitive Obedience is suitable for dogs of all sizes, breeds, ages and abilities
5. Heelwork to Music and Canine Freestyle
Dancing with your dog! Sounds a bit odd doesn’t it? This can be an extremely fun and positive way to build your relationship with your dog. With the arrival of the reality talent shows on TV we are seeing many more of these types of competitors taking part in the America’s Got Talent type shows and this sport has shot up in popularity since then.
There are two main types of competitive doggy dancing. Heelwork to Music is a more formal style. It was the first to be introduced and it involves much more precise movements with the dog in a heel position for much of the routine that is set to music.
The increasingly popular Canine Freestyle is a less formal, more free and fun option. There is less of a focus on the precise heel position and more on the tricks and crowd-pleasing unique nature of the routine.
This truly is a sport where the relationship between the dog and owner is key. Your dog really has to want to work for you and it is all about training the tricks in a positive fashion so that it is fun for your dog too. A good routine relies on an excellent connection between the dog and the handler, it is all about being unique and showing off your dogs skills.
It is a great sport if you are keen to understand more about training techniques and it can be done by dogs of any age, ability or breed.
Canine Freestyle can be a fantastic activity if you want to increase your bond with your dog whilst getting creative
Canicross, or running with your dog, has become increasingly popular, especially across Europe, in recent years.
Originating from those involved in mushing with their dogs, this was an alternative way to give the dogs exercise during the low season.
It involves your dog being put into a supportive running harness and for them to be pulling out in front of you.
Dogs sometimes have to be taught and encouraged to run out in front, particularly if they are used to normally walking to heel but they quickly get the hang of it when the running harness comes out. They are also often taught certain commands for directions and speed so that they can run in coordination with their owner.
Whilst there are certain breeds that will no doubt have a natural propensity towards this activity, Huskies for example, any breed can take part. It is important that your dog is fully grown before you start running with your dog and that they do not run if they have an injury that could worsen or be painful.
Make sure you don’t run your dog when the temperatures are too hot!
It can be a great sport for high energy dogs or for those that need to lose a bit of weight and most dogs love it! It can be great for owner fitness too. Some dogs are just not motivated by the run though and if it is not something they are enjoying, maybe a less active option would be better.
If you have a reactive dog they could still take part in the run. Some dogs, once they start to run behave very differently to how they would if they met another dog or person on a walk. When they are focussed on the run they don’t focus on the other things in the same way. It is also important to select a club though that has members that are respectful of your dogs need for extra space too.
Canicross can be a great sport for high energy breeds like huskies. If your dog has to wear a muzzle whilst running it is crucially important that you get a good fit so that they can freely pant
A relative newcomer to the list of doggy sports this is one that is growing in popularity and it is certainly a crowd pleaser too.
This is one for those dogs that can’t get enough of the water, the strong swimmers and those dogs that love to retrieve.
There are a number of different competitive options for Dock Diving. The most common is the ‘Big Air’ competition. This measures the distance the dog jumps in length. There is also the ‘Extreme Vertical’ which measures how high the dog jumps up before landing in the water. There is also a speed retrieve which is all about the dog jumping in and then swimming to grab the bumper at the other end of the pool as quickly as possible.
The dogs that love this sport really love it but probably more than any of the other activities it really is important to ensure your dog does enjoy it and is never forced or coerced into diving. This can result in your dog becoming very fearful and potentially spoiling the bond of trust you may have built up with your dog.
Your dog must LOVE the water and be a strong swimmer. Unless they already offer a jump into the water voluntarily and with enthusiasm, you may have to build their confidence for taking the leap into the water. It is all about making it fun. Start in shallow water and bring out the toys for retrieving. You may also wish to use a canine float coat whilst they are building their confidence and getting deeper into the water. NEVER push your dog into the water or lift them into it. You always want them to go in of their own volition.
There are other elements of Dock Diving that you will also have to consider. If your dog is sound sensitive this is not the sport for them as there are often large crowds at the competitions and they will cheer and clap loudly in support of the competitors.
The diving platform often has aluminium stairs that lead up to it and these can be overwhelming for some dogs when they are first introduced to them. They can make an unusual noise and they often have exposed steps with gaps. Make sure that you introduce your dog to these gradually before an event and in a very positive fashion with plenty of yummy treats to put them at ease and make them comfortable. Never force a dog up the stairs, they should come with enthusiasm and voluntarily.
If you get a dog that loves this sport they will likely run up the stairs with great gusto and you will have to work hard on getting them to wait at the start line!
If you have a dog that loves water and retrieving then Dock Diving could be the perfect sport for them