If you have a high-energy dog, getting involved in a canine sport is a smart decision. But which one will best suit your dog? One can easily spend a lot of time and money taking lessons in several different sports without finding quite the right fit. You’ll have to base your decision on multiple factors, including the availability of competent instruction and the cost of lessons, but the necessity of matching your dog’s personality to an activity he or she will enjoy should not be neglected during the decision-making process. For your convenience, here are descriptions of some common canine sports and suggestions as to what type of dog might excel in that sport.
Agility is a sport based on equestrian show-jumping competitions. Dogs must negotiate an obstacle course at speed, including jumps, an A-frame, tunnels, weave poles, a see-saw, and more. There are various levels of competition, and all sizes and breeds are welcome to compete. Dogs that do well in agility tend to be play-motivated, food-motivated, focused, and must have healthy joints in order to safely complete agility courses. A good foundation in basic obedience is a must before beginning agility training. At the very least, a solid recall and down-stay are needed.
Flyball is a relay race in which teams of dogs compete to rapidly retrieve balls from a timer box at the end of a series of hurdles. Each dog in turn must run to the box, leaping over the hurdles, trigger the box, catch the tennis ball, then return, jumping over the hurdles again, to the start line. Dogs who excel in Flyball are most importantly highly ball-motivated. If your dog retrieves for hours on end, you might have a Flyball champion in the making. Smaller dogs that retrieve are particularly valued in Flyball, because the height of the hurdles is set based on the shortest dog on a team. Thus, each team tries to have one small dog, known as the “height dog.”
Rally Obedience is a form of Obedience competition designed to be more fun and less formal than AKC Obedience Trials, and is open to all breeds, including mixes. One dog and handler at a time complete a set pattern of “signs.” There are 10-20 signs per course. At each sign, dog and handler must stop, perform the indicated exercise, then move on to the next sign. Good rally dogs are quick learners, able to focus on a handler, and motivated by praise. Any dog can compete successfully in Rally if you’re willing to spend enough time. The handler’s skills are critically important, so if you’re considering Rally, make sure you take some classes and learn to work productively with your dog.
As you might imagine, herding is a sport requiring a dog to herd livestock, generally in a pattern that includes maneuvers like driving the stock into a pen. Herding breeds like Border Collies and Australian Cattle Dogs are the usual choices for this sport, but herding instincts can crop out in non-herding breeds from time to time. If you’re considering herding, look for a “Herding Instinct Test” near you. An instructor will help you introduce your dog to its first herding experience, and will tell you whether or not your pooch is a candidate for further training. Herding instructors are few and far between, so be prepared for long drives to lessons, practices, and competitions.