Choosing a Dog Sport: Which Sport and When
One thing about adding a new new puppy or dog to your household is suddenly the world is full of opportunities! So many dog sports, so little time! It is important to know who your puppy or dog truly is and take their vote into account when choosing the dog sports the two of you will play together.
How to Choose
When diving into which dog sports you and your pup will tackle, you want to break this down into the sports you ultimately want to do with your pup and those you can start working on right now. Essentially, create long- and short-term goals.
Let’s try to flush this out a bit more with a details hypothetical. Let’s say that you have a new 10-week old puppy. The world is your oyster, right?! Well, now you have some choices to make. What sports do you ultimately want to do with them, as in throughout their entire lifetime, and which ones would make sense to focus on first? Now, it is absolutely true that there are foundation behaviors and skills that will benefit them regardless of the sport you choose, but being mindful about where you place your focus and priorities will serve you well later on.
Sticking with this example, our first task is to assess who our puppy is. What breed or suspected mix are they? What is their personality like? What do they like? What do they not like? How confident are they? How persistent? What is their relationship or bond like with their handler? How do they deal with problems, frustration or stress? What do they do in new or startling situations?
Going down this list of questions, here is the profile for our hypothetical puppy: they are a 10-week old terrier-mixed breed that you adopted from a shelter, so there is no known history about their parents or littermates. They are sociable with you and playful, yet tenacious and opinionated. They love toys and if one goes under the couch, they will not give up the ghost until they get it. Chasing critters in the yard is their life and if a chipmunk dives under the fence for safety, the frantic digging begins! They are not a fan of being ignored, so if you are on you are checking social media on your phone, they will likely be demand barking at you or tugging on your pants leg. They also have strong opinions about doing things they do not want to do, but will eventually acquiesce. There are few things they seem deterred or concerned by and are persistent, almost to a fault. They prefer to play with you but will also play on their own. When you come home from work, they are leaping on you, seeking loving and pets, yet are getting so much higher than you ever though a tiny young puppy ever could! When you have taken them to the vet or other outings, they seem to take it all in-stride but didn't have any interest in getting close to meeting other puppies or dogs.
What does all this really boil down to? Well, our hypothetical puppy has significant toy and prey drive, good focus to finish a task they want to finish, natural athletic ability and a good connection to their person. They may, however, show some frustration when asked to do an advanced task that takes more thinking than doing and we want to keep an eye on the how they interact with other dogs. All of this is crucial data that will aid us in choosing an appropriate dog sport!
So, from this quick exercise, some potential dog sport candidates are agility, Barn Hunt, lure coursing/FASTCAT and Scent Work, with canine parkour and flyball being possible contenders as well.
What Sports to Do When
In keeping with our hypothetical puppy, let's figure out what sports we are going to do when.
While they are acting as though they are invincible, their bodies are still growing and developing. It is our job to ensure we are not putting too much stress and strain on their growing bones. This means shying away from running a full 20-obstacle course at full height in agility, as an example. Additionally, we must remember they are babies, mentally. Meaning, it is highly likely there will only be fleeting moments of brilliance before the “Oooo, butterfly!” effect kicks in.
With all this information, we can come up with a plan. Once again, our list of ultimate dog sports to tackle are agility, Barn Hunt, lure coursing/FASTCAT and Scent Work, but we need to prioritize which ones we work on when.
Perhaps in the beginning, our focus will solely be on building core foundation behaviors that would benefit all of these sports (e.g. attention, focus, engagement, ability to get excited and then settle, etc.). Once those skills are somewhat solid, and we’ve really built a solid relationship with our puppy, then we may choose to begin working on the sports that rely more on instincts, such as Barn Hunt and Scent Work. These two activities are great options since the exercises can be modified to ensure we’re not straining the puppy physically, the sessions themselves can be short to accommodate “baby brain” while also providing big payoffs (being able to safely hunt for “critters” in Barn Hunt or tap into the hunt drive when searching for food or toys in Scent Work).
Once you’ve done that for a bit, you may then want to add in a foundation puppy agility class, where the primary focus is on building their relationship with you, being able to work around distractions and other dogs while building confidence in navigating puppy-appropriate obstacles (e.g. jump bars and tables at ground-level).
As your puppy matures, all the exercises across these three sports will increase in intensity and difficulty. Once they are a year old, you may deem it is time to give a FASTCAT a try. While they certainly have a grand ole time, you notice afterwards they are so over-aroused, you can barely handle them! They are screaming and quivering, quite literally losing their minds. Not only that, they are snarking and lunging at other dogs as you are heading back to your car or crating area (a little voice in the back of your mind says, "Remember, we wanted to keep an eye out for that!").
This is when you must ask yourself, “Is this dog sport beneficial to my dog, or not?” Only you know the answer to this question. Is this something you want to work through? Will they only play the “chase the plastic bunny” game a few times a year? If so, maybe it will still be a good activity for them to do once in a great while if they are not going to be practicing the lunging-at-other-dogs-bit. But if you are planning on doing this activity more consistently, then you need to take a long hard look on how you can help them better handle and cope with this level of arousal.
This assessment may also cause you to re-evaluate the other sports on your list. For instance, if you decide that FASTCAT is not a good fit, you may want to cross off flyball too, since the level of arousal while racing past other dogs may simply be too much for your pup. Again, not all dog sports are for all dogs. The titles and ribbons are nice, but not when they come at the cost of what is best for pup.
The Importance of Being Aware
I’m hoping you can see how fluid all of these decisions are. You should never lock yourself into a given path. Life has a knack for throwing wrenches into the best laid plans. A freak accident, a sports injury or the diminishing of joy when a given activity morphs from being a fun game into an arduous hard job. Being your dog’s advocate, you must be cognizant and aware of what is going on, fully prepared to change course at the drop of a hat, if necessary.
This is a tall order, especially if you are years-deep into a journey with your dog. However, your dog deserves nothing less.
Another hard pill to swallow is when a dog is doing a given dog sport with their person simply because they were asked to, not because they WANT to. You can spot these teams from a mile away. The skills and performance may be there, but the joy is wholly lacking. While it may be easy to point fingers at the handler, they may LOVE that given dog sport. Perhaps they have been doing it for tens of years with lots of canine partners, but THIS partner is merely going through the motions.
In my opinion, the dog deserves a vote. No matter the size or breed, their lives are far too short to demand they spend it training, practicing and trialing in something they don’t absolutely love. It is simply not fair to force our preferences upon them in that way.
That being said, no one, including myself, should ever dictate to you what your journey should look like with your own individual dog. There are handlers I’ve seen over the years who identified that they were in this very situation, have a dog who didn't love the same sport they did. They opted to compromise with their dogs. As a team, they would primarily do the activity the dog preferred and would only occasionally do the activity the handler preferred.
When it comes to choosing a dog sport, it is all a dance, an ebb and flow of wishes, wants and desires and how those rub up against reality. If we are open and honest about the puppy or dog we have before us, right now, we can make the best decisions for both of us.
Author: Dianna L. Santos, KPA-CTP, CPDT-KA, CNWI
Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U, Dog Sport University and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU, DSU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.
In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!
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