Organized Sports for Your Dog
By Kim Downing
Training your dog is a fun activity for you and your dog! General training is a basic requirement for dog ownership, but more advanced training can be a fun endeavor. If you haven’t ventured into the various activities available to you and your dog, you might not realize how many opportunities there truly are. We’ll take a look at some of the most commonly available options.
**Note: These options are available in the various countries in the world, so wherever you are located, please be sure to check with local kennel clubs to see the rules in your country and presiding clubs/authorities for each activity.**
Obedience and Rally
The most common activity to move into from general training is competitive obedience and rally.
Obedience trials have multiple levels with each one getting harder. The typical tasks include heeling, sit, down, recall, and stay. Higher levels include scent discrimination, send outs, jumping over jumps, among other tasks.
Obedience is more formal and requires tighter precision in the work. Additionally, there is no talking (other than one spoken command unless you are using hand signal commands) to the dog allowed during the exercise, although you can praise in between exercises.
Rally is an off shoot of obedience that is intended to be an entry into the competitive obedience world. It is less formal and actually more fun! Dogs are trained in numerous commands such as come front, weaving heel, stand, side stepping, pivots, as well as others. What makes rally unique is that you never know what commands you and your dog will encounter. This is because the judge of the day determines a course, which is made up of separate stations. At each station there is sign that corresponds with a skill.
Depending on the level you are entered in, you and your dog will navigate a course full of stations stopping at each one to perform the skill that is indicated by the sign.
What makes rally more fun is that it is ever-changing. You won’t ever walk the same course twice, so you have to train your dog for all the skills possible but won’t know which ones you’ll actually need in a trial. Plus, you can talk to your dog throughout the course, if desired, and repeat a command more than once. Lastly, the scoring is not as rigid as obedience.
Agility is a sport that is engaging, complex, and addictive! It is the fastest growing of the competitive sports and there are multiple organizations you can show under. Each organization that offers agility has slightly different rules, obstacles, etc. so it’s a good idea to become familiar with each one to decide where showing is best for you.
There are many, many levels and titles, but the main goal is for the dog to run as fast as it safely can and as cleanly as it can. There is always a standard course time, and your dog should run faster than this listed time. Time flies fast on the course!
Depending on what type of course you are entered in, you and your dog will encounter contact obstacles (A-frame, dog walk, see saw, etc.), jumps, open and closed tunnels, pause table, and weave poles. The course order is determined by the judge for that trial, so the courses aren’t ever the same. This is challenging because you need to train your dog for as many possible course variations as you can.
Prior to your run, you (and the other competitors) are allowed to walk the course without your dog to get a feel for the order and figure out how you are going to handle it. When it is your turn to enter the ring with your dog, you have to help your dog navigate the course correctly at a high speed. This requires a lot of training and good communication between you and the dog.
Herding is an old time training activity that still has real world applications. It is also a competitive sport with multiple levels of titles, but it a challenging activity for both the handler and the dog.
The dog and the handler have to work in unison with one another. The dog needs to listen to the handler, but the handler also has to closely trust the dog and listen to it.
Herding is all about moving stock (ducks, sheep, cattle) from one place to the pen. The challenge comes from the training that is necessary to work with a dog working in drive as well as never knowing what the stock will be like on a given day. One day you might be presented with sheep that willingly move as a group and the next get a headstrong ewe that runs amok!
Herding is an activity that requires a dog with natural herding instinct, so before embarking on this type of training you will want to consult with an experienced herding trainer that can tell you whether your dog is a good candidate or not.
One last note, the main challenge for those training in herding is having enough access to stock for training. Unless you own your own sheep, you will need to be near enough to a training facility to practice with some regularity.
Tracking is a training activity that asks you to trust in your dog and allow him to lead you. We cannot teach a dog ‘how’ to track or follow scent. We simply show them which scent we want them to follow at a given time.
There are multiple levels of tracking and each level gets progressively more difficult. A confident dog needs to work a good distance in front of you, 30-35 feet. You follow behind and wait for the dog to alert you to an article that has been left on the track (that was previously in the day laid).
In competition, a successful trial is one in which your dog closely follows the track, properly indicates the articles, and you properly signal the judge.
Variations in difficulty for the various levels includes longer tracks, more turns and challenges, tracks moving across different surfaces or obstacles, tracks that are older or that include a secondary (but not to be followed) scent, and tracks laid in a variety of places from grass field to urban setting.
Schutzhund is a German sport that was created for the German Shepherd Dog and was used to determine the working suitability of a particular dog. Now, technically any breed of dog can participate in Schutzhund, although the best breeds and most common ones in competition are breeds like the German Shepherd Dog, Belgian Malinois, Doberman Pinscher, Rottweiler, and other larger, more powerful breeds.
Many people think that Schutzhund is simply attack work, but in actuality, Schutzhund has three main components to it: obedience, tracking, and protection.
Each one of these components must be achieved for titles, and they each present a different aspect of workability. The dog should be well controlled, loyal to handler and commands, and possess a high desire to work throughout each section.
The obedience component is similar to general obedience as discussed although has a few variations that you won’t see in other obedience style trials. For example, it wouldn’t be unusual to see a dog have to navigate over an A-frame obstacle in Schutzhund style obedience or to hear gunshots.
Tracking is similar to other tracking venues, but only Schutzhund has protection. In this section, a ‘helper’ hides behind a blind obscured from the dog’s view. The handler then instructs their dog to go out and find the hidden person. The dog is to hold the person in place until the handler can come.
At some point in the event, the helper will try to evade capture, attempt to escape, or even pretend to threaten the dog or handler. The dog is required to be brave enough to pursue and grab the helper (on the sleeve) and to release his grip when instructed to do so. It is a high level of control that these dogs operate under.
It is not possible to only work in the protection phase of Schutzhund! You will need to invest the time and energy to all areas of training.
These are just a handful of activities that you can do with your dog. There are many, many other options available to you. There are new sports being introduced every year, and you have other options like search and rescue, therapy work, and more. Remember, training is a journey and not a destination!