Dog Sports

For dog breeds that need a mental challenge, dog sports may provide just the outlet your dog craves to keep him occupied and happy. The best thing about dog sports is that all dogs, regardless of pedigree, size, or alteration, can compete.

Although there are many sports that involve dogs such as tossing a ball or catching a Frisbee, certain dog sports are sanctioned and recognized as creating champions in the dog world.


One of the few dog sports that involves teams rather than individual dogs, flyball sends each dog over a line of hurdles, then to a spring loaded pad on the front of a box. When the dog pounces on the pad, a tennis ball is released from the box. The dog must catch the ball and travel back to the handler. This act of catching the ball on the fly is where the sport gets its name. When the first dog on the team returns, the second dog begins his run, continuing until all four dogs on the team have completed the relay.

Flyball is sanctioned by the North American Flyball Association (NAFA), which sets the rules for the sport. Hurdles range in height from 7 inches to 14 inches, with the hurdle height for each team being determined by the shortest dog on the team. The shortest dog is measured at the withers, or shoulders, then officials subtract five inches to arrive at the hurdle height. However, even very small dogs must be able to jump a minimum 7-inch hurdle, while the largest dogs need only jump maximum 14-inch hurdles.

Flyball history

Dog trainers in Southern California combined hurdling with tennis ball retrieval in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Herbert Wagner developed the first flyball box and demonstrated the sport on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Flyball clubs soon developed across the United States and Canada, with the current-day NAFA growing out of a joint venture between the Michigan and Ontario clubs. Today, there are over 400 clubs and 6,500 dogs involved in flyball. Over 300 tournaments are held each year all over North America, and the sport has spread throughout the United Kingdom, and European Union.

Champion Flyballers

Teams may be composed of dogs all of the same breed or of a mixture of breeds. Terriers and herding dogs such as Border Collies currently dominate the sport, although the top point-earner as of April, 2009 was a mixed-breed.

For any team that completes its race in under 24 seconds, each dog receives 25 points towards a flyball title. If the team finishes in under 28 seconds, each dog receives 5 points, and in under 32 seconds, 1 point. Any dog who accumulates 20 points is given the title of Flyball Dog (FD), the lowest rank. At 500 points, a dog becomes a Flyball Dog Champion (FDCh), and at 100,000 points, the dog is awarded the Hobbes Award, the highest classification. (Hobbes was the first dog ever to reach 100,000 points.)

Shadow, the mixed breed dog at the top of the leader board, became the first dog to reach 150,000 points in August of 2008. Handler Karen Larkin credits her team, Pawsitive Attitudes, with helping and supporting Shadow to this remarkable accomplishment.


One of the fastest growing dog sports, agility competitions combine speed and precision to run dogs through the various obstacles in a course. Obstacles may include those which must be contacted in a certain way like see-saws and A-frames, rigid or collapsed tunnels, hurdles, jumps, weave poles, and pause tables where the dog must stand still for a certain number of seconds before continuing through the course.

Dog going through weave poles
Weave poles are just one of the obstacles in Agility

Governing bodies for agility training

Agility events are sanctioned by the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), or the American Kennel Club (AKC). As with all AKC competitions, AKC agility is open only to purebred dogs. However, the dogs need not be show-quality dogs and may be spayed or neutered.

Under NADAC rules, dogs enter at the novice level then advance to the open level and then on to the elite level. Jump heights are determined by the division (standard, junior, veteran), as well as by the height of the dog. Each division includes categories for proficient and skilled. Skilled competitors may jump lower heights, but proficient competitors earn more qualifying points.

USDAA rules specify that a standard course include, at a minimum, three contact obstacles, two types of tunnels, weave poles, a table, and a tire jump. At each event, the judge designs the course and sets a standard time. A dog’s score is determined by adding course penalties such as the dog’s paws not touching the correct place on a contact obstacle to the number of seconds by which the dog’s time exceeded the standard time. The dog with the lowest score wins.

Non-standard USDAA courses are available where bonus points may be earned or where certain obstacles are excluded or where dogs compete in relay teams.

Beagle jumping a hurdle
Big or small, pedigree or mutt, any dog can take part in dog sports.

Top physical form is required for agility training

Agility training is unique as compared to other dog sports in that the handler must be in top physical form, just as the dog is. In most dog sports, the handler stands still and lets the dog do all of the running and jumping. In agility, the handler runs alongside the dog, encouraging him through the various obstacles. It is not unheard of for a handler to blow out a knee when turning a corner as he runs the course.

Other Dog Sports

Lure coursing is also a very popular dog sport, but it is only open to certain breeds, those known as sight hounds. Breeds included in this group include the Afghan Hound, the Basenji, the Greyhound, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, the Saluki, and the Whippet.

Dog sports equipment
Some of the equipment used in dog sports

Because these dogs live for the chase, a lure course is designed by placing pulleys around a field to represent the route a prey animal might take when being chased by a sight hound. A plastic lure is attached to the string running through the pulleys, and the dog chases the lure through the course. Dogs are scored based on speed, agility, endurance, enthusiasm, and follow.

Some handlers place great emphasis on scores, while others look only to the fact that their dog had a great time. According to the American Sighthound Field Association website, someone once said of lure coursing, “Don’t tell my dog how he placed – he thinks he had a good time.”

Dock Diving is a sport that involves a dog running the length of a dock then jumping into a lake or pool to retrieve a toy thrown by the handler. Big Air is a long jump, while Extreme Vertical resembles the track and field high jump event. The third event in dock diving is speed retrieve, where the dog jumps into the water and swims out to snatch a toy mounted at the end of a pole. Iron dogs compete in all three events. These events are sanctioned by an organization known as DockDogs, based in Medina, Ohio.

Dog Scootering is similar to the mushing events held in Alaska such as the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Dogs, either alone or in teams, pull a human riding on a kick scooter rather than a dog sled. The scooter is unmotorized and uses mountain-bike tires. Larger dogs such as Great Danes and Huskies generally pull alone, while smaller dogs pull in teams.

Sheepdog Trials are events where herding dogs move sheep around an enclosure as directed by the dogs’ handlers. These events are popular in the United Kingdom, where the skill is not just a sport but a necessity in hilly farm country. There are several events, but all center around the dog’s ability to keep between three and six sheep under control.

Herding dog and sheep
Sheepdog Trials test a dog's sheep handling skills

In one event, two dogs work together to divide the sheep into two groups, which is difficult because sheep tend to stay together. One dog herds half of the sheep into a pen while the other dog keeps the rest of the herd still, usually only by using his head and an “evil-eye” stare. (Those of you who have ever had to keep your children quiet in church know exactly what this means.)

Events are scored by taking deductions from the maximum possible score for each fault such as when the sheep move off line. If the course is not completed in the maximum allotted time, no points are awarded.

No matter which sport you choose to pursue with your canine companion, you will realize a closer relationship with him and will likely improve both your physical fitness and your dog’s.

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