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Give Your Dog a Job Through the Fun World of Dog Sports

Behavior and Training  •   Penny Leigh  •   Jun 04, 2020

Photo by Phyllis Ensley 

When Jeff and Sue Kotlarek started searching for a dog, they had one requirement. “We just wanted a dog that would fetch a ball,” Sue said. The Michigan couple found the perfect candidate in their local shelter. Jazz was a bouncing Staffie mix who loved toys. But once Jazz joined their family, the Kotlareks realized they got way more than a dog that chased balls. She also practiced gymnastics on their furniture and ran laps around the living room. “She had so much energy that I had to find an outlet for her,” Sue said.

Jeff and Sue had never heard of sports for dogs; they desired a pet to accompany them on family outings. They had no idea that Jazz would change their lifestyles forever. They researched and discovered the sport of flyball. It sounded like the ideal activity for Jazz as it required running, jumping and retrieving balls. “That was the beginning of my sport dog career,” Sue said.

They joined a flyball team and added a second rescue dog, Rodger, who began competing in the sport along with Jazz. Flyball team mates told her about other events in which their dogs competed, and soon Jazz and Rodger had added agility, obedience, tracking and more to their resumes. Rodger even became the first mixed-breed dog to earn the AKC Versatile Companion Dog honor. “My dogs and I are having a ball,” Sue said. “Getting involved in sports enhances the bonding with you and your dog, plus gives you the feeling of accomplishment. And you make great human friends.”

North Carolina resident Shannon Jones was excited to purchase her first dog as an adult – a Doberman Pinscher that she named Jessie. “She was just supposed to be my buddy and walking companion, but that was not enough for her. She was trying to remodel our house and not in a good way,” Shannon said. Shannon enrolled Jessie in puppy obedience classes, and the trainers told her about the sport of agility, an obstacle course for dogs, that they thought would be an excellent outlet for Jessie. “She started foundation agility classes at age 8 months, and we never looked back,” Shannon said. “Competitive obedience classes were added very soon after to help gain some control in agility.”

Today, Shannon has earned hundreds of titles on dogs in a variety of sports and has even become an AKC Judge of the sports of Agility and Rally. “I find that the time that I take to learn and train dog sports really enhances my bond with my dogs. Our ability to communicate expands. We become a team that almost shares one mind,” Shannon said. “ I also find that dog sports help keep us all moving and doing. I don't sit around a lot as I have training and trialing to do.”

If you think you have a candidate for dog sports, then you have a lot of choices as more fun events become available, ranging from dock diving to scent work to trick dog. Think about your dogs’ talents and your own capabilities when deciding what to pursue, Sue said. “Some dogs have certain natural abilities such as a great nose for tracking or are very agile for agility or have a calmer demeanor for rally. You also should consider your personal limitations that each sport requires for handlers,” she said. It is important that the dog like the activity or they can’t be successful, Shannon said. For me, I just try sports. I see what my dogs enjoy and then pursue them further…You really won't know what your dog enjoys without trying things. “

Here are other pointers for getting started on the fun road to enjoying sports with your dogs:

  • Visit Events: Go to events and watch and learn before enrolling in a class. “The people there love to talk about their chosen sport and their dogs,” Sue said. You can find events via the AKC Event Search: https://webapps.akc.org/event-search/#/search
  • Basics First: Every dog needs basic manners and obedience training before pursuing sports. If your dog is a puppy, start with a puppy kindergarten class or other class designed for puppies. If your dog is an adult, start with a basic manners and/or obedience class. Learning the commands of Sit, Down, Come, and Stay and how to walk on a loose leash will benefit your dog for its entire life!
  • Do Your Homework: Before selecting a training school,I highly recommend doing your research. Find reputable training facilities/trainers near you. Attend some classes without a dog to see if the training philosophy fits you and your dog,” Shannon said.
  • Health Check: Before training for a sport, get a veterinary checkup to assure that your dog is in proper condition and health to participate in the activity. Puppies’ growth plates need to have closed before you pursue rigorous sports and your pup starts jumping and climbing at full height. Your vet can determine when the growth plates have closed. Puppies can do many foundation exercises while waiting for that time.
  • Patience Please: You need patience and a positive attitude to train your dog.  “Do not try to rush your dog, and be sure to train the dog you have,” Sue said. 
  • Find the Right Motivation: It is vital that you select a reward that your dog really wants. If your dog feels mediocre about the reward you are using, then they will not be motivated to work. Some dogs like food, and you should try different treats to see which ones really “turn on” your pup. Other dogs prefer toys.
  • Have Fun! Sports should be about enjoyment so if your dog is not having fun – or you are not finding pleasure in the activity, you should consider a different sport or a different class or trainer. Don’t take the activity too seriously – remember the more fun that you and your dog have, the better the results!
  • AKC Website: You can find detailed information on dog sports and titling opportunities at www.akc.org. Read this article for more on getting started: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/sports/get-started-in-dog-sports-and-events/

AKC GoodDog! Helpline – Training Help 7 Days a Week

AKC GoodDog! Helpline is a live telephone service that offers daily individualized training advice to new puppy owners and all dog owners in need of training support. You can purchase AKC GoodDog! Helpline for a temporary discount of only $79.99. Join us on June 23 at 12pm (EST) for the GoodDog! Helpline webinar where Penny Leigh, a Certified Trainer with the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and GoodDog! Helpline program lead will answer some of the top training questions she has been receiving during COVID-19. The webinar will conclude with a brief Q&A session.

Penny Leigh CPDT-KA is the program manager of the AKC GoodDog! Helpline, a seven-day-a-week telephone support service staffed by dog trainers. A certified dog trainer, Penny has bred, trained and competed with dogs for more than 30 years. Her dogs have earned hundreds of titles at the top level in numerous sports, including conformation, agility, rally, obedience, dock diving, flyball, Barn Hunt, and more. She and her All-American Dog, Cameo, have earned the AKC Master Agility Championship and AKC Preferred Agility Championship and made the finals of the AKC National Agility Championship and the Westminster Kennel Club Master Agility Championship.

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