As dogs have become companion animals and further away from their traditional work roles as hunters, trackers and herders, many dogs don’t have a regular outlet to channel their natural abilities and energy. Dog sports fill that gap.
From nose work to agility, to surfing and dock jumping, canine-related sports encourage dogs to utilize their natural talents such as: strength, endurance, agility, intelligence, smell, sight and hearing. A dog handler’s skills and fitness are also put to the test, so it’s great for humans too!
Participation in these sports can be purely recreational or highly competitive. Which one you pick will depend on you and your dog’s fitness level, abilities, ambitions and interests.
What’s great is that training and sporting events are held locally, regionally and internationally by canine clubs, associations, or groups of friends.
No matter what the sport, dogs and their guardians have serious fun.
Scent Work / Nose Work
Scent Work, or Nose Work, is a dog sport that involves a dog’s keenest sense – their sense of smell. The sport can be recreational or competitive and will appeal to dogs of any breed, size or age.
With Scent Work, dogs are encouraged to make use of their nose. The activities play to their ability to follow a scented trail. Scent and nose work clubs and associations will have different trial tests, rules and achievements. However within all groups dogs are trained to pick up a specific scent, locate it and then alert their handler.
Scents can be hidden under cardboard boxes, in articles placed along a competitive course, or outside in wilderness or urban environments. The sport fully utilizes a dog’s natural search skills, both mentally and physically stimulating them. No particular obedience skills are needed, although it is recommended a dog be able to sit or go down on command.
There are three different ways for dogs to work scent: air scenting, trailing, and tracking – all of which a dog does naturally already. At the beginning of scent work training, a dog is encouraged in their desire to hunt and scent independently. It takes some convincing sometimes to get a dog to leave their guardian’s side and go searching. Other dogs are eager to hunt but need to be taught to focus on the task.
Dogs can be trained to search for an article (such as a box or wallet) or a person. Once a scent is located, a dog will alert their handler. The alert can be active or passive. Examples of active alerts are: scratching, mouthing, retrieving. Examples of passive alerts: barking, a sit or down position by the item or person, bringing the handler to the item or person.
Dogs are often first trained to smell with specific target odors such as birch, anise and clove. Tracking trial competitions are one type of nose work test and are held by canine clubs, such as the American Kennel Club (AKC) and other canine associations all over the world.
The trial emulates finding a lost person and/or hidden articles along a straightforward track. Items are dropped along a pre-determined course so that the performance of the dog can be assessed. The dog is usually worked on a 30 foot (10 meter) lead, but the length of lead actually used depends on the terrain.
The dog is then judged on their ability to find the lost items and the tracklayer at the end of the track for the dog to be awarded a pass.
Whatever the nose work task, all dogs participating build confidence and find scent work fun and rewarding.
Flyball is a dog sport in which teams of dogs race against each other from a start/finish line, over a line of hurdles to a special box that releases a tennis ball which has to be retrieved when the dog presses the spring loaded pad. The dog then races back to their handlers while carrying the ball.
Flyball is run in teams of four dogs, as a relay race. A Flyball Relay course is 51 feet (15.5 meters) long and has a starting line, four hurdles and a box. A tournament is usually organized as either a double elimination or round robin in format.
Double elimination is best of three or best of five. Round robin is best of three out of five. The first team to have all four dogs run without errors wins the heat, and the first team to win three heats receives one point towards its standing in the tournament.
The four hurdles are measured 10 feet (3 meters) apart, except for the first, which is 6 feet (1.8 meters) from the start line. The height of the hurdles depends on the height of the dogs on the team.
All size and breed of dogs, including mixed breed dogs, participate and enjoy flyball. There are also regional, national and international-level competitions held at Dog Shows such as AKC and Crufts. There are also community-level clubs that dog lovers can join to enjoy the sport with their dog.
Earth Dogs (or Earthdog) are competitive trials that grade and rank the working ability and instinct of small (often short-legged) terriers or Dachshunds. Historically these dogs were bred to hunt vermin, such as rodents and other animals that burrow and live in underground dens, such as rabbits.
Earthdog den trials involve man-made underground tunnels that the dogs must negotiate, while scenting a rat, “the quarry.” The dog must follow the scent to the quarry and then “work” the quarry. Depending on the sanctioning organization, “working” means an active behavior such as barking, scratching, staring, pawing, or digging.
The quarry is protected at all times by wooden bars across the end of the tunnel. The hunting encounter is controlled, and neither the dog nor the quarry (usually two rats) are endangered by the activity.
An earth dog trial is timed. The earth dog is judged on the speed and aptitude in which a dog navigates the tunnels, locates the prey and then “works” the rat (which must be done continuously for a length of time).
Timing starts from the moment the dog is released by the handler. The dog may enter the tunnel and come out or walk around the tunnel, but he/she must get to the rat within the time allotted. However, once the dog reaches the rat, the dog must remain with it and “work it” for at least 60 seconds.
In Canada, earthdog trials are sanctioned by the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC). In the United States, two major organizations sanction earthdog trials: the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the American Working Terrier Association (AWTA). There are other groups worldwide that have sanctioned events.
There are also non-competitive venues where dog handlers can test their dog’s natural hunting aptitude and learn the sport. Usually a dog has to be six months of age or older. In AKC Earthdog tests, there are only certain terrier breeds who are eligible to participate.
The AWTA predates the AKC program, and was founded to promote and test the working abilities of terriers and dachshunds. In AWTA den trials there are certain breeds of terriers who are eligible to participate (some differ from the AKC). There is also a miscellaneous class in which smaller breeds may compete.
As a dog advances in the earthdog tests, the levels get more challenging and the dog advances in skill and prestige.
Dog agility is a dog sport in which a dog navigates an obstacle course guided by his/her handler. A dog’s ability to race through the course is judged on time and accuracy.
Dog agility can be traced back to the 1970s when a demonstration was held at the Crufts Dog Show in England to entertain spectators. The course was based on the type of course used for horse-dressage events. Since then, the dog sport has spread across the globe and major competitions are held worldwide.
The obstacle course can consist of a-frames, tunnels, jumps, teeter totters, weave poles and more.
The dogs must run off-leash, without incentives (no treats, no toys) and are guided by the handler using hand-signals, body language and voice commands. Scoring of runs is based on how many faults are incurred as the dog races through the course. The faults can include things like exceeding the standard course time or knocking down a bar in a jump.
All breeds of dogs (including mixed breeds) participate and enjoy agility.
Cani-cross (or CaniX for short) is the dog sport of cross-country running while hitched to a dog. The sport is popular in Europe, and is becoming more popular in North America. Cani-cross is related to other dog-powered sports such as skijoring and bikejoring.
Runners need a special running harness, waist belt and flexible line that connect the runner to the dog. Competitions require more specific equipment in terms of the length of line and type of clips used. The advantage of cani-cross gear is that joggers can run without compromising their stride.
Cani-cross is also becoming a very popular recreational activity for people who simply want to walk, hike or jog with their dog while having their hands free (without holding a leash).
Disc Dog / Frisbee Dog
In the dog sport Disc Dog, dogs and their handlers interact with a flying disc. Disc Dog is the generic title, but the sport is also commonly referred to as Frisbee Dog, after Wham-O’s trademark brand of disc.
The human throws the disc and the dog catches it. It sounds simple, but the sport is filled with exciting acrobatics and athleticism that take years to master.
Disc dog competitions have two types of events: distance catching (toss and fetch) and choreographed freestyle catching (freestyle).
In toss and fetch, teams of one person and one dog compete. Distances vary, but the longest distance usually does not exceed 50 meters (165 feet). Dogs are awarded points for catches based on the distance of the throw, with mid-air catches rating extra points. The divisions (levels) in disc dog events are usually based on the skill and experience of the handler.
Freestyle is a judging competition. The handler and his/her dog perform a choreographed routine to music with multiple discs in play. Athleticism, degree of difficulty, showmanship and other skills are judged. Freestyle is a very popular event with audiences. Incredible flips, hyper-fast multiple catches, and spectacular vaults make it challenging for dog and handler, as well as great entertainment for spectators.
Dock Diving / Dock Jumping
Dock jumping, also known as dock diving, is a dog sport in which dogs compete against one another to see who can jump the farthest distance and/or height from a dock into a body of water.
There are numerous clubs and organizations that run dock-jumping competitions around the world, but Purina’s Incredible Dog Challenge remains one of the most popular and is televised on sports television. Associations include Dock Dogs and Diving Dogs and Ultimate Air Dogs.
There are various divisions of dock jumpers, depending on the skill and experience of the dog. Levels range from Novice/Beginner to Extreme/Ultimate/Elite. The size and age of the dog also factor in. For instance small dogs (“lap dogs”) will have their own division as will dogs over eight-years-old (“veteran dogs”). A dog is ranked depending on the points he/she achieves in their division.
The exact dock size, rules and regulations and competitive levels may vary slightly from one another based on the club or association. Usually the dock’s length, width and height above water is 35 to 40 feet (11 to 12 meters) long by 8 feet (2.4) meters wide and 2 feet (0.6meters) above the water surface.
The pool must be least 4 feet (1.2 m) deep. The dock’s surface is covered in artificial turf carpet or a rubber mat for safety and to give the dog traction for take off.
When competing, the handler may use any amount of the dock and they may start their dog from any point on the dock. Each team takes two jumps in round-robin format. The longer of the two jumps is that team’s score for that competition. Digital video freeze-frame technology is used to measure the distance and/or height of the jump. Occasionally, it is measured manually by judges.
A jump is only official if, or when, the toy leaves the handler’s hand. There are two different techniques that can be used to encourage the dog to jump into the water.
- Place and send: the handler walks the dog to the end of the dock, throws the toy and releases the dog. Or the dog is walked back to the starting point, placed, then released or sent to go get the toy.
- Chase: The dog is placed in a stay or wait at the starting position on the dock. The handler walks to the end of the dock holding the toy, then calls the dog and throws the toy, trying to keep the toy just in front of the dog’s nose so they chase it into the water.
No matter what distance dock diving dogs jump, everyone thoroughly enjoys the “splash” they make.
Dog scootering is a sport where one or more dogs pull a human riding an unmotorized kick scooter.
Similar to bikejoring, or sulky riding, the dog(s) wear special harnesses and are hooked to the scooter with a towline/gangline. The gangline has a bungee cord which smooths the ride.
Most of the same commands used for mushing are used in dog scootering, although dog scooterers tend to be more relaxed about their commands, sometimes using “right” and “left” instead of “gee” and “haw”, for example.
The scooters usually have mountain-bike style tires, which range in size from 16 inches to 26 inches. They have a large footboard and mountain-style bike brakes. Some of the newer scooters also incorporate front shocks similar to mountain bikes to absorb bumps better.
Many dogs, from Huskies, to Great Danes, and Schnauzers to Pit Bulls participate in dog scootering. Any dog over 30 pounds can pull a scooter, but smaller dogs in teams can also be used. All dogs, regardless of size, must be slowly worked into fitness.
In this sport, special care should be paid to the dog’s paws, which may take time to adjust to runs and ground conditions. Booties should always be carried for cuts and abrasions, as well as a first aid kit to treat any possible cuts and abrasions.
While this can be an urban sport, done on sidewalks and paved trails, dog scooterers more commonly take the sport off-road to mountain-bike trails and back-country roads, where a higher level of skill is needed. There is also less chance of having to dodge people or motor vehicle traffic on these trails.
Dog scootering provides good exercise for the dog and the rider. The dog gets exercise pulling the scooter, but people have to help push, especially up hills.
The sport is still maturing, and although many people of all ages simply do it recreationally, there are a few formal official dog races that include dog scootering.
Water Work / Water Rescue
Water Work is great for dogs bred for rescue work and water such as Newfoundland Dogs (Newfies) and Portuguese Water Dogs. That’s not to say other dogs can’t compete in work work sports, but the sport is best suited for dogs who love to work and love water. You’ll find that most water work standards, certifications and competitions are based around the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America (PWDCA) and Newfound Club of America (NCA.) Other countries will have their own breed clubs and standards.
In Rescue Work and Working With Fishermen, dogs work to demonstrate skills focused on helping boaters and swimmers.
For Rescue Work, skills tested include a dog swimming to an “unconscious” person and bringing them back to shore or a boat. Dogs are also asked to do underwater retrieves, jump off boats to retrieve objects overboard and taking life rings and knotted lines to “drowning victims.”
For Working with Fishermen dogs will carry messages between boats, tow nets and place them where directed, cary gear between boats and shore and other such tasks that test endurance, intelligence and strength.
Dog surfing is both a recreational and competitive dog sport. Dog surfing started as a recreational phenomenon in Southern California, and quickly became so popular that competitions were introduced.
The first dog surfing contests started in 2005 in San Diego as fundraisers for charities, a practice that continues on today.
Dog surfing events are held each year in California and include: Helen Woodward Dog Surf-A-Thon (Del Mar), Loews Surf Dog Competion (Imperial Beach), Purina Incredible Dog Challenge (Ocean Beach), Beach Blanket Bingo Paw Pawty and Surf Contest (Huntington Beach) and Surf City Surf Dog (Huntington Beach) among others.
While recreational dog surfing has been around for a few years, competitive surfing has only recently gained popularity. Competitive dog surfing, while not for everyone, has been responsible for developing techniques and equipment that are making this new sport safer, more fun, and more accessible by everyone.
There are a few key prerequisites for a dog to enjoy surfing:
- Both dog and handler should be good open water swimmers and in good shape, as the sport requires good fitness and balance.
- Proper equipment needs to be used for a dog’s safety. A dog needs a life vest and the surfboard needs to be a softboard. Softboards are not made of fiberglass or wood (like most surfboards) and therefore are safer for the dog, in case of a wipeout.
Finally, a dog really has to like the water, waves and swimming with their guardians. After that it’s practice makes perfect and having fun. Kawabonga!
Bikejoring is a dryland mushing activity where a harnessed dog (or team of dogs) is attached to a towline and runs ahead of a cyclist on cross-country trails. The activity is related to skijoring, cani-cross and dog scootering.
Any breed (or mixed-breed) of dog can be used in bikejoring. However, because it it a more rigorous activity often the more popular breeds for bikejoring are large breed dogs such as Pit Bulls, Siberian Huskies, Samoyeds, Malamutes, Alaskan Huskies, Sled Hounds and Pointers.
Bikejoring is often a recreational activity, although there are competitive events held worldwide. Competitors are started off separately on a timer, to avoid tangles and collisions, and race around a track. Most bikejor competitions have strict rules over the age and fitness of the dogs and provide watering spots along the track.
Proper equipment and safety are a must in the sport. The dog, or dogs, are fitted with special harnesses, such as x-back harnesses, which are suitable for pulling and running in. The harnesses are normally attached to a gang line and a bungee towline, which clips to the front of the bicycle, but is never attached to the handlebars.
Many bikejorers use bayonets, antennas, or plastic pipes to suspend the towline above the front wheel safely, which prevents it from tangling between the wheel and forks of the bike. Proper equipment for the bicyclist is also necessary.
Although Skijoring first started with a person being pulled by a horse, people now enjoy the sport with dogs. In skijoring one to three dogs assist a cross-country skier. Similar to cani-cross and bikejoring, a dog is connected to a skier with a special harness and towline. The skijoring line is usually at least 1.5 meters (8 feet) long. A section of bungee cord is often incorporated into the line to absorb the impact of the dog’s forward motion and allows for a quick stop by the skier. Special quick-release hitches or hooks are used so that the skijorer may unhook the dog’s lead rapidly. Skiers use cross-country skis or skating skis.
Unlike mushing, the skiers and dogs work as a team in the activity. The cross-country skier provides power with skis and poles, and the dog adds additional power by running and pulling. As with bikejoring and dog scootering, special care should be paid to a dog’s fitness level and paws.
Skijoring is both a recreational and competitive activity. For obvious reasons, it’s particularly popular in nordic areas, like Scandinavian countries, Canada and Alaska.
Many breeds of dog participate in skijoring, although smaller dogs under 35 pounds are usually not up to the challenge. That said, any dog that is enthusiastic, energetic and enjoys running a trail and pulling will enjoy the sport. Larger, athletic dogs, whether they are mixed breeds or purebreeds are often seen on the trails.
These can include: Pointers, Setters, Siberian and Alaskan Huskies, Malamutes, Samoyeds, Inuit dogs, Golden Retrievers, Giant Schnauzers, Labrador Retrievers, American Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, American bull dogs, and Mastiffs.
The sport is practiced recreationally, and competitively, both for long distance travel and for short (sprint) distances. Most races are between 5 kilometers (3 miles) and 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) in length. One of the longest race is the Road Runner 100  held in Whitehorse, Yukon, with a distance of 160 kilometres (99 miles).
In the United States and Canada, sanctioned skijoring races are often held in conjunction with sled dog races.
Skijoring dogs are taught the classic dog sledding commands to start running (hike), turn (gee and haw – right and left respectively), to stop (whoa) and to pass distractions (on by).
Hiking With Your Dog / Dog Hiking
Dog hiking is an activity where dogs are taken alongside their guardians to wilderness areas. Sometimes packs (similar to saddle bags) are strapped to the dog, so they can carry their own food and/or water (which is often referred to as pack hiking). Hiking with dogs is great exercise and enjoyable past time for outdoor enthusiasts.
Selected destinations do need to be reviewed in case the park or natural habitat has any particular dog restrictions. Some parks and mountain routes do not allow dogs due to ecological or wildlife preservation practices.
On hiking routes dogs are often required to be on-leash and rules regarding trail etiquette and safety need to be followed. Usually more populated areas require dogs to be on leash.
Some wilderness areas will allow off-leash hiking as long as a dog is under “voice control”. No matter where the hike, the recall command is the single most important command for a dog to obey when out hiking.
In hiking, proper preparations are as important for a dog as they are for people. Hot days and rough terrain can hurt a dog’s’ paws, so hikers should equip themselves appropriately to prevent injuries to a dog’s feet. Also a dog, just like people, can get sun or heat stroke, so will need enough water to drink along the way. A dog should also have ID tags (or microchip), rabies vaccine and a flea/tick preventative. If going into back-country areas, equipping a dog with a GPS collar is also a good safety precaution.
Before going on a hike, a dog’s fitness also needs to be assessed. Not all dogs will be physically capable of long, arduous hikes. So easing into the activity and determining a dog’s fitness threshold will help determine appropriate hikes to go on.
Gradually expanding the distance, duration and elevation of daily walks will help build a dog’s endurance. (Dogs who are under one year old are still developing their muscles and bones, so they should not go on hikes that last more than half a day.)
Aside from taking the necessary precautions, dogs thoroughly enjoy recreational hiking with their guardians worldwide.
Dog Dancing / Canine Freestyle / Heelwork to Music
Canine freestyle is also known as musical canine freestyle, freestyle heeling (also known as Heelwork to Music), dog dancing. It is a modern dog sport that mixes obedience training, tricks, and dance to music. The sport has a degree of artistry which allows for creative interaction between dogs and their handlers.
Canine freestyle is a choreographed performance and is meant to illustrate the training and joyful relationship of a dog and handler team. Distinctive to canine freestyle is the characteristic that a dog has to be taught to be able to work on both sides of the handler’s body, not just the left side (standard obedience heeling).
There are two types of musical canine freestyle – freestyle heeling (also known as heelwork to music) and musical freestyle. Freestyle heeling focuses on a dog’s ability to stay in variations of the heel position while the handler moves to music. In heel work, dog and trainer must remain close to each other at all times. Pivots, and moving diagonally, backwards, and forwards are important parts to freestyle heeling routines.
Musical freestyle combines a variety of tricks and other obedience talents. Heel work can be combined with other moves such as leg weaving, moving together, and tricks such as jumping, spinning, bowing, rolling over, etc. A popular finishing trick is for the dog to jump into the trainer’s arms.
There are several organizations around the world that have competitive freestyle events, such as Crufts. Competition rules vary in the different countries and between groups, but all are judged on a variety of technical and artistic merit points.
Generally, there is only one dog per handler for competition, but sometimes there are groups of dogs and handlers. Any breed of dog (including mixed breeds) can participate.
Musical freestyle has also become quite popular in televised talent shows and speciality acts. These performances are usually referred to as Exhibition freestyle, as the focus is to entertain an audience and usually allows for props, cues, costumes that would not normally be allowed on the competition circuit.
Dog sports are a great way to for you and your dog to bond, exercise and stay fit. Participating in sports with your dog is also a great way to meet and socialize with other active dog lovers. So start exploring the dog-related activities in your community and help your dog stay fit and healthy!