Dogs are doers. It is in their history and bloodlines to be guardians of their families, to hunt for their food and to chase what catches their eye. These instincts led to the evolution of dog sports into such a wide variety that a sport exists for just about any purebred and mixed breed dog and their human.
Any dog breed can participate in sports. Choose the sport based on the trainability and physical capabilities of your dog. The following list compiles a variety of dog sports offered in North America. Use this and some research of your own to find the sport that best suits your dog.
What is dog Agility?
One of the fastest growing dog sports showcases the dog’s ability to jump, climb and race through tunnels while listening to a handler’s sometimes subtle cues for what obstacle to perform next. Most purebreds and mixed breeds find Agility exciting and enjoy performing in the standard obstacle courses and jumpers with weaves. The most popular and most decorated breeds in the sport include Border Collies, Papillons, Shetland Sheepdogs, Australian Shepherds and mixed breed dogs.
Flatwork training for agility can start prior to a dog’s first birthday. Due to concerns for the joints of young, growing dogs, many trainers delay training over jumps until after the dog turns 1. Competing can begin as early as 15 months of age. With proper care for the dog’s health, dogs can compete into their middle age.
Agility takes place at a variety of competition venues, so find the venue that best fits your lifestyle and location.
(Want to read more about dog agility training? Check out Dogster’s sister publication Whole Dog Journal’s e-book Beginner’s Guide to Agility Training.)
What is Barn Hunt?
While some may shudder at the idea of participating in a sport that involves rats, Barn Hunt is the type of sport that encourages a dog’s natural instinct of smelling out vermin. Barn Hunt started as a sport mostly for terriers, capitalizing on their ratting instinct to chase down the scent of a rat in the barn or in fields. The sport has gained popularity among other breeds and their owners because all canines use their nose.
The Barn Hunt Association (BHA) invites pet parents and their dogs of all breeds — purebred and mixed — to take part in the age-old sport.
“Barn Hunt is open to any dog of any breed or mix who wishes to play the game and can fit through an 18-inch wide by hale bale height tunnel,” states the BHA website. In fact, Barn Hunt might be one of the most inclusive sports for dogs of all ages and abilities and owners of all ages and abilities. It is a timed sport, but it does not require blazing speeds. This gives older dogs and older handlers a sport to enjoy, as well as tripod dogs, deaf dogs, blind dogs and dogs using wheeled carts.
Don’t worry, the rats are not turned loose, but kept in large plastic, aerated tubes with holes for air drilled in. In fact, the rats are treated as beloved family pets and enjoy their jobs of “hiding” as much as the dogs enjoy their jobs of seeking.
What is Conformation?
Perhaps the only sport where routine baths are a necessity, Conformation shows pit purebred dogs against each other by breed to find the best representative of that particular breed. Conformation shows are sanctioned by kennel clubs and breed parent clubs to preserve the breed’s standards. Each breed has a set of “standards” that describes what makes that particular breed what it is and acts as a guide for breeders, owners and judges. Within each breed standard are descriptions regarding every part of the dog’s body from the set of the ears on his skull to the way the tail is held. The dog’s personality can be included in that standard as well.
Puppies as young as 6 months can be entered to compete in Conformation shows, and there is no limit as to the maximum age. For many dogs, Conformation shows are their first foray into sports. They can earn a championship title in the show ring before moving along to learning new events, such as obedience, agility or herding. Many dogs compete in those different sports while also competing in Conformation.
Conformation dogs cannot be spayed or neutered. This is because a goal of Conformation is to find the best specimen of the breed to continue those desired traits in future generations.
What is Coursing Ability or Fast CAT or Lure Coursing?
Do you have a runner in your home? Does your dog channel the mantra “I am speed” at various times of the day? Events such as Fast CAT or the Coursing Ability Test are perfect for your dog.
What started as just Lure Coursing, an event restricted to Sighthounds only, has captured the excitement of all breeds and mixed breeds, who love the thrill of the chase. Fast CAT is a 100-yard dash where a dog chases a lure and is timed from start to finish. The Coursing Ability Test allows any breed or mix to chase a lure through a track that mimics a rectangular racetrack. Coursing Ability Tests are pass/fail tests — if your dog can chase the “bunny” throughout the course, he passes. Fast CAT is timed, and points are accrued from the rated speed the dog runs to chase the bunny.
Lure Coursing is for Sighthound breeds only. It pits three Sighthounds against each other, and they are judged on their speed, chasing ability and more.
What is Dock Diving?
Sporting breeds aren’t the only ones that like to jump into any body of water they see. Measured a lot like when an athlete competes in the long jump, only instead of jumping and landing in sand, the dog jumps into the water, with his distance measured from the end of the dock to the splash zone.
Any dog that loves the water can make a good Dock Diving dog. “Like any other dog sport, the dogs who love it will do very well in it,” says Hillarey Kriegler, owner of Dobby, a Golden Retriever who has competed at the regional championships three years in a row. “Toy drive helps some dock diving dogs, but honestly I think Dobby would jump without the toy.”
Hillarey says the breed she feels excels at the sport is the Whippet because of their speed and their sleek, aerodynamic bodies. There is not a lot of training outside of the pool for dock diving. Instead, it relies a lot on instinct and natural talent. “However, you can work on toy drive and the dog’s fitness,” says Kriegler. “We work to improve hind-end strength and a lot of stretching.”
What is Herding?
Toy breeds need not apply to the sport of Herding. Herding breeds such as the Border Collie, Australian Cattle Dog, Cardigan and Pembroke Welsh Corgis, German Shepherd Dogs and more are able to hone their natural instincts of gathering and moving groups of animals (mostly sheep or ducks) from one location to another.
Don’t have access to livestock to move? This is how the sport of Triebball was invented, where dogs learn to follow their handler’s cues to retrieve blown up exercise balls, pushing them back to their handler and the start line.
What is Schuntzhund?
Schutzhund, more recently called IGP, is a three-phased sport comprised of tracking, obedience and personal protection. It started as a breed suitability test for German Shepherd Dogs in the early 20th century, but now it is a competitive sport across the world.
“We primarily try to highlight the balance of precision and power in our routines,” says Marla Stickel, trainer and owner of Radical K9 in Elwood, Indiana. “For me, IGP is all about the bond I establish with my dogs through training and the power of a routine we train for together. For example, my current competition dog, Iggy, and I have trained together since she was 8-weeks old, and we are headed to Denmark in October to compete in the World Championships.”
Any breed can compete in the sport. There are breed specific competitions and all-breed competitions, depending on the organization and event. German Shepherd Dogs and Belgian Malinois excel the best, but any breed with the heart and desire can compete. Stickel has competed with German Shepherd Dogs, Belgian Malinois and a Pit Bull Terrier. Training can begin as early as 8 weeks old, but dogs cannot compete until they are at least 15 months old. Stickel points out that patience and dedication is a virtue with Schutzhund, because it may take several years to prepare a dog to compete in the sport.
The best place to get started is with a local club. Finding an encouraging and educational club to train with is essential to having fun and succeeding in this sport. You can find a list of clubs with the United Schutzhund Clubs of America (USCA), on its webpage. You can also find a list of trials or competitions with that organization and go and watch a club training day or trial.
Jump into dog sports and competition
If any of these sports piqued your interest, take a cue from agility handlers and just “Jump!” Working toward a goal with your canine best friend is the best way to strengthen your relationship, as well as help make new friends (human and dog) while learning how you can help better the dog world.
“Dock diving has strengthened my relationship with my dog,” says Hillarey. “When we train together and play together, it gives him a job and a purpose, all while getting exercise. Nothing makes me happier than seeing him happy!”
Don’t forget these popular sports
There are so many dog sports that we can’t fit them in our pages, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t list these more standard and popular dog sports:
Earthdog: Best suited for small Terriers and Dachshunds to gauge how good a hunter the dog is, without injury to the rat
Field Events: Hounds are scored according to how successful they are at scent trailing, showcasing endurance and drive over rough terrain with scents of varying ages
Obedience: Any purebred or mixed breed eligible, great starting base for all of the listed sports
Rally: Any purebred or mixed breed eligible, very similar to obedience and is the perfect introduction to more dog sports
Scent Work: Based on professional detection dog training (i.e., drug dogs), scent work taps into the natural sense of smell in all breeds of dogs while the handler must learn to read the dog’s body language to announce when the dog has found the scent.
Top dog athletes from 2021 and 2022
Agility – Top AKC Masters Agility Champion in 2022 Bee (Registered name: MACH2 Apex Meant to Bee MXS MJS MXF TQX T2B), Shetland Sheepdog, handled by Jennifer Crank.
Barn Hunt – 2021 Fastest Open Dog Zaria’s Mystic Dreams Of Ewe, Border Collie, owned by Pam Eckstein
Dock Diving – 2021 NADD Open Longest Distance Jumped Sounders, Whippet (at 36 feet 11inches), owned by Laurel Behnke
Lure Coursing – 2021 Best in Field National Champion Oxota Storm On The Mountain JC, Borzoi, owned by Dr. Karla Smith and Leonore Abordo
Obedience – 2022 AKC National Obedience Champion Baker (Registered name: OTCH12 High Times Shake N Bake UDX8 OGM SH), Golden Retriever, owned by Kori Bevis
Rally – 2022 AKC Rally National Champion Zayne (Registered name: OTCH9 HC AGCH MACH5 RACH Norwood Color Me Zayne UDX9 OGM RM3 RAE3 HSAd HSBd HXAd HXBd MXC PDS MJC PJS MFG TQX T2B5), Border Collie, handled by Kim Berkley
Schutzhund – 2021 USCA GSD National Champion Argo Von Schweizer, German Shepherd, handled by Laurie Schweizer
Tracking – 2021 AKC National Tracking Invitational Successful Trackers CT Hob Nob Super Hawk CGC, TKN, Border Collie handled by Matt Uhry and OTCH/CT DD’s Paws Before You Leap VCD3, UDX3, OM4, BN, RM, RAE2, TDU, JH, NJP, OF, SWD, SWM, SHDA, CGCA, Golden Retriever, handled by Megan Hundley