Dog sports good for exercise, communication

So many dog sports, so little time.

Have you ever heard of flyball, lure coursing, freestyle, rally, schutzhund or earthdog competitions? How about skijoring, carting, dock jumping, treibball, herding or disc dog games?

Every breed or mix of breeds comes with a set of skills particular to the intended purpose of the dog. For instance, terriers, small dogs with big attitudes, have been bred to chase rats, badgers and foxes both above and below ground. What a perfect match for earthdog competitions in which a dog negotiates a set of human-made underground tunnels while pursuing its “quarry.” The hunting encounter is controlled, and neither the dog nor the quarry (usually two rats) are endangered by the activity.

Retrievers were bred to aid hunters by crashing through brush and brambles to plunge into freezing water to bring back fowl brought down by their handlers. Sounds like a good match for dock jumping to me.

Large breeds such as the St. Bernard, Bernese mountain dog and the Newfoundland were developed in part to pull loads for farmers and sailors. The sport of carting, along with skijoring (pulling a skier by harness and traces), fits right in with the intended purpose of those breeds.

When you match your dog’s abilities to your athletic interests, you come up with an even deeper way to connect with your dog. Anyone but the inveterate “couch potato” should be able to find an activity that fits his or her lifestyle.

One of the most accessible dog sports in the Four Corners is agility, a sport in which a handler runs an off-leash dog through an obstacle course in a race for both time and accuracy. Dogs are directed by voice, body signals and movement in coordination with the handler. Neither physical manipulation of the dog nor luring with a dog treat are allowed.

Agility competitions are regulated by various governing bodies such as the American Kennel Club and the North American Dog Agility Council, and each has its own rules for equipment and obstacles used. Agility courses can include jumps, tunnels, weave poles, pause tables, teeter totters, A-frames, tire jumps, dog walks and collapsed tunnels set up in a dizzying array of patterns to challenge the dog/handler teams. Courses often are complicated and require a high level of teamwork to be completed successfully.

Not everyone wants to compete to a high level with his or her dog, and luckily, agility also enjoys a large “backyard” following. Much of the equipment is easy and inexpensive to make, allowing you to become involved with the sport casually. The Durango area has a variety of trainers offering everything from beginning agility to classes and seminars for advanced skills. We even have a local agility club, Durango Agility Dogs, for those who want to immerse themselves further in the sport. You can visit www.durangoagility.com for references about classes and clubs.

Over and above the obvious benefits of fresh air and exercise that dog sports provide, you will find that the continued training helps fine-tune your ability to communicate effectively with your dog. Dogs that are accustomed to working with and responding to their owners tend to tune in to them more reliably than untrained dogs. This ability to respond to commands means that your dog can participate in life with you instead of living a deprived life isolated in the backyard.

Julie Winkelman is a certified pet dog trainer and a certified dog trainer. Reach her at www.alphacanineacademy.com.

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