8 Sports Your Dog Can Play

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If movies have taught us nothing else, it's that animals have great potential as athletes. In movies, golden retrievers can play basketball, mules can kick field goals, and chimps can play hockey. Unfortunately, when you try to recreate any of these scenarios with your own pets, it's inevitably disappointing. Don't give up yet, though. Dogs can be pretty stellar athletes in the right context. So why don't you and your dog try a sport a little more suited to their four-legged abilities? Like, for instance, one of these:

1. Flyball

Any old mutt can run around. Being a teammate is tougher, though. Flyball seeks to build this sort of fellowship. It's a relay for teams of four pooches to test their speed and catching abilities. Teams of four dogs are lined up at a start line, and when the first dog is released, he dashes down the 51-foot course, clearing four hurdles along the way, and hits a spring-loaded "flyball box." The box shoots a tennis ball into the air. The dog jumps up and catches the ball, then runs back down the course to the starting line, where the next pooch takes off. The first team to get all four members through the course wins, but penalties are assigned for dropping the ball or starting before the previous dog crosses the finish line.

Flyball originated in southern California in the 1960's and received a serious boost when Herbert Wagner invented the spring-loaded ball-launching box. According to the North American Flyball Association, the sport's popularity has advanced to the point where timing and scoring is done electronically. The team Spring Loaded holds the world record for the event; all four dogs completed the course in 15.22 seconds combined.

2. Musical Canine Freestyle

Your dog can sit, stay, and roll over, but can he dance? Musical canine freestyle lets pooches get down to their favorite tunes. In the event, dogs and their handlers pick a song and choreograph a dance routine, and then they boogie. The sport, which originated around 1989, showcases a dog's obedience and athleticism while also building teamwork between dog and handler. Each dog-handler pair's routine is then judged on its artistic and technical merit. Really, you should just watch this fantastic video of a routine straight out of Grease.

3. Bikejoring

Have you ever gone out for a bike ride, only to wish someone could just pull you along? That's where bikejoring and your dog come into the picture. Like its cold-weather relative skijoring, bikejoring involves having a team of harnessed dogs pull a biker. Any type of dog that could be used for mushing and pulling can be used for bikejoring. The sport encourages communication and teamwork between the dog and the rider; otherwise the cyclist is likely to end up in a ditch. The dogs seem to love it, and it makes some impressive videos like this one possible.

4. Earthdog Trial

When you see a dachsund or a miniature schnauzer, you probably don't think, "Ah! That's a vicious killing machine!" If you were a rat, though, you'd probably see things a little differently. For years these kinds of small dogs, along with many breeds of terriers, were prized for their abilities to control rodents. Their diminutive statures allowed them to slip into underground tunnels and nests to catch rats and other pests that hid in dens.

This sort of work has been largely outsourced to exterminators, but some owners still want to know how deft their dogs are as hunters. Earthdog trials offer dogs a chance to navigate courses of underground tunnels while trying to find rodent quarry, typically a rat or rabbit. The American Kennel Club's earthdog trials test dogs on three criteria: ability to find a scent, willingness to enter a dark tunnel, and willingness to find the quarry. When the dog finds the quarry in the tunnels, it must then "work" it by barking, scratching, or pawing at it. Don't worry too much about the rats, though; they're protected in boxes and aren't harmed. Here's a look at a terrier doing some earthdog tunneling.

5. Dog Pulling

Many breeds are meant to be workers and can get lazy or out of shape if they spend all of their time loafing on the couch. The International Weight Pull Association seeks to find a constructive outlet for these pups by having them pull weighted sleds or carts across 16-foot tracks. The organization describes the event as a tractor pull, but with dogs in place of the tractors. Canine competitors are divided into weight classes, and whichever dog can pull the most weight across the course wins. Handlers aren't allowed to touch the dogs or give them treats once the pull starts, so the onus is on the pooch to pull away. Typical breeds for the sport include huskies, rottweilers, and pit bulls, all of which were originally working breeds and can use pulling as a nonviolent outlet for their energy.

6. Disc Dog

Throwing and catching a Frisbee-type flying disc is a great way to let your pet run around and get some exercise. To many people, though, it's also a competitive event. The term "disc dog" encompasses several types of competitive disc events. In toss and fetch competitions, the dog and owner have sixty seconds to complete as many catches as they can on a marked field. Each catch earns points, with longer catches being more valuable. Bonuses are also rewarded for mid-air catches.

In freestyle competition, dogs and their handlers perform choreographed catching routines involving jumps, spins, and other tricks. Judges then score routines based on their flair, execution, and degree of difficulty. Not surprisingly, these events are pretty visually impressive, and if YouTube is any indication, seem to be quite popular in Asia.

7. Belgian Ring

Belgian ring is a specific example of the larger genre of protection sports, or events that test how well a dog can protect himself and his master. Belgian ring (also known as "Belgian Ringsport") originated in (surprise) Belgium in the early 20th-century as a way to test the country's working police dogs, notably Belgian shepherds. Formal ringsports were first held in 1908, testing a dog's abilities in fairly standard obedience events like walking without a leash, jumping, and retrieving items. Unlike other obedience competitions, though, the program tested dogs' protective mettle. They guarded items that belonged to their handler, defended their handler from attackers, and attacked protective-suit-clad assailants.

These competitions remain popular for shepherd and rottweiler owners throughout Europe and the U.S., as do defense sport variants like French Ring and Germany's Schutzhund. While the dogs may look fierce while protecting their owners, they must have fairly even temperaments and be willing to stop attacking on command.

8. Lure Coursing

If greyhound racing and rabbit hunting came together, the resulting hybrid might look a little like lure coursing. In the event, purebred sighthounds (think greyhounds, Irish wolfhounds, salukis, etc.) chase a mechanical lure through a field course. The lure moves and turns through the course to simulate a running hare. Under the American Sighthound Field Association rules, each dog is graded on its speed, endurance, agility, follow, and enthusiasm.

The sport originated in the early 1970s in California. Lyle Gillette and his sighthound-fancying friends who enjoyed rabbit hunting with their dogs. However, barbed wire fencing and other obstacles in the fields made it somewhat dangerous for the dogs, so they created a sport in which the course was controlled but the dogs still get the exercise and stimulation of tracking rabbits.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

April 24, 2008 - 11:03am
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