Understanding Canine Sports: Risks and Benefits



If you have a dog, at some point in time, you may have considered getting into some type of sport. There are many to choose from, and there are many things to consider. That ranges from your dogs age, condition and activity level, as well as HIS temperament and personality traits, and YOURS.

You may not have the physical ability or training experience, for some sports, to train on your own. That being said, I have seen people in wheelchairs, elderly people and children compete VERY successfully in almost every sport.

I would like to address the well meaning public that is very conservative about dog sports in relation to the dogs health and safety. First, I think it is important to ALWAYS consider your dogs health, well being and safety. Dogs just don’t know when to quit. Especially when they are having fun. So it is YOUR job to start responsibly, and stop BEFORE the dog has had too much. That being said, I think people are often encouraged to be too conservative. For example waiting until the dog is 2 years old before starting a wide variety of sports. Personally, I thing this is very ill advised. For several reasons.

Comparatively, do we wait to involve our children in sports until they are 20 years old? Of course not! Sports are an important way for children to learn to control their body. They need to learn muscle control, focus, self control and drain excess energy. All of these things are important for children AND our pets. Don’t forget, your dogs may have all of the toys, treats, and chewies in the world. But they don’t have anything to DO. No job. No fulfilling purpose other than our enjoyment. And you may do well to learn how much training your dog can create SO MUCH more fulfillment and enjoyment FOR YOU as well!

I understand that many peoples (breeders, veterinarians) desire to err on the side of safety, to avoid an injury in young dogs, is often the motivation to encourage people to wait to start their dogs into training and sports, but you may be acting too hastily in your opinion, and in some cases it can be of detriment to the dog.

Some sports have an inherent risk to certain types of injuries due to how the body is used. Some sports, like flyball and agility can be considered high impact, and have risk to tendon and growth plate type injuries due to the impact of jumping and fast tight turns. However, because sports training, to some degree, are really under our control, we can reduce the risk. Especially in young dogs. We can work to keep jump heights lower, while dogs are growing. As well as (attempt) to control speed and fast turns until the dog has more control over his body and enough athletic conditioning.

But we have to remember that “form follows function”. Of course, there will always be some risk to certain types on injuries to any type of activity. Carpel tunnel for instance doesn’t require tennis, just typing, and we cant avoid all risk. But being ‘properly conditioned’ requires regular preparation for any activity. And that does NOT mean once per week. Regular conditioning prepares the body. Regular conditioning, even in impact sports, increases bone density, tendon and ligament flexibility and strength, and muscle flexibility and strength that PREVENTS injury. Keeping a dog with existing medical conditions, like hip displaysia, fit and in good weight and muscle condition helps with mobility and pain. Anyone who has gone through ANY type of physical therapy or structured exercise program knows that when they are stronger, they are more pain and injury free than before they were in condition. But may people don’t seem to recognize, or even know, that MOST cruciate ligament injuries, back and hip injuries are from overweight, out of condition dogs. In the northern US, veterinarians see a significant increase in ligament injuries directly related to spring thaw. With little exercise over the winter and a nice spring day to play ball outside, running and fast turns are just as often the culprit. And many of us know the dogs that jumped off the recliner or just were playing with another dog, that resulted in a ligament or joint injury (like two of my own dogs).

Besides controlling the length and intensity of the sport you are training your dog in, the best ways to keep young dogs in good condition and drain excess energy safely are activities that are considered ‘resistance training’. The two best examples of that type of exercise are swimming and weightpulling**.

** I am using the term weightpulling here to describe a conditioning method often referred to as “dragging” in which the dog, wearing a specially custom fitted harness, drags a small amount of weight, for resistance, while walking. I am not referring to the competition level where high weights are required.

The reason that these forms of exercise are more ideal for conditioning are…

1. They are low impact. Both swimming and weightpulling (dragging) use either the resistance of the water against the physical effort, or the low weights that are dragged, to engage more muscle groups in a longer sustained muscle contraction.

Neither swimming nor weightpulling, when using a properly fitted weightpulling harness and appropriate amount of resistance, contain any significant risk of injury. The International Weight Pull Association (IWPA), a sanctioning organization since the early 1980’s, has reported there has NEVER to their knowledge, been ANY report of injury to a dog at any event in their history.

2. Both exercise methods are easy for the owner to control the duration and the resistance involved in the activity, as well as equipment available for safety, like flotation devices and harnesses made to distribute the weight safely in order to prevent straining specific muscle groups and joints.

3. Resistance training engages the muscles in a longer, slower muscle contraction as well as typically engaging more muscle groups. For this reason, these sports can drain more physical energy in a shorter period of time than a trotting or running gait. For dogs that have self-control and arousal issues, resistance training  generally requires and encourages a more calm mental state. Unlike the excitement that is often associated with running sports like Flyball, Agility and other running sports.

4. Because these methods of exercise are not equipment intensive and are so effective a draining energy in a short period of time (20 minutes, 2-4 times per week), the rate of owner participation and compliance is much higher.

For the well meaning breeder or layperson, inexperienced in a variety of dog sports, I might encourage you to consider, before discouraging dog owners who wish to try new dog sports, that participation in a variety of exercise regimen may well be the best an owner can do. Many dogs wind up in shelter, or having a variety of behavioral problems from anxiety to reactivity simply because the did did NOT have appropriate energy outlet or training. Discouraging access to those things “for the dogs well being”, based on age or other reason, may not actually be in his best interest. Better yet, please recommend that the owner educate himself in safe execution of the discipline he chooses. Better yet work with an experienced trainer whenever possible.

Don’t forget that an increase exercise is one if the most important and effective additions to any behavioral modification regimen. It helps develop trust and relationship with the owner, build confidence in shy and nervous dogs, as well as decrease reactivity in high energy dogs. Owner compliance is key. When access to water is a concern for swimming, consider dragging exercise as an alternative.

The American Pulling Dog Association (APDA) website www.APDASports.com offers a lot of educational information about weightpulling, training, testimonials, videos and resources.


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