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Tips from the Trainer: 5 Fun Sports to Try with Your Dog

By Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D.


Is your dog bored with walks around the same old block? Are you looking for new ways to play—and bond—with your dog? Here are five fun sports to try. Dogs (and people) of all sizes and shapes can participate in these sports, but as with any new physical activities, consider getting both of you a checkup, especially if your choices involve running or jumping. Now let’s get started!
 

OBEDIENCE TRAINING

Believe it or not, obedience training can be lots of fun, and it provides the foundation for all other training. You can easily combine basic obedience with trick training to spice it up (and impress your friends!). Teaching your dog basic commands (sit, down, stay, come, heel) also builds confidence and helps strengthen the dog−owner bond, and having a dog who does what you tell him is not only convenient but potentially life-saving. At higher levels of obedience training, your dog will learn to retrieve, jump, follow directions, and more. The possibilities with trick training are practically endless once your dog learns to try silly things in exchange for rewards and praise. 
 
Many training facilities offer obedience classes at several levels, and some offer trick classes. You can also find a lot of information through online resources, videos, and books—use “clicker training” or “positive reinforcement” as your key words. If you make obedience and trick training a game and sneak in itty-bitty sessions throughout the day, your dog will learn quickly and enjoy the process. I bet you will, too.
 

AGILITY

By now most people have seen agility dogs on television or on the Internet, if not in person. Even if you have no thoughts of competing for titles and glory, you can set up a simple course of jumps, tunnels, and other obstacles in your own backyard. Again, you might want to sign up for a class or two, especially to get you started safely. Most dogs love doing agility, and their people love watching their four-legged friends have so much fun. Be forewarned, though. Agility is addictive. Then again, there are worse vices than playing with your dog! If you are interested in agility, the key words “canine agility” will bring up lots of training information and a number of organizations that sanction competitions. 
 

MUSICAL FREESTYLE

If you spend much time on social media and have friends who share posts about dogs (yes, I’m looking at you there with the dog hair on your pants), you may have seen videos of canine−human teams dancing together to music. Of course, most of these videos feature the Gingers and Freds of musical freestyle. But most of us know that we don’t have to be that polished to have a great time dancing, and it doesn’t get any better than dancing with our dogs. Freestyle is essentially obedience and trick training set to music. You may be able to take a class or workshop, but you can also find good information online—start with the Canine Freestyle Federation at http://www.canine-freestyle.org/.
 

SCENTWORK

You know that great schnoz that leads the rest of your dog’s body around as he sniff, sniff, sniffs? Why not put it to work in the name of fun? In scentwork, including both search and tracking activities, we essentially teach our dogs to sniff out the objects, animals, or people we want them to locate. A special kind of trust develops when you engage in this kind of training because your dog is better at following scent than you are. Tens of thousands of times better, in fact. You can use scentwork as a fun game in the house or yard, and do it in short sessions. Tracking is more time intensive, and you will eventually need at least one training partner to help with laying tracks for your dog to follow. Still, tracking is great fun and great exercise, both physical and mental. To learn more, search for key words “canine scentwork,” “nose work,” or “tracking.”
 

PULLING SPORTS

A dog who pulls on a leash can be a real problem. (There’s that obedience training again!) But training your dog to pull when you want him to is a whole different ballgame. Drafting and carting are sports in which your dog pulls a cart or wagon. And yes, small dogs can participate with small loads. In fact, there are wheeled carts and harnesses for dogs of all sizes. 
 
If you both like to be outdoors in the winter and enjoy snow, you could try sledding or skijoring. We usually think of the Arctic breeds when we picture dogs and sleds, but many other breeds and mixes enjoy pulling across the snow. Skijoring is a bit like waterskiing on snow with dogs in place of the boat. For a warm-weather version, you can wear rollerblades. Just be sure to teach a stop command!
 
 
If you decide to take a class in your new sport, choose one that uses positive training methods. (Bullying our dogs went out with the last ice age.) You can also find excellent information in books, magazines, and online. Whichever sport you decide to try, keep safety in mind. Start slowly and don’t worry about mistakes—they’re all part of the learning process. (Your dog will forgive you your boo-boos, too.) And if the first sport you try doesn’t thrill you, there are plenty more to choose from. Now get out there and have some fun!
 

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