BY LUCIE WINBORNE, FREELANCE WRITER
It’s summertime, and the outdoors beckons for man and beast alike. What better time to engage your pet in a new sport? Not only is it a fun and healthy way to enhance the loving relationship you share, it's also a great means of enhancing mental stimulation and communication. Here are five cool activities to consider this season.
While just about any breed can participate, canine agility is terrific for high-energy dogs such as Border Collies and Australian Shepherds. Owners direct their pals on an obstacle course consisting of jumps, tunnels and walkways, all within a specific order, and course intensity and difficulty can be adapted to your pet’s particular health needs.
All the running and jumping in this sport can be a little rough on the joints, so it’s wise to be sure he’s in good shape before beginning. Also, consider his temperament: Does he enjoy a good run? Play well with others? Is he the lone wolf type, or does he typically look to his human for guidance?
Don’t forget to consider your own general activity level as well. Whether you’re a couch potato or star athlete, this sport provides a great bonding experience, but if you’re not able or willing to run, look for an instructor who can teach you agility distance control in which you’ll be able to direct from the sidelines.
As its name implies, just about anything goes in this choreographed musical performance, as long as neither party is at risk of harm. A typical routine will have your pet doing twists and turns, jumping, walking backwards, weaving through your legs, and moving in sync with you. And even if you have two left feet, a mastery of basic commands (particularly “heel”), lots of patience and a loving, deep connection with your pet will have you “dancing” like Fred and Ginger.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but fans of this sport love putting together programs to music they love and encouraging their pet during a performance.
“The handler chooses what they want to convey in their routine performance … funny, dramatic, tell a story,” says Michele Pouliot, a freestyle trainer and Director of Research & Development at Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc. “Unlike other dog sports, everyone competing is doing something different. Even if two competitors use the same music, their performances will be unique. The cool thing about canine freestyle is that you and your dog create your own ‘artistic performance’ that you will cherish forever.”
Have a good throwing arm? Think your canine pal can catch a Frisbee like nobody’s business? Why not show them both off by entering a disc dog competition?
The idea is simple—throw, catch and return—with two main types, Distance/Accuracy and Freestyle. In the former, playing fields are divided into zones by yard and scoring is based on the zone in which a disc is caught. Freestyling, which is scored according to a preset point system on artistry, agility, accuracy, difficulty, and more, can be much fancier and include such moves as launching off the handler’s body and throwing multiple discs. Rules vary among clubs or associations, but any breed can participate.
An important aspect of this sport is the type of disc used. There are a variety of sizes and weights to choose from, and the disc shouldn’t be hard or brittle. It should also be easy to clean, since accumulated dirt and grit can actually wear down your pet’s teeth over time. Check it regularly for tooth marks that can cut his mouth as well.
Remember summertime flying leaps from a wooden dock into a cool lake? Fun, wasn’t it? And it’s not just for humans.
In Ultimate Air, or distance jumping, handlers throw a toy off a dock to entice their dogs to leap as far as they can, with distance measured where the tail meets water. Ultimate Vertical places a bumper at a preset height. Each time a dog reaches it, the height is noted and the bumper moved up. The winning canine is the one who can touch the bumper at its highest position.
According to Nick and Tiffany Ludwig of Wisconsin DockDogs, “Most competitors spend the whole summer traveling around the state, or even country, with their dogs to attend different events.” While some are in it purely for the competition aspect, others “do it because it’s become a way of life—a way to enjoy pet-
friendly traveling and catch up with friends that many only see during the season.”
If your buddy’s not overly familiar with swimming, he should spend time in the water beforehand, as the dock jumpingenvironment, which is typically a swimming pool, isn’t just surrounded by people, but its clear water is more difficult for a dog to see than the surface of a pond or lake. Start with a favorite toy on land and proceed gradually to shallow water, then throw the toy into deep enough water that a little swimming will be required to retrieve it.
In this relay race involving teams of four dogs, one dog from each team runs down a course, jumping hurdles along the way, to a flyball box and steps on a panel that triggers the box to release a tennis ball. The dog then returns the ball to its handler. Once it completes the course, the next dog on the team is released, and the first team with all four dogs to complete the course is the winner. Dogs earn points toward titles based on their teams’ time, e.g., one point for less than 32 seconds, five points for less than 28 seconds, and so on.
If flyball sounds like your game but your pet has a penchant for chasing moving balls, start your training by teaching him to fetch a stationary one. Roll it a short distance and don’t release the dog to get it until it has stopped, or put the ball on the ground, walk a few steps away, and send him after it. He doesn’t have to actually deposit it in your hand, but you don’t want him to drop it too early, either, since in a competition he’ll have to make it past four jumps and the finish line before letting go. Also, since there can be a good bit of idle time between heats at a competition, it’s wise to ensure that your pet is comfortable with resting in a crate between runs. Here’s wishing you and your pet a sporting-good summer!