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Pit bulls have proven themselves capable in almost every canine activity out there, from therapy to tracking to dock diving. Participating in such activities can be a major bonding experience between dog and owner, and on a larger scale, many public activities give pit bulls and their owners a chance to prove that they really are just as valuable, respectable, and community-oriented as any other dog/owner. In short, becoming active in a canine sport or activity is not just good for you and your dog; it’s good for the community and for all other pit bulls and their owners too.
There is an amazing list of things you can do with your dog, but before getting involved, you must first honestly consider your capabilities and interests, your dog’s capabilities and interests, and the resources available to you. If the nearest agility club meet is 100 miles away, it may simply not be realistic to become active in agility, even if your dog moves like a ballerina. Similarly, even though the club may meet in a field within walking distance of your house, if your dog is a gigantic, awkward bulldozer of a dog, agility still may not be the right choice for you.
Before you decide to get involved in a particular activity, I suggest four important steps:
Once you have answers to these questions, you will be able to decide whether or not a particular activity is right for you and your dog.
Almost all canine sports and activities require that you and your dog take—and pass—basic (and sometimes advanced) obedience classes before you get involved in the sport or activity. In most urban areas, finding an obedience class isn’t difficult. If you’re not sure where to start, call your local humane society or your veterinarian for some recommendations or check the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website for certified trainers.
Many types of dogs, including pit bulls, can have varying levels of dog aggression, from mild to severe. You must always consider how tolerant your dog is of other dogs before starting a particular sport or activity.
In some competitions, lots of dogs come face-to-face in a crowded, stressful environment, and dogs are expected to perform off-leash with just a low fabric fence to separate them from onlookers and other dogs. This is not a good environment for a dog with even mild dog-aggression issues.
In other competitions or activities, or in training classes, the dogs may stay on leash and may not have much contact with each other. These may be acceptable situations in which even a dog with low tolerance for other dogs can be trained and handled.
This is why the above four steps will be especially helpful for you if you have a dog-aggressive dog. By observing the classes and competitions where your dog will be expected to perform, you can decide whether you can manage your dog throughout the activity. Always be honest about your dog’s behavior and your ability to manage your dog’s behavior.
You may also decide to be a “perpetual student” rather than a competitor in a particular sport. This is suitable for dogs who cannot handle the barely-restrained chaos and dog-thick crowds of a competition, but are easy to manage in a small training class with dogs that are only off-leash one at a time, and only as they perform. If you graduate from all the training courses without a problem, but your dog turns out to be too dog-aggressive for actual competition, you may ask the trainer if it is okay for you and your dog to become “perpetual students.” This way, you can enjoy the activity with your dog in a controlled setting. You may not win any awards, but at least you and your dog will get to continue doing the activity you love to do together.
Note: Kennel clubs like the AKC, UKC, and ADBA also offer competitions for many of these sports. In some cases, they require that the participating dogs be registered with the kennel club. For the links to more information about each sport, I have opted to list major organizations that are not affiliated with kennel clubs. However, if you are interested in a particular sport, but you do not see anything offered in your area through the non-affiliated organization, you might want to check with one of the national kennel clubs to see what they offer.
Because the pit bull is seen (stereotypically, perhaps) as a strong, muscular dog, this sport is a very common and popular one for pit bull owners to be involved in. However, it should be noted that champion pullers are, in fact, not always pit bulls. Alaskan Malamutes and American Bulldogs are also common participants and winners. Weight pull isn’t limited to specific breeds; even Beagles and Corgis can do well in weight pull.
Dogs are separated into a specific weight class, and this determines how heavy their load will be. Dogs under nine months, whose joints and bones are still growing, are generally not allowed to participate. Similarly, adult dogs with joint problems such as hip dysplasia are not good candidates for this sort of sport. Dogs need to be physically fit, and they usually need to be trained up to pull heavy loads. However, this is one sport where serious obedience training isn’t a prerequisite. The dog just needs to be manageable and generally polite.
Link to the major association:
International Weight Pull Association (IWPA)
One of the most popular canine sports, agility is essentially a doggy obstacle course with jumps, hoops, tunnels, weaves, a see-saw, and various bridges. This is a great sport that tests not only a dog’s agility but also its obedience, intelligence, and physical fitness. And it’s great exercise for the owner, too!
Dogs are separated into different height classes, and this determines how high the jumps, hoops, bridges, and some other obstacles will be. One dog runs the course at a time—the course is set up differently at each competition—and points are taken off for mistakes during the run (a knocked bar, a missed obstacle, or failure to touch a target with a paw). The goal is to finish the course faster than everyone else in the class, and with the fewest mistakes.
Because this sport involves a lot of commands, basic and advanced obedience classes are a necessary prerequisite. Approximately one to two years of agility training classes often follow obedience. This is not an activity that comes naturally to any dog!
This is not the best sport for dogs (or humans) with joint or movement problems. This is also not the best sport for dog-aggressive dogs. A mildly dog-aggressive dog will probably do fine in a well-run agility training class. However, competitions tend to be chaotic and stressful, and it is next to impossible to prevent other dogs from poking their faces into your dog’s face.
If you can get past the difficulties this sport presents, you will find it to be one of the most enjoyable, interesting, and rewarding canine sports out there.
In flyball, a team of four dogs competes against other teams in a sort of relay race. Each dog runs down a straight path over a series of low hurdles, grabs a ball from a paw-operated machine, and runs back across the hurdles to the handler. Then the next dog is immediately released to do the same thing, until all four dogs have completed the relay. The fastest team with the fewest mistakes wins.
Flyball typically values speed over all else, so it helps to have a dog that can run. It also helps to have a dog that loves balls. However, this is not a good sport for dog-aggressive dogs, as the dogs are often running past each other, and they are off-leash.
Disc (or Frisbee, but this is a brand name) dog competitions involve a handler throwing discs, and a dog running off to catch them. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Points may be awarded not only for length or height of a dog’s jump, but also for creativity (having the dog perform some trick while catching the discs, or catching multiple discs in a row, etc.) and form.
Disc dogs must be well-trained, fast, physically capable, attentive, coordinated, and agile. Owners need to be similarly physically strong, able to control a disc’s throw, and able to endure more than just disc throwing. For instance, creative performances might require lifting and swinging the dog while it hangs onto the disc. It can be difficult to find a suitable place to train a disc dog if you do not have a very large field readily available.
Sound interesting? Want to see a pit bull do this? Check out the website of Wallace the Pit Bull, a Disc Dog champion.
Disc Dog Club Links
This sport really is just like its name says. The competing dog runs down a dock and, as the owner throws a toy into the water, the dog jumps in to get the toy. The dog that jumps the farthest wins the competition.
The sport doesn’t require obedience training, but it does help if your dog enjoys and is capable of: chasing and retrieving toys, leaping into water, and swimming. Obviously, there is some technique involved in a successful jump; to achieve maximum distance, the dog needs to leap from the dock at the right moment, at the right angle, and the owner needs to be able to throw the toy straight and far.
Link to the major association:
Historically, some large-breed dogs were actually bred and used to pull farm carts and wagons. Nowadays, most American pet owners just think it’s really fun to harness up their dog to a cart like a miniature horse. We’ve all seen the newspaper photos of costumed dogs harnessed to tiny wagons marching in July 4th parades. Cute, right?
If you have a pit bull that enjoys pulling, but an activity like weight pull just isn’t your cup of tea, carting might be another option. You will still need to teach your dog to work in a harness and pull gradually heavier loads, depending on what you want your dog to pull. Unlike weight pull, however, the last thing you want is a dog that just wants to go, straight ahead, never mind what you say, from the moment you strap on the harness! You will have to train your dog to move when and where you want him to go, and to stop on command as well.
Though there is some ready-made carting equipment out there, sometimes you may find it cheaper and more interesting to build your own rig. The American Rottweiler Club carting information page contains links to at least one guide for a build-your-own cart, and you may be able to search online for other designs.
Because this is not a very well-known canine sport, it can be hard to find a lot of information about carting. For everyone’s safety (including your dog’s), please do your research and work up to the final result slowly. You can’t just strap your dog to a cart, plop your kid in the front seat, and say “Giddyap!”
Links to additional information:
Intro to Carting with Photos
Dogs’ noses are far more sensitive than humans’. A dog that can track scents (human or otherwise) and search for living (or deceased) people is a valuable asset to any community. It is also an extremely challenging activity to train for, and it can be emotionally nervewracking for the dog handler as well, if the handler decides to move out of tracking competition and into real-world search-and-rescue (SAR). However, the payoffs can be enormous.
Training tends to be very intense. SAR certification is serious business. Your dog should be attentive, preferably people-oriented, and have a very high drive (toy drive is preferred over food drive). You will also need to make a serious commitment to continuous training. Before competing in tracking or participating in SAR, you and your dog should have mastered fairly high-level obedience and one or two years of training specifically for tracking. Additionally, your dog cannot be dog-aggressive, since search and rescue generally involves several searchers with dogs, and the dogs are not kept on leash.
Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot of information about tracking or SAR on the Internet, with the exception of the national breed clubs, where tracking competitions are organized and held. It can also be difficult to find a nearby facility or group that offers tracking training classes. For these reaons, tracking and SAR are best undertaken by experienced dog handlers.
Link for additional information:
National Association for Search and Rescue: SAR Dogs page
Obedience consists of teaching the dog basic commands such as “sit,” “down,” “stay,” and “heel.” More challenging obedience tasks might include having the dog down-stay for an extended period while the owner goes out of sight, retrieving a wooden barbell from the other side of a jump, and heeling without a leash.
Rally, or Rally-O (short for Rally Obedience) is an AKC-specific event involving the performance of various obedience commands at orange cones or markers set along a course.
Obedience events typically aren’t physically demanding, but success requires thorough training, and the dog has to be calm, attentive, and, well—obedient.
As far as I am aware, obedience titles are only granted by the major kennel clubs (AKC, UKC, and ADBA); check their websites for more information. Rally is only offered by the AKC.
Canine freestyle is a sort of choreographed dance between a handler and a dog. It is set to music and involves well-timed commands and positioning that shows the handler and dog working together.
Canine freestyle requires an attentive, obedient dog that reacts to hand signals only and can work off leash. A virtually flawless heel is a necessity. It also requires a significant measure of creativity and determination on the handler’s part!
If your dog is calm, people-loving, and gentle, he or she may be a good candidate for therapy work. Therapy dogs visit patients at hospitals, nursing home residents, special-needs kids, and others who may benefit just from petting or being near a furry friend.
Therapy dogs are often exposed to strange and potentially frightening objects (wheelchairs, walkers, canes), loud noises (screaming children, dropped objects), and awkward or painful touches, such as a wheelchair accidentally running over the dog’s tail, or a child hitting the dog instead of patting it gently. Therefore, therapy dogs need to be very tolerant, easy-going, and resiliant.
Most therapy dogs are going to need some level of obedience training and therapy dog training. In almost all cases, you cannot simply call your dog a “therapy dog” and start visiting hospitals; therapy dogs must be certified! This involves passing a special test from one of the major therapy dog organizations.
Talk to the places where you would like to bring your dog, and find out whether they accept visits from therapy dogs, and what type of certification is necessary. Most likely, your dog will need to be certified by Therapy Dogs International or the Delta Society.