In this day and age, I think everyone knows that regular exercise is essential to staying fit and healthy. And although – perhaps – you’re not a fan of exercise or going to the gym, you have to admit that it’s hard to find a good excuse not to be physically active in the age of yoga, aerobics, and tai chi, Zumba – the possibilities are endless.
On the other hand, it is not easy for many people who share their lives with a dog to find and choose, from a surprisingly wide spectrum of sports and physical activities, the right activity that would suit the exercise needs of a four-legged family member. Furthermore, we often forget that the right amount of exercise is just as important for our pets as it is for us. Exercise allows your dog to release energy that might otherwise cause behavioural disorders. Exercise also helps maintain or strengthen his muscle tone and flexibility, while stimulating his mind.
And finally, most dogs simply need variety in their physical activity. A 30-60 minute brisk daily walk with your dog, naturally tailored to his capabilities, is certainly good for both of you and is one of the great pleasures of having a canine companion. However, a daily walk, no matter how enjoyable, may not be enough to meet all your pet’s physical and mental needs. The good news is that today’s dog sports are just as interesting, varied and accessible as sports for humans. From the increasingly popular exercise classes to canicross, which is running with your dog harnessed to a special harness, there are plenty of ways to maintain or improve your dog’s physical fitness while increasing mental stimulation and bonding time between you. Not to mention, you’ll get a good workout for yourself in the process!
Today, most of these breeds are mainly companion dogs that may never see a fox, cow or sledge, but they still have innate, ingrained needs that need to be satisfied. This is why many dogs love a variety of play activities such as running, fetching, jumping, digging holes or tracking scents. However, for some dogs, due to breed or natural inclinations, different activities may suit them better. A perfect example is terriers who, not surprisingly, love digging holes. If you keep a terrier indoors for too long without allowing him to satisfy his instinctive need to dig, when you finally let him out, he may poke a few unwanted holes in your garden. It would be best to choose a sport that would allow him to satisfy this instinct. On the other hand, golden retriever or Labrador retriever dogs that have been bred to participate in water birds hunting, such as ducks, usually love to fetch and enjoy playing in the water. In short, if you’re thinking about a particular breed of dog for yourself before you make your choice, it’s a good idea to know its requirements in terms of activity levels and mental stimulation and whether you’ll be able to meet them, given your lifestyle. And remember: don’t be fooled by the size of your dog! Small does not at all mean less energy.
Sport and age
When choosing a sport for your dog, take his age into account. Remember that puppies tend to have very high energy levels, and they calm down as they get older. Also bear in mind that an adult golden retriever may have a much higher energy level and need for exercise than puppies of other breeds. Your extremely rambunctious puppy may also not be ready to meet the physical, mental or social challenges of certain sports (Link to F4bis article). For example, a puppy may not be physically developed enough to jump or handle obstacles. If he is not fully socialised, he may not be ready to play with other dogs. For older dogs, on the other hand, it is important to exercise with them daily because, like humans, they lose their flexibility with age and may suffer from joint pain or osteoarthritis. You will be best advised by your vet, who may also recommend a special food for seniors, helping to protect the joint cartilage and certainly giving your dog a more comfortable daily life, while allowing them to continue their exercise. Remember that some sports, especially those involving jumping or racing, may not be suitable for an older dog. In addition, the intensity of any sport should be reduced for an older dog.
How much exercise and what type of activity does my dog need?
Before embarking on a new physical activity or sport with your companion, it is important to remember that each dog’s physical and mental capabilities vary depending on its breed, age, physical condition and character. Just as you may have a natural inclination to run while surfing doesn’t turn you on at all, dogs also have their preferences and individual predispositions for one type of physical activity or another. And while all dogs need exercise, some need far more than others in terms of frequency and level of intensity. Rule number one: there are no rules! To get an idea of what types of sports and at what level of intensity might be suitable for your dog, start observing your dog’s behaviour and take the following factors into account.
Importance of breed and physical activity
Although larger dogs usually need more exercise than smaller dogs, size is not a reliable indicator for assessing your dog’s needs. More important is the breed or group to which your pet belongs. For example, all dogs in the terrier group-from the smallest e.g. jack Russell terrier or Yorkshire terrier (from 3-4 kg) to the largest breeds-are very energetic and need a lot of mental and physical stimulation. This fact is not surprising when you consider that terriers were originally bred to fight rats and rabbits, hunt foxes and also to guard livestock herds. All herding breeds regardless of size are very active dogs. In Poland, popular herding breeds are, for example, German Shepherds, Border Collies or Belgian Shepherds (or Malinois). Working dogs such as the Siberian husky, originally bred to travel long distances in dog sledges in remote Arctic areas, have a natural incredible stamina and need a lot of exercises
Assessing your dog’s fitness and capabilities
Finally, regardless of breed, age or size, the most important factor to consider when starting a new physical activity is your dog’s overall health. Therefore, before choosing a sport that is suitable for your pet, we strongly recommend a visit to your vet to assess your dog’s muscle mass and tone, as well as a thorough examination of the pet. Some dogs, such as short-skinned breeds, may not be suitable for certain sports due to impaired breathing and the body’s ability to cool down, which risks overheating and can pose a real risk to their health. Other fairly common health problems can affect a dog’s ability to participate in certain sports. Your vet, after examining your dog, will help you decide what physical activity is suitable for your pet. He will also advise you on whether you should adjust your pet’s diet accordingly. For example, if your dog is already quite active and you feel he could use even more activity, he may need a special sports food formula to replenish all the calories he burns.
Sports for every dog: the most popular dog sports
There is a large selection of dog sports, most of which can be played amateurishly, in your backyard or park, or professionally, at specially organised sporting events. Some of these sports require a dog and a 'trainer’, who may be you or another person who will give your dog instructions to perform various tasks with you, in a team with other dogs or alone. Different sports offer different benefits for your dog and also emphasise certain skills or abilities (e.g. fast running, jumping, listening to commands, balance, digging, scent tracking…). Although not an exhaustive list, here are the most popular dog sports, providing plenty of fun:
This is currently one of the most popular dog sports. It involves walking your dog through an obstacle course as quickly as possible, following your commands, given by voice and gestures. Obstacles include tunnels, swings, dog balances or poles around which he must perform a slalom. This very versatile sport improves agility, flexibility and listening skills in your dog. Although this sport is particularly suitable for high-energy dogs such as the border collie, Belgian Shepherd (or Malinois) or German Shepherd, all types of dogs can do this type of exercise, provided they enjoy running, and jumping and are comfortable without a lead. Try setting up an obstacle course in your home or garden or sign up for a club.
This is a sport that requires stamina and speed, as it involves the owner running and being pulled by their energetic friend, equipped with a special harness. This sport is particularly suitable for high-energy dogs such as the border collie, Weimaraner or Australian shepherd. Guardians with smaller and/or less energetic dogs can try the Caniwalk, in which you walk instead of run. The basic equipment is a hip belt for you, a harness for your dog and an elastic rope to connect you.
Tests your dog’s ability to walk at the leg, jump, fetch and interact with other dogs and people. Particularly suitable for lighter dogs, it is less physically strenuous but equally challenging and can be combined with music, which is also known as 'Dancing with your dog’!
This is a simple obstacle course that the dog has to complete without instructions, and at the end of the course, catch the ball and cross the track in the opposite direction as fast as possible. Played by teams of four dogs, this sport provides competition and lots of fun and involves running, jumping, catching and finding. This sport is best for very active dogs.
Dock jumping or dock diving
This involves your dog having to jump as high or as far as possible from the edge of the pool into the water. You or another person throws a toy into the pool, which must be at least 120 cm deep, and your dog jumps for it from the edge into the water. This is a great sport for dogs that love the water, such as labrador retrievers and poodles, but even dogs that don’t swim very well can learn to do it. You can also play with your pet simply by throwing a ball or toy into the water and encouraging them to jump in and fetch it.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) with your dog
This is also an increasingly popular sport that provides a fun activity. All you and your dog need is a paddle board (paddleboard) and a large enough body of water to paddle on. In this sport, it’s you doing the exercise and your dog just enjoying your company. However, being on the water can be fun and stimulating for him, and will also allow him to swim if he wants to jump into the water. However, to practice SUP safely, before you take your pet with you, you need to be confident on the board yourself and be able to keep your balance. Get your dog used to the board while still on land, before taking to the water, and remember that he must wear a life jacket, even if he can swim.
Shepherd dog competition
This is a competitive sport in which the trainer instructs the dogs to herd sheep across a field, around a fence or other fenced-off area. It is naturally the ideal sport if you have a shepherd dog, such as a border collie or Pyrenees sheepdog breed. Of course, this sport is not easily accessible if you live in a city.
Whether in the water or on land, in your garden or on a sports field, there is certainly a sport to suit each dog’s natural abilities and inclinations. And while one of the main reasons for starting a new sport with your dog is often to increase their physical activity, you’ll quickly find that it’s also great mental exercise for them.