How to Play Soccer With Your Dog

While it may be hard to imagine your beloved Fido out on a field dribbling a soccer ball, shooting on a goal and scoring, in fact there are many dogs that do just that—and love it! Whether you’ve seen them strut their stuff at a half-time show, on a TV talent competition, or in family films like 1999’s Soccer Dog: The Movie, here are three reasons we can’t get enough of dogs playing soccer.

1.) It’s adorable. When Mark Lucas saw a dog dribble a soccer ball at the halftime show of a professional soccer game, he became determined to train dogs the same way. Soon after, he founded Soccer Collies, a troupe of dogs who can run with the ball, bounce it off their noses, and even catch it between their paws and their chin. Lucas brings his dogs to interact with kids and adults at schools, charity functions, and sporting events. BEK and Ms. Z, his two beloved Collies, are even able to shoot (and score!) on a goal.

2.) It’s fun! The first step in teaching a dog to play soccer is finding out whether they’re ‘ball motivated,’ says Lucas. The simplest way to figure that out is to bounce a basketball in front of them. If they seem excited and eager to play, then they will likely enjoy learning tricks with a soccer ball. “All breeds that like a ball will play soccer,” Lucas added. At first your pooch might not know quite what to do with a ball that’s too big for him to pick up in his mouth, but soon enough he’ll figure out how to pounce on it and move it with his paws. “People shouldn’t get discouraged, it does take time,” says Lucas. Start simple by having your dog bring you the ball. If you reward him with praise and treats, he’ll be much more inclined to keep up the good work. Of course, it becomes even more fun when you get in the game and run, pass, and steal.

3.) It’s healthy.  In the wild, dogs spend their days moving, running, and scrounging for food. Domestic dogs, on the other hand, often spend their days relaxing, sleeping, and lounging around. That’s why walks and play are so incredibly important for keeping your dog healthy and happy. Dogs that aren’t getting enough physical activity often display negative behaviors like digging, chewing, barking, jumping, hyperactivity, and sometimes even aggression. Getting your dog to run around with a soccer ball is a great form of exercise, not to mention an opportunity for you and your dog to bond. “The dogs are getting a great physical workout,” says Lucas, “and they’re also getting a mental workout. The more you play, the more they want to play, and that’s how they get to be so good.”

You can find out more about Lucas and his furry friends at SoccerCollies.com, or on Twitter @SoccerCollies.

What Is Freestyle Dancing With Dogs?

If you’ve ever seen a dog dance, then you know it can be hard to look away. There is something incredibly captivating about watching a canine cut a rug, and in recent months, the sport -- which is officially called Canine Freestyle -- has been featured on America’s Got Talent, Chelsea Lately, 20/20 and more. People just can’t seem to get enough.

So, what is it, exactly?

Canine Freestyle had its beginnings in Canada in the late eighties/early nineties, but when dog lovers in England and the United States caught wind of the new phenomenon, it quickly spread. It is thought to have been inspired by the competitive equestrian sport, dressage, and today it’s a recognized event at dog shows and competitions around the world.

Simply described, it’s a display of an owner and their dog’s obedience training and tricks set to music.

The first step in teaching a dog to dance is making sure it’s well trained. One of the first skills he’ll need to acquire is the ability to heel on both sides of your body, as opposed to just the left side, which is traditional.

Some of the most popular (and impressive!) freestyle moves include weaving in and out of the owner’s legs, spinning, jumping, rolling over, scooting backwards and the dog standing and ‘dancing’ on its hind legs. Some of the shows for beginners allow the handlers to use treats and toys during the performance, while the more advanced dancers do not.

In some competitions, costumes have become an important part of the acts and are coordinated with the music choice. And while many, many hours of training go into each routine, the cuteness factor of the sport has certainly served as great publicity, helping to get a younger generation of dog handlers interested in competition and racking up millions of views on beloved YouTube videos, like this one.

Handlers rave about the bonding that takes place when you spend one-on-one time with your dog daily during training for Canine Freestyle, and those relationships play a huge role in the performances. Audiences love to see pair who seems to be having fun and enjoying each other’s company.

Then again, what’s not to love about a dog wearing a bowtie dancing to disco?

For more information on teaching your own dog Canine Freestyle, check out the Musical Dog Sport Association or Canine Freestyle Federation, Inc.

Find the Right Sport for Your Dog

Dog sports are fun, exciting and doggone habit-forming. You and your dog can participate in dog sports just for the fun of it, or you can ramp up training and compete in regional trials. Here are my favorite dog sports and some tips for discovering what might be the right sport for your pet based on his breed and training.     

The Fab Four
1. Agility:
This is my top pick and a sport you’ve probably seen on TV. It’s like gymnastics but you won’t find any balance beams here. The equipment includes weave poles, tunnels and jumps. Your dog negotiates a course following your commands, and the fastest and most accurate dog is the winner. If your Shetland sheepdog insists on jumping over the coffee table or your Parson Russell Terrier loves shimmying down the kids’ sliding board, this could be the sport for them.

2. AKC Rally®: Rally is a form of obedience. In Rally, the dog and handler walk through a numbered course with the handler giving specific commands at each station. The scoring is not as rigorous as traditional obedience, but Rally does involve intense teamwork. Training begins on-leash and progress to off-leash execution. If your German shepherd or poodle always has that “what do you want me to do next” look on his face, Rally could be right up his alley!

3. Scent or nose work: Do you have a beagle, dachshund or Norwegian elkhound?  These are scent hounds, but training any dog to follow his nose can be lots of fun and it can even evolve into a career like being part of a search and rescue team. Typically, nose work involves teaching your pet to recognize a scent like peppermint or clove, and asking him to find something with that scent on it. Training starts off easy with hiding something in a box, then gets more difficult by moving the scent further away to a different room, and eventually to the outdoors.

4. Treiball: Treiball is German for “drive ball” and it’s becoming very popular with herding breeds like Welsh Corgis and border collies. In Treiball, your dog “herds” a large inflatable ball into a goal. This is a great sport for dogs that don’t have access to flocks of sheep or cattle to train with. When your dog engages in the sport of Treiball, its herding instincts can go wild without him actually being in the wild!

Walk Before You Run
Now that you know a little about dog sports, you should learn some basic prerequisites for participating. Before literally jumping into a sport, your dog should be well-socialized and have graduated from puppy and adult obedience classes. It needs to function in a group of other dogs without exhibiting any form of aggression, and it must follow your commands even if distracted. Lunging, excessive barking or growling is not acceptable.   

Any dog can do any sport, but knowing your dog’s lineage provides clues about his inherent traits. In general, the herding breeds excel at agility, the working breeds are great at Rally and the scent hounds can’t resist a smell-based hide ‘n seek. There are always exceptions to the rule, so do an online search for “dog sports” or “dog agility” in your region and enroll your dog in a class just for the fun of it.

Photo: Corbis Images

Go on a Desert Retreat With Your Dog

November weather may conjure up thoughts of cold, rainy days, with you and your dog huddled indoors dreaming of summer fun. But picture this: If you and your furry pal visit the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, you can replace that dreary November scenario with scenic vistas, fresh air and T-shirt-worthy temperatures.

November through April is the perfect time for you and your dog to hike through this beautiful national monument, which is located in Southern California. Resorts, celebrity getaways and world-class golf courses surround the area. Few activities, however, beat the exhilaration and freedom of getting out into nature with your best canine friend.

Dog Hiking Heaven
Dogs usually crave adventure and socialization, but they sometimes wind up squabbling with other canines or running out of steam early on in the confined space of the local park. Not so on these outings. “I have a large dog and a small dog, and the hikes are perfect for them,” says Arielle Maccio, director of volunteer services for Friends of the Desert Mountains, the organization that supports the hikes as well as conservation, research, education and other activities associated with the protected area. “On the desert hikes, your dog can socialize with other dogs in a controlled, safe situation.”

Maccio explains that all dogs are on leashes, with hikers led through the trails by certified interpretive guides. The duration of trips is just right for most dogs. The weekly Saturday hike, for example, starts at 9 a.m. and lasts for 2 1/2 hours. If you are a dog lover without a dog, you can still join the group. But most hikers show up with their canines.

Two Choices
Visitors with dogs can choose between two trails: the Cove Oasis Trailhead in the city of La Quinta, Calif., or the Homme-Adams Park and Cahuilla Hills Park trail in the city of Palm Desert, Calif. The latter is “a 3-mile hike that includes some hills,” according to Maccio. She recommends it for more seasoned hikers. The one in La Quinta “does not feature as much elevation,” she says.

The substrate for both trails consists of sandy washes and hard-packed ground, says Maccio, so tender dog paws tend to fare well. Some owners put protective booties on their pets, but Maccio says those aren’t necessary for the leisurely paced hikes, which stop every 15 to 20 minutes to allow for education and engaging discussion.

Dogs Allowed -- Or Not
Guided desert hikes with dogs are extremely rare across the country, and for good reason. “Dogs, like their cousins -- the wolf, coyote and fox -- exert pressure on prey animals by acting aggressively and marking their territory with scent,” explains Ginny Short of the Center for Natural Lands Management in Thousand Palms, Calif. “This type of behavior causes additional stress in the prey animals that must now expend precious energy preparing a defensive action.”

Although your dog might be the perfect picture of good health, he could also still be a carrier of certain viruses that could spread to wild animals that may be more vulnerable, according to Short. Trails allowing dogs are very limited as a result of these risks, but that’s one reason why the Southern California desert hiking opportunities are so unique and special.

Tips for Desert Hiking With Your Dog
Maccio and guide Emily Horner ask that you bring the following:

  • Water for both you and your dog
  • A collapsible water bowl
  • Doggy bags
  • A leash (required)
  • Sunscreen, since temperatures are often between 70 F and 80 F

Because up to 15 or so dogs can be on any given hike, your pet must be well-socialized. Maccio also recommends that dog participants be used to outdoor activities and warm weather.

Learn About Sheep While Bonding With Your Dog
In addition to seeing other happy dogs, you might spot beautiful bighorn sheep -- or at least learn more about them. Peninsular bighorn sheep are endangered, so conservationists work hard to help protect them, which includes keeping dogs on the trails. That’s one reason these special hikes were established.

Once you and your dog go on a desert hike, it probably won’t be your last. “The information you’ll learn about introducing your dog to natural environments can be taken elsewhere, on other adventures,” explains Maccio.

If you have cabin fever and would like to visit the national monument, the area offers many other dog-friendly spots, including at least three dog parks nearby: Fritz Burns Park in the City of La Quinta, Calif.; the City of Palm Desert University Dog Park; and the City of Palm Springs Dog Park.

4 Steps to Prepare Your Dog to Play a Sport

Is your dog the canine version of Usain Bolt, sprinting faster than his neighborhood peers? Or maybe he’s like Gabby Douglas, jumping over hurdles with ease.

Even if your pet is just an athlete wannabe, you can get him in good shape by taking the right steps in these four, easy-to-remember categories: veterinary care, nutrition, exercise and training.

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #1: Visit Your Vet

Before starting any exercise or sports training program with your dog, it’s always a good idea to visit the veterinarian. “You want to make sure your dog is ready to exercise,” explains Susan Nelson, clinical associate professor at Kansas State University’s Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. “You may have to start slow to build up their endurance, but once you get started, it can be fun.”

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #2: Select the Right Food

Charlie, a Jack Russell terrier who belonged to Virginia-based veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson, more than passed that first veterinary visit and was “an extraordinarily active dog.” Nelson says that Charlie couldn’t wait to run, swim and hunt during the autumn months, which Nelson’s family spent in southern Louisiana. But Charlie was so active that he seemed to burn calories faster than he could take them in.

Nelson decided to feed Charlie an “active formula” dog food, meant for canines like her speedy boy, and that “made a huge difference in his energy level and his physique,” she says. Such foods have sources of fat, protein and carbohydrates in appropriate proportions to meet the energy needs of active dogs and optimize their performance. In many of these foods, high-quality protein sources comprise about 29 percent of the mixture, to support lean muscles. For sustained energy, the formulas may have about 18 percent fat, which can include fish oil to help maintain healthy joints and minimize inflammation.

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #3: Choose Appropriate Exercises

The size and breed of your dog along with his particular likes and dislikes can help to determine what sports are best. “It really depends on what the dog can do,” Susan Nelson says. “For short-legged or arthritic dogs, walking is good. Running is good for bigger dogs who are in good shape -- but how much running you can do depends on the dog and how in shape it is. Remember, you can’t run a Basset Hound like you would a Great Dane.”

If you have a small dog, walking up to a mile or two each day is about the limit. Larger dogs can generally handle three or more miles of walking or running. As a basic guideline, Susan Nelson says that “dogs should get exercise at least twice a day, generally around 15 to 20 minutes each session for small dogs, and 30 to 40 minutes or more for large dogs.”

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #4: Train for Sports Gains

Your dog’s breed also might affect how you handle training. Did you know that your dog’s breed can influence how he responds to cues?

Márta Gácsi of Eötvös University, Hungary, for example, worked with a team of researchers to examine how various dog breeds made sense of the human pointing gesture. The scientists found that gun and sheep dogs were better at following a pointed finger than hunting hounds, earth dogs (dogs used for underground hunting), livestock guard dogs and sled dogs.

Don’t forget that mental training is just as important, since dogs are incredibly smart. “Dogs are in a special way tuned in to humans,” explains Jozsef Topal, who works in the Institute for Psychological Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. “They are interested in finding out how we think, and they are able to do it by reading our subtle communicative behaviors. So if you are a responsible dog owner, you should devote time for communicating with your dog, not just by talking to it, but also by solving problems together -- which may include training tasks, playing, or other dog activities.”

Canine Athlete Initiative: Get Your Dog Started!

The American Kennel Club (AKC) recently launched the Canine Athlete Initiative, a major public awareness campaign. “Whether your dog joins you on your morning run or participates in weekend agility competitions, all dogs are canine athletes,” says Dr. Shila Nordone, chief scientific officer of the AKC’s Canine Health Foundation. Visit the AKC’s website for educational materials on the most popular dog sports, including agility, dock diving, flyball, Frisbee, herding, hunting/field trials, lure coursing, obedience, rally, sledding and tracking.