The Cost of Canine Sports

I know I’ll probably get some flack from people about this but it is what it is.  I love canine sports, I love the bond it creates, I love the communication it builds, and I love the positive outlet for natural drives.  I think sports are so great for the canine human relationship but I think that there can be a cost with some sports.

I don’t mean to pick on flyball, because it’s a sport I’d really like to try with Rio, but the level of drive/stress/anxiety that some competitors push the dogs into is a little concerning.  I don’t think it’s all of flyball or anything like that but it is incredibly common to have dogs screaming, lunging, wailing while waiting their turn to run.  All of this “drive building” is not only encouraged but is seemingly required for high level of performance.

Getting dogs jazzed up within reason is one thing.  I mean, before I go out to play frisbee with the dogs I will play some tug, get rough with Shayne, and tease Rio a little by fake tossing.  The dogs get bouncy start focusing in beautifully and become ready to roll.  What I don’t see is non-stop barking (well, except from Rio but he does that anyway), no screaming of excitement, no lunging and other seemingly out of control over the top behavior.  I don’t think frisbee lends itself to that type of drive building since I need the dogs to be able to work with me and respond to cues easily because if my dog blows off a back vault to just barrel through me to get the disc, we both could be really badly hurt.

My concern with the level of intensity they push their dogs to is that we know how stress effects the body.  Stress is stress…. good stress or bad stress, they both have the exact same chemical responses in the body.  What we also know about stress is that chronic stress absolutely has some physiological effects on the body.  Chronically stressed animals may succumb to illness more easily (lowered immune response), have gastrointestinal problems, have coat problems, unexplained weight loss, and of course behavior problems.  I really do get concerned seeing some of the extreme stress (generally good stress, the excitement of the run) these dogs are pushed to on a regular basis.  I really do have concerns about the physical (and behavioral) well-being of dogs who experience this extreme level of stress on such a regular basis.  I really don’t like writing that but the more I read about the effects of stress on the body the more I kept coming back to flyball as something that made me concerned/uncomfortable.

I still really want to try flyball with Rio because I think he would LOVE it, but I am really not comfortable pushing him to that level of stress.  Now, I absolutely know there are teams out there that do not advocate that same level of intensity/drive/stress/anxiety etc. but I suspect they may be a little harder to find.

I do not think it’s possible or ideal to live a stress free life–simply anticipating something good in the future can cause stress but that’s good stress.  What we want to try to avoid is the chronic and elevated stress levels that can be found in some canine sporting events.  I don’t have any flyball specific firm data to reference but what I’ve learned about canine stress over the last year has really made me think about the risk/benefits of starting flyball with Rio.

Again, I’m NOT trying to say that dog sports (or flyball) are bad… I think training for canine sports is an amazing experience for dog and handler.  I’m just hoping people think about this for a moment and maybe consider some of the side effects of chronic stress.


About Success Just Clicks

I'm a dog trainer and enthusiast who moonlights as a blogger and custom tug-toy maker.
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21 Responses to The Cost of Canine Sports

  1. Jodi Stone says:

    It is the human drive to compete which is to blame. If I ever were to try flyball my goal would be to have fun with my dog and strengthen our bond, anything beyond that would be icing.

    It is not just our dogs that humans push, we push our children too. These same people getting their dogs on the brink of lunatic are the same ones screaming at their four-year-old because he missed the soccer ball.

    It is our desire to be number one, which is at fault.

  2. Tucker's Mom says:

    Honestly, a combination of this, and what Jodi says above, is why I haven’t gone further in agility. I made it clear from the beginning that I was just looking to have fun, to enjoy being with my dogs, and to strengthen the bond between us, and that I didn’t ever want to compete. Because … because … because … well, I am VERY competitive. When I am competing in something, I like to WIN! And I don’t want that part of myself, a known character flaw, to bleed over into my relationships with my dogs. So with one or two exceptions, the agility instructors I’ve worked with have either relentlessly pushed me to compete because my dogs, surprisingly, showed a lot of promise at it, and we already had good handler focus, etc. going in, which a lot of dog/handler teams where the dogs were naturally more athletic and designed to excel in dog sports, really didn’t have OR basically stopped working with me at all because I had no intention of ever competing. I’ve been to some flyball competitions, and I agree with what you said. I don’t think it’s the sport that’s to blame – like I once saw this team of Basset Hounds competing – and while they were hound baying a bit, they weren’t exhibiting the over the top, manic behavior you described, or that I’ve seen elsewhere, and the handlers were all laughing and having a great time. The dogs were excited and anxious to run, clearly having fun, and so were the people. It was awesome to see. However, for the most part, I can’t even watch flyball on TV – it kills my ears! I’ve also seen some pretty over the top reactions (dog and human) at agility trials. And years ago, in my childhood and teens, I went that route with horse shows, until I finally figured out that my super competitive nature and my desire to have a really strong bond with my horse were at cross purposes in that arena. (And again, this was MY fault, not the fault of the horse show world.) I still did my lessons, still trained, still wanted to be the best rider I could be, but my rewards were no longer blue ribbons and silver cups – it was the bond of trust and love I shared with my horse that were my prizes.

    So yeah – what Jodi said.

  3. gotspots says:

    I’m with the, it’s the humans thing. Delta and I compete in agility purely for fun. I am an extremely competitive person in everything I do, but that doesn’t really fall into my dog life. Which I am super happy about. I’m sure me being nervous in the beginning is enough stress for Delta. But I’m SO glad that at the end, I can come out and know that I’m always happy with how Delta and I performed. Maybe it helped being on a losing soccer team my whole life? LOL!!! Instead of amping up, I work on calming Delta down or else she can’t pay attention. Lol

    • See i’m totally NOT competitive at all…it’s all about having fun and letting my dogs have a blast! It’s good to know your own personal limitations and prevent the desire to push the pups by making sure you keep it fun and light.

  4. Crystal says:

    Very interesting post. It may attract some controversy, but I think people should definitely be mindful of the activities they pursue with their dogs. Maisy and I do not do agility because the cost would be too great. Not only would it likely be too stressful for her, but she has terrible structure. She might be able to compete at low levels with minimal risk of injury, but I’m terribly competitive, and I’m not sure I could make the right decisions for her. Easiest to avoid the whole thing… especially since there are sports out there that she IS well-suited to!

    • If nothing else, i’d just want people to think about what the long term effects of the way they do their sports may be… i’d be interested to see the chemical levels pre-competition and levels post competition… and see how levels come back down (if they go up)…

      • Crystal says:

        Oh, gosh, YES… I’d love to see that. And maybe do post-testing immediately, 1 hour, 6 hours, 12, 24… MORE DATA PLEASE!! I think it would be interesting to see if there are trends within breeds, or temperament types, or in different sports.

        I think your speculation has some merit, and I’d definitely like to see if it pans out.

        Now I’m going to speculate for a moment. I’ve only done the smallest amount of reading on the topic of stress hormones/reactions in the body, so I could be way off base, but it seems to me that animals in the wild would also have regular stress spikes (wolves chasing their prey, rabbits being chased by wolves, etc.) My assumption would therefore be that animals either live shorter lives as a result OR they’ve evolutionarily adapted to such events.

        If the latter is the case AND if dogs have retained that through domestication (possible, given that many breeds were working on farms, etc. until 100 years or so ago), perhaps the impact is not as bad as you think? Is it possible that a certain amount of stress is actually good for the animal in some way we don’t understand?

        Which of course begs the question: how do sports fit into that picture? We definitely need to do some research. I know I read a study once about agility dogs and trial stress (they measured cortisol), but I can’t remember the details now…

        • Crystal says:

          PS- I haven’t had coffee yet today, so I hope my ramblings make sense. Trust me, they are nothing more than ramblings, and definitely should not be interpreted as me trying to make a serious argument one way or another. Just proof that I wish I knew more sciencey stuff than I actually do.

  5. Susan says:

    I’m a flyball competitor and I love it (you should totally try it)! My own personal opinion is the the dogs who are lunging and flailing and whatnot aren’t usually running at their full potential (which is my flyball goal with my dogs). My younger dog doesn’t often bark on the lanes, he just becomes wicked focused and ready to run (my older dog is deaf and now barks more in general so he sometimes trash talks a little). I try to discourage any behavior that is going to wear them out before they need to run. I guess my message would be that your dog doesn’t need to be at that level of over-excitement for flyball, in fact I’d think they do better when they aren’t.

    • Susan I really do want to try it… i mean Rio’s a whippet/cattle dog… he’s BUILT for flyball… but i’m not comfortable pushing him to the level of drive/excitement/anxiety that some of the local teams I’ve seen advocate… i agree that it would seem the crazy dogs may not perform as well but my main concern is the effect it is having on their body chemistry. We know that when dogs have reactions it messes up their body chemistry for 10 days or so…. from what i’ve witnessed… these dogs are essentially encouraged to have long reactions.

      It sounds like the way you run your dogs is the way i’d want to run mine… a quiet focus (well rio always barks so i can guarantee he woudln’t be quiet but he’d be focused and not as “reactive” as i’ve seen)… well done for showing people you can run dogs competitively without pushing them …

      • Susan says:

        Just to clarify I DO push my dogs, just as hard as I can, safely. We have a mini flyball lane in my garage for practice and I expect the absolute best from my pups. In the lane my guys are totally keyed up and ready to race! I do think they are under stress, but I’d definitely categorize it as eustress, and in no way distress. Wixer has way more distress during a bath than at any point during a flyball tournament. I have no way to test in what way or for how long his body chemistry changes during and after a tournament, but just based on observation, my dogs seem pretty darn happy during a tournament and enjoy a nice relaxing Monday the day after a tournament. They show no signs of distress at any time and all I have to say is the word ‘flyball’ or ‘Riley’ (one of his teammates) and his ears pop up and he prances for the door. The owners in my flyball class also start commenting starting about the third week of class that their dogs start anticipating class and are get super happy when they come to the building. They seem to really enjoy watching their dogs bloom.

        Also remember, just because teams in your area seem to run that way, don’t be discouraged from trying. What from the outside might seem like over the top crazy, might actually be something different once you get to know the sport. But in any case they are your dogs and you can run them however you want. If you want to train a more low key way you are more than welcome to (there is no right or wrong way to run flyball)…and I promise no one will notice a little extra barking! 😉

        • Eustress and distress cause the EXACT same changes physiologically. So that reactive dog who is reacting out of sheer excitement has the exact same changes in body chemistry as the reactive dog who is terrified out of their mind–and we know that dogs who are chronically stressed (rarely able to return to baseline) are prone to a variety of health and behavioral problems. So my concern is that we are risking our dogs health (mental and physical) when we do not allow them to return to baseline by chronically stressing them (good stress OR bad stress). I do have concerns over that (having seen the effects of chronically stressed dogs in several reactive dogs I’ve worked with)… i have not data specific to sports (and i would like data) but in different contexts the effects of stress and chronic stress are well known (again good stress or bad stress).

          So there is really no physiological difference from a dog experiencing extreme distress chronically and one that experiences extreme eustress chronically. When i’m working my two dogs with frisbee or agility, I practice them rehearsing calm behavior when not working (but watching the other dog work) and I do not rev up the dogs in the same manner I do when we compete (and even when we compete both of my dogs keep their minds… if they didn’t I have the potential for serious injury).

          I’m still going to try out flyball at some point or another if i find a class/club/team that suits my needs because i do think Rio would Kick some butt and take names… LOL! I had an entire team of international flyball folk ask to buy him from me when he was only 11 months old and winning frisbee competitions with his youthful floppy not totally efficient gait LOL!

          Thanks for the polite and insightful conversation…

          • Susan says:

            I think one main difference may be duration? My flyball dogs return to baseline (behavior wise, again no way to really know whats going on there chemically) about 5 minutes after a race, the dogs I’ve seen scared out of their mind stay in that state for hours and hours (shaking in the corner or whatnot). We warmup (this is before the team warmup in the lanes, is done outside and consists of some light jogging and stretching etc) and cool down for each race and on a routine basis I have to wake them up from a nap for their warmup.
            As another poster said, my Border Collie/Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix lives life at a 10, all the time, without me doing anything (and it sounds like you might be familiar with that as well!). If I wanted him not to experience any of this kind of stress I would never be able to do the flyball, agility, disc dog, dock diving etc. that I think keeps him (and me) sane. He would have way more stress if I didn’t do these things, I feel like he would fall apart at the seams. If we go a few days without enough exercise due to weather, we live in south Florida so the rainy season is tough, I start to see those cage crazy behaviors that mark long term animal shelter or zoo animals. Spinning, pacing, hyper reactivity. That to me is way worse for him that any flyball tournament we’ve been to. But keep in mind I don’t do what you saw with the super revving or whatever. Different style I suppose?
            Of course I LOVE flyball, so I’m biased. But my dogs and and I are a team and I wouldn’t do anything ever that I thought would harm them short or long term. And is some cases flyball can be a health benefit. I actually found flyball as a way to keep my Cavalier active after being diagnosed with a heart murmur (no surprise there!) at age 3. Today he turns 8 and his heart murmur is still grade 1 to 2. I’ll take it! And like I said before, if I didn’t do something with my Border Staffy he would self destruct…and probably take my sofa with him!
            I do appreciate the concerns you have as we all have our dogs best interest at heart.

            • It’s not behavior that i’m worried about, i’m worried about the long term effect of stress chemicals being in the body. What we know from research is that dogs who have reaction from fear or excitement have a shift in body chemicals (the exact same changes). According to researchers, it takes dogs 7-10 days to return to baseline from going over the edge (not in the context of sports which is what I would like to really find out). During this time, the dogs, chemically, are much faster to react and much quicker to hit threshold (and not just in the context of what caused the initial reaction inthe first place) and each subsoquent reaction further pushes their system out of whack… if this holds up within sports, dogs who have a log day of being revved up to a crazy degree are being further and further pushed out of whack. We also know that dogs suffering from chronic stress (where their body chemistry doesn’t get a chance to return to and stay at baseline for extended amount of time) can lead to behavior problems and health problems.

              But my dogs and and I are a team and I wouldn’t do anything ever that I thought would harm them short or long term

              And that’s my hesitation… i know what stress does to the body… i know what chronic stress does to the body… and it does make me concerned over the longterm effects of pushing a dog (or allowing a dog to get) to the point at which i see many flyball dogs getting to (because arousal level in contexts other than sports is a eustress that causes the same chemical changes in the body, I suspect arousal level in the contexts of sports could produce the same results). I don’t want do anything that has the potential for issues and i think flyball gone wrong has that potential so i want to be picky about how i participate in the the sport.

  6. Katie says:

    I suspect that many of the dogs aren’t being “pushed to it” so much as it’s a naturally occurring result of having a very high dog in a very stimulating atmosphere. And add to it that many of the big flyball breeds are naturally pretty vocal dogs anyway.

    Any good flyball player isn’t going to want an excessively high dog in the lanes. A dog who is too high is far more likely to be too hard and wild on the box, resulting in a slower run. They’re more likely to bobble, resulting in a slower run or even a lost race as the dog chases a bad bobble into the other lane. An excessively high dog is going to be more likely to cross and chase resulting in a lost heat.

    But outside the lanes, waiting? That’s hard. So many flyball dogs are breeds that are very motion sensitive and impulsive, and it’s just Very Very Hard.

    I run a sub-4 Border Collie. He’s an extremely high dog, and he came that way. He’s been excruciatingly motion-sensitive since he was a tiny puppy. Impulse control is not his forte. And he’s very vocal when he’s excited. So yeah, he is one of those obnoxious screaming Border Collies outside of the ring. Once we’re in the ring he’s all Serious Business, but waiting (at flyball, at agility, heck even at Rally Obedience) is a challenge. We’re working on it, and maybe that makes us the minority? It’s getting better and I can generally direct him into tug rather than screaming, but he’ll never be the Golden Retriever that can be left snoozing in a down stay at the back of the lanes.

    But he loves flyball more than anything else in the entire world, so while I agree there is a cost, to me it is worth it.

    (The players in the upper echelons of flyball in my region have very sane, very businesslike dogs who do not act like idiots the way that mine does.)

    • Maybe it’s a difference in regions, venues, or levels…. but the event i saw, i saw HANDLERS rib thumping, collar popping (not corrections), excitied noise making (yayyyyy git-it,git-it,git-it,git-it,) , revving up their dogs both in the wings and on the run area as things got ready to go–even though their dogs were already lunging, spinning, screaming, etc. But it doesn’t change that I suspect there are chemical responses to that level of stress and i do wonder about those effects.

  7. Kristine says:

    I don’t have enough experience with flyball to really have an opinion on this but I am inclined to agree. The six-week class we took last year was a blast and I immediately fell in love with it. It was an adrenaline rush for me and for my dog. But I don’t think it is an activity for every dog. The energy level in the room is insane and many dogs just can’t handle that. If they are overly sensitive or fearful, flyball is probably not the sport for them.

    My dog, Shiva, over-stimulates in any new environment. She is a very high-drive, high-energy dog and she gets excited by pretty much everything. While she excels in flyball because she is so drivey and so fast, I spent all of the class time when she wasn’t training, working with her on calm behaviour. I don’t need to amp her up. The activity itself does that. As soon as she realises it’s her turn, she is already five steps ahead of me. As a rule, I don’t rev her up. Not in flyball, not in agility, not ever, because she lives her life at a ten, why push her to a fifteen? On the sidelines we practice laying quietly on her mat and I reward her for staying still when another dog runs by. I don’t find this lowers her performance level. If anything, it enhances it.

    There are many dogs who may need to be amped up at the start line. That’s fine as long as the dog is enjoying it. I don’t think any dog should ever be pushed to the point of over-stimulation, where they have no self-control whatsoever. It maybe be fun to watch, but how much fun is it for the dog? How easy is it for them to come back down? As an owner of a “high” dog, I can vouch for the fact that it takes a long time for that dog to relax again when pushed so far. It can’t be healthy and I can’t understand pushing a dog like that on purpose. Where’s the fun?

    • Susan says:

      I agree, I generally find two types of dogs (I know this is a stereotype, but in general) those that in agility hold their start line stay…and those that don’t. I rev up my start line stayer to encourage him to be independent from me and go do it! I don’t rev up my start line breaker, since he, as a you so perfectly put it, already lives life at a 10. Revving should, in my opinion, be based on each individual dog.

  8. Crystal says:

    Could you recommend some further reading on the issue of stress and its effect on the body?

    • I have to find my notes from the Sarah Kalnajs seminar, i think she gave some sources…. there are probably sources in Ali Brown’s, Emma Parson’s’, Nicole Wilde’s, perhaps even Patricia’s books (she talks about the chemical changes in the body and i bet she sites them)… i personaly read a detailed abstract (not one of the 300 word blurbs… but a more detailed abstract) of a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal… though i cannot remember the title/authors…. if I find that info from the Sarah Kalnajs seminar i’ll email you…

  9. Susan says:

    I understand what you are saying about arousal, stress, and how dogs under constant stress never make it back to baseline. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t see see anything that would indicate my dogs aren’t returning to baseline relatively quickly. Granted we don’t know what’s going on chemically, but I’ve not seen any outward indication that they aren’t recovering fully to baseline pretty quickly (and they seem to be enjoying themselves greatly). Our team also happens to have quite a few veteran dogs who have been running in flyball tournaments for +/-10 years, the only change we’ve seen in those dogs is some decrease in speed.

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