Thinking Outside the Box: Nontraditional Breeds in Sports
An Azawakh friend competes in weight pull with one of her dogs. I've been following their journey in weight pull since before they even started competing. They went from a team that was completely new to the sport to her Azawakh successfully (and safely) pulling over 800 pounds. She later posted the beautiful pictures of her dog pulling weight to her personal social media page. At first everyone was incredibly supportive, but as the post was shared more and more sighthound people, most of them Azawakh owners, began to post vitriolic comments on her page. They spouted uninformed opinions claiming the danger of weight pull for breeds like sighthounds. And while my gut reaction was to react to those people harshly, one of my favorite things in life is teaching, and so I present a blog post on dogs doing sports outside their traditional niche.
Let's start by looking at weight pulling since it is both timely and historically incredibly controversial. Weight Pull as a sport developed in the 80s but forms of freighting, carting, drafting, and pulling have been performed by dogs for hundreds (likely thousands) of years. There are several different organizations including the United Kennel Club (UKC), International Weight Pull Association (IWPA), and American Pulling Alliance (APA). If you look at the regulations for each organization they will include things like weight classes, max weights pulled per weight class, age limits, a spotter on the cart/sled, and more. This is not some lawless dog sport where people are only in it for the glory. Like all dog sports, it's meant to be fun and generally the most you get out of it is a great time with your dog and maybe some qualifying pulls or titles. Here is a lovely post about common myths and misconceptions about weight pull.
In addition to the organization's regulations, a must for weight-pull is a properly fitted harness, often custom made for the dog. This harness should fit the dog's neck and shoulders so that it isn't riding up into the trachea or slipping down and binding on the shoulders. The length can be important too, you want the spreader bar not to be riding against the dog's rear feet. You need the straps running past the ribs to not slip under the ribs and put pressure on the stomach. The harness is the biggest piece that will allow any dog to safely pull. Couple that with conditioning and training and weight pull is an extremely safe sport and I've never heard of an injury first hand and second hand I've only head about broken nails and some minor toe injuries. Contrast that with lure coursing where I know owners whose dogs have died.
The biggest thing to remember is that the dog controls the action. If the dog doesn't want to pull, they won't.
So why would you want to participate in weight pull? For bully and molosser type breeds this can be a great test of working ability. For non-traditional pulling breeds, including sighthounds, weight pull provides a venue to keep your dog conditioned, particularly through winter months when coursing, agility, dock diving and many other running sports are less available. While it works different muscles, it's excellent cross-training and provides good core strength. I know of multiple people who have used it to bring a dog back from an injury and help rebuild their strength.
It also, like any dog sport, provides you the avenue to bond with your dog and build confidence. A dog who doesn't spook at something "chasing" him is going to be less spooky in public. A dog that feels like he can accomplish something, even if it's not traditional breed sport, is going to have higher confidence in general. And when I start weight pull with my dogs I'm prepared for the backlash and I give so much credit to Bagan ( UKC EGRCH URO3 UWP Allal wa n'Sahel's Bagan CM2 SC BCAT RE FDC TKI CGC SPOT) and his owner CC Alberta Evans-Conway for their willingness to ignore the haters and participate in anything her Azawah are interested in pursuing.
Now, what about other sports that are non-traditional for sighthounds? That pretty much includes everything other than Lure Coursing, racing, FCAT, CAT, and Open Field Coursing. I've taken criticism because I do Scent Work with my Azawakh. How harmless can Scent Work be? There is literally not a dog I've worked with that hasn't benefited from the encouragement of using their nose in a productive way. It builds confidence (sticking their nose in boxes, odd corners, near new and novel things) and tired the dog out mentally much fast than almost anything else. Yet, because I have a sighthound, that means they don't need to exercise their nose, apparently. Nevermind that my dogs pull me to the start line. Nevermind that Anubi developed a natural alert to migraines, likely because of his background in scent detection. Because it's not "for" sighthounds, I shouldn't let my dog participate.
Tracking is similar to Scent Work and other types of Sport Detection. Is man trailing done largely with Bloodhounds and some other scenthounds? Yes, but I know many many German Shepherds and Labs that are utilized in tracking. Particularly in Search and Rescue, though scenthounds have the better nose, it's the breeds with more biddability who make better Search and Rescue dogs. Still though, does that mean when Amidi drops her nose to a track, that she's not being an Azawakh? It's one of her biggest joys in life and something I need to devote more time to, because she just lights up when I take out her tracking equipment. Why should I deprive her of that joy?
And Barn Hunt, well that's for terriers. Why should I take my sighthounds to play in that venue? If you honestly don't think that Azawakh, who were village dogs for thousands of years, helped in vermin control then I think you don't understand village (or rural) life. Are they designed to squeeze into small spaces like terriers? No, but once again we run into the understanding that teaching a large dog how to go through a small tunnel is great for confidence. Teaching them how to climb on uneven and unusual surfaces like hay bales is a useful skill for the real world. It's funny to watch the tiny tunnels give birth to tall breeds like Azawakh or giant breeds like Leonbergers, but that's not the point. While the terrier and long-time ratting breeds might be the ones that excel, it's still an awesome way to build your bond with your dog regardless of breed.
But you can't get a spitz or sighthound or lap dog or scenthound to do obedience. You can't get a sighthound to do off leash exercises. That would break their spirit. Or, far more likely, when trained well it will create a nigh unbreakable bond of trust with your dog. I know Basenjis and Rhodesian Ridgebacks and Pharaoh Hounds and Greyhounds with Obedience titles. I know an Azawakh whose finished his Rally Masters title and an Azawakh that has a Competition Obedience title. It's not for the glory. It's not for the attention. You can only want to build your bond with your dog. Otherwise your dog is going to stop playing the game. They're going to stop offering behaviors. Does a Kai Ken train differently than a German Shepherd? Yes, definitely, but just because the Kai Ken isn't throwing ten different behaviors at you or hanging on your every word doesn't mean that they can't enjoy working with their person. Just because an Azawah doesn't see the point of practicing sitting straight ten times in a row, that doesn't make them stubborn or disobedient. And seeing an obedience or rally or freestyle routine that is perfectly in sync will give me goosebumps every single time.
I've seen Poodles and Border Collies do bite sports. I've seen a Chinese Crested do bike joring and Italian Greyhounds do weight pull. I know Leonbergers and Saint Bernards that do agility. There is no reason to pigeon hole dogs into only a specific set of sports. Particularly the companion breeds, I think it's awesome when they get out an have a blast at whatever sport they choose to pursue.
So what about the specialized breed specific sports? Lure Coursing, racing, and Open Field Coursing for sighthounds. Herding for the herding group. Hunt Tests and Trials for the sporting dogs. Draft Dog trials for some working breeds. Earth Dog and Terrier Trials for the terrier group. Night Hunts for Coonhounds. And so many other cool, breed specific sports. I firmly believe there is a place for breed specific sports. Often enough those sports are used to determine working capacity, which breeding decisions might ride on. Those trials take a huge amount specific drive and instinct and seeing a dog do what it was bred for, or a reasonable approximation of it, truly gives you the sense of why different dog breeds exist.
That being said, why not let other breeds dabble in them as long as it's safe? Let a sheltie doing some carting in a custom harness and tiny cart (it's adorable by the way). Let the Kai Ken retrieve fowl. Let all breeds try their hand at Coursing Ability Tests and Fast CATs. Have breeds come out and try the American Sighthound Field Associations LCI all breed coursing. Have herding facilities allow all breeds to try it as long as, above all else, the dog is not a danger to stock. I took Anubi herding once. He's always shown a propensity to circling and grouping when things get rowdy. He loved herding, very happily worked with a complete stranger, and went home mentally fulfilled and tired.
To me, particularly with ancient breeds that existed before some of the modern usages of dogs, it makes sense that some individuals of breeds are going to show instincts that are not necessarily an intrinsic breed traits. Herding instinct had to come from somewhere. It would have been bred from the dogs that had modified prey drive to move and group rather than chasing and hunting. Might it thus exist in a breed that is both ancient and the only dog breed in their region? To me it seems perfectly possible. I think there are going to be individuals who seem to excel or at least enjoy activities that they weren't originally bred for and often, in my experience, letting the dogs enjoy those activities
From what I've seen with my own dogs, activities that are within their breed's original purpose leave them feeling extremely fulfilled. They'll go home and lounge around and then be up to do it again the very next day. Activities that are a stretch for them mentally leave them more tired and it takes them a bit to recharge and be ready to go again. But both types have given my dogs confidence, freedom, and helped create a truly impressive bond between us.
I'm including a video of Anubi's first time herding to help show that he is not in fact just chasing, like I know Ash the Saluki would. He is intentionally circling and moving.