Why Do People Take Part in Dog Sports?

Is it for themselves, for the dog - or a bit of both?

A poodle jumps in agility
Photo: Reddogs/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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People can participate in dog sports (like agility) at any level, from local classes to national and international events. A study by Joey Farrell (Lakehead University) et al investigates what motivates people to take part in dog sports, and why some compete much more often than others. 

They recruited people at events where at least two different sports were taking place, from a list of agility, rally, field, obedience and conformation (showing pedigree dogs). Although there is a chance to win titles, it turns out this isn’t the main reason why people take part. Feeling immersed in the activity and the chance to meet like-minded people are both important to competitors.

The scientists say that “people who are frequently active in dog sports tend to participate with a high level of self-determined motivation, which is related to personal satisfaction. Open-ended survey data reinforced, however, that individuals begin and remain engaged in dog sports for a variety of reasons, including enjoyment of learning or training with dogs, as well as externally driven factors (e.g., prizes and titles).” 

Some of the participants took part in more than 12 events per year. In comparison to those who participated less than 6 times a year, they scored higher on a scale that measures intrinsic motivation to experience. This is typified by statements such as ‘because I like the feeling of being totally immersed in the activity.’ They also scored higher on a scale that measures a type of extrinsic motivation, typified by the statement ‘because in my opinion, it is one of the best ways to meet other people.’

Four other types of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation did not vary between the two groups.  Intrinsic motivation relates to one’s own internal desires and interests. Extrinsic motivation refers to external factors such as rewards and titles. None of the participants scored highly on lack of motivation, which is not surprising.

The statistical results were supported by comments from participants, who wrote about the special bond that develops with the dogs, and how much they like meeting other people who feel the same way about dogs as they do. 

For example, one person said, “when you work with the dog as a team in a sport, you and the dog develop a very special relationship.” Another said, “I like the connection that develops with a dog during training and I like being around people who feel as I do about dogs. It enables me to connect with people from all walks of life.” 

The 85 participants completed a survey that included the Sports Motivation Scale, a set of questions that investigates intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to take part in sports. It was adapted to apply to dog sports. Open-ended questions were included that gave people chance to write about why they started the sport, why they continue and what they enjoy about it.

Just over three-quarters of the participants were in the age range 45-74, and 80% were female. They didn’t stick to just one sport, as most of them participated in 2 – 5 sports. Obedience was the most popular, with 85% taking part, followed by conformation (69%) and agility (64%). So although the sample is not representative it does include people who are keen competitors.

The researchers acknowledge that other factors, such as available time and ability to travel to events, also influence their participation in these sports. Just as with dog walking, since some of these events involve burning calories (for both the human and the dog), a better understanding of why people participate will help encourage dog owners to have more active lifestyles.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

What joint activities do you do with your dog?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Farrell, J., Hope, A., Hulstein, R., & Spaulding, S. (2015). Dog-Sport Competitors: What Motivates People to Participate with Their Dogs in Sporting Events? Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 28 (1), 61-71 DOI: 10.2752/089279315X1412935072201

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