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In an ideal world, all dogs would be Canine Good Citizens, who are comfortable around other dogs and people in a variety of settings and can pursue any canine sport from Agility to Tracking.

While this is a fantastic goal, it can sometimes feel out-of-reach — especially for many rescue dogs who might not have been socialized when they were puppies or who have traumatic histories. If you have a “challenging” dog, it can be easy to feel discouraged, especially if you dream of training and competing in dog sports. But don’t give up hope. Here’s how you can make dog sports fun for any pup.

At Their Own Speed

Many dogs aren’t destined to win a national championship — or even be on show grounds. But, in their own time and at their own speed, most dogs can find a sport that they enjoy playing with their owner/teammate. For many dogs who have behavioral challenges like reactivity, a traditional sport class setting might not be a good fit because it can be too stressful. That’s why private lessons are a fantastic way to get challenging dogs involved in sports.

Working privately with a trainer gives your dog (and you) individualized training plans and helps you both have fun and work toward any other goals you might have. Some training facilities even have reactive dog classes for general behavior as well as sports. In these cases, all dogs are kept separately in the training facility during class time when they are not active and only one dog is brought out at a time.

When you have a challenging dog, you often need to recalculate your definition of success is and how that applies to a daily walk or participating in sports. Some challenging dogs are able to rehabilitate and might go on to become competitors, while others will always need careful management.

Awards ceremony at the 2019 AKC Rally National Championship held March 15-17, 2019 at the Tulsa Expo Center, Tulsa, OK. Awards ceremony at the 2019 AKC Rally National Championship held March 15, 2019 at the Tulsa Expo Center, Tulsa, OK.

Respect Limits

It’s important for owners to think about dogs who have significant behavioral issues not as just having quirks, but rather ongoing issues that need monitoring. Just as you wouldn’t encourage a dog with hip dysplasia to compete in agility, a dog who is reactive to other dogs or fearful around people deserves the same health-based consideration. Keep this in mind when you are deciding what sports to explore together and determining which are safe and appropriate for your dog to pursue.

The stress of a competitive environment isn’t right for every dog, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of fun training in sports together. Agility, Obedience, Rally, and Scent Work can all be a lot of fun for you and your dog, regardless of whether you ever compete. In fact, many dog owners say Scent Work has helped improve their dog’s behavior.

Want titles? The AKC Trick Dog Program has been groundbreaking for creating an opportunity for all dogs, including challenging dogs, to succeed. Because the sport is set up so that dogs can be evaluated privately an evaluator to earn their trick dog titles, tricks are a perfect way to build confidence for challenging dogs and their owners. This year, there is even a virtual competition.

Cherish the Dog You Have

If you have a reactive dog, an anxious dog, or a dog who is otherwise challenging in sports, you might feel isolated — especially if you log onto social media and your friends are all posting ribbons or stories about success at trials and training classes.

It can feel frustrating to want to train in sports when you have a dog with behavioral needs, but there’s no shame in finding a way to make your sport(s) of choice work for you both. Dog sports don’t have to culminate in competition — for some challenging dogs that isn’t a realistic goal. But mastering a sport and having fun with your dog is within reach.

Often, it’s the most challenging dogs who have the most to teach us. Never give up on your dog, and consider finding a sport that you and your dog love playing together. Strive to be the best you can be at it, whether that means private classes and training in the backyard or competing at the AKC National Championships.

Getting Started

To compete in any dog sport, your dog must have an AKC number via one of the following:

  • AKC Registration Number – This number is provided to a dog owner via a registration certificate received from the previous owner, or via a puppy registration paper given to the new owner by the breeder.
  • Purebred Alternative Listing (PAL) – If a dog is purebred but an AKC Registration Number is not possible, owners can apply for PAL number.
  • AKC Canine Partners Number – This number is given to either mixed breed dogs or a purebred.

You can find upcoming AKC events near you to either watch or try out. At the end of the day, the best part of dog sports is creating a bond with your dog, whether or not you compete!


Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author and All Star Trainer Of The Year Certified Trick Dog Instructor. Sassafras and her dogs have competed in sports from Agility to Rally. Sassafras’ books have been honored by organizations ranging from the American Library Association to the Lambda Literary Foundation. New dog books from Sassafras in 2019 include: Healing/Heeling, Bedtime Stories for Rescue Dogs: William To The Rescue (with Lili Chin), and TRICKS IN THE CITY: For Daring Dogs and the Humans That Love Them. Learn more at
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