COVID-19 has changed the way we live and the things that we are able to do with our dogs. But amidst all the cancellations and hardships, one bright light has been the expansion of virtual competition in dog sports, and the ability to participate in dog events remotely.
One of the exciting side effects of these virtual opportunities is that they have opened up the world of dog sports to people and dogs who previously haven’t been able to participate.
Although great strides have been made in recent years to make dog shows more welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities, it still isn’t always possible for everyone to attend. Some individuals with chronic health conditions may be reluctant to enter. Additionally, people who have disabilities like Autism and PTSD may be overstimulated in the loud, chaotic environment of a traditional dog show. Since the expansion of the virtual titling, I have heard positive feedback from many people about how important and encouraging these programs have been both in terms of being able to succeed with their dogs and feeling more included in dog sports.
Many people have expressed a sense of isolation during 2020 but unfortunately for many people, that isolation from the dog community isn’t unique to this year. Dog owners who are geographically isolated from dog shows and large training facilities because they live in rural areas have been able to benefit from the new programs, and even virtually build friendships, mentorship, and training connections with other competitors across the country.
The pandemic has also created a different kind of isolation for kids and teens regardless of where they live. With many students in school virtually and many extracurriculars canceled, the AKC virtual sports programs can provide a much-needed opportunity to be able to do something fun and productive while in lockdown. Particularly for kids with parents who aren’t themselves involved with dogs, or who have limited time to take them to and from dog shows this unique chance to earn titles with their dogs from their home or neighborhood.
Good For Dogs
The expansion of virtual titling has also been fantastic for expanding the reach of AKC sports to dogs who often aren’t able to participate — particularly shy, fearful, or reactive dogs. These titles are giving people an accessible way to showcase all the fantastic things their dogs are capable of doing while being able to also prioritize their dog’s comfort. Doing sports with a challenging dog can be a boost of confidence to both the dog and owner. It also provides great encouragement to dog owners to keep working with their dogs.
Virtual Home Manners
With the expanded offering of the Virtual Home Manners title for Adult Dogs and Puppies (VHMA/VHMP), there are even more ways for dog owners to get involved with the AKC. In a year when Canine Good Citizen (CGC) testing isn’t accessible because of the pandemic for people/dogs in many communities, the VHMA title offers a great pandemic-safe alternative.
Many dog owners who are geographically isolated, lack access to transportation, and have disabilities mentioned they felt it wasn’t possible for them to ever earn a CGC with their dog. However, being able to get the manners title at home is a great alternative. For those who aspire to their CGC when it’s safe to test, this is a great practice opportunity to work on skills like grooming, loose leash walking, and basic obedience.
Even though the VHMA title is a great first step towards earning a CGC, it’s actually testing some different skills so dogs who already have a CGC can also work toward this title as something fun to do during the pandemic.
For people who have never been involved in AKC sports, it can feel overwhelming to think about entering a show. Most of us strive to be helpful and welcoming to newcomers whether we engage with them in online groups or at local events. But still, it can be challenging to get involved with dog sports for the first time. Even something like filling out an entry form can be a confusing barrier for people who are new, particularly if they don’t have mentors to lean on. Virtual programs decrease the barriers to getting involved and allow newcomers to quickly see how much fun dog sports can be. These new competitors are putting titles on their dogs, exploring new sports, and many are likely to continue in dog sports virtually and in-person with their dogs after the pandemic.
Obviously, virtual programs aren’t for everyone. There will always be people who prioritize the experience of in-person competition and compete head to head with other dog/handler teams. However, by extending programming to include virtual options, AKC sports are increasing accessibility in exciting ways. This increased accessibility will only serve to help diversify the sport and help to expand participation to dogs and individuals who might previously have not felt like there was a place for them in the dog world.