Although giant breeds aren’t necessarily what people first think of when it comes to dog athletes, these large dogs still love having a job to do. In fact, for most things that smaller dogs do athletically, giant dogs are also capable of. Although there are some special considerations to keep in mind when getting your big dog competition ready, the first step is deciding what sport is right.
Don’t Underestimate Large Dogs
Depending on where you live and what sports you follow you might not see a lot of bigger dogs training and competing, but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of doing so. Many giant breeds are also from the Working Group, meaning they were bred to work. Although many giants are also great companions and family dogs today, they still carry that working lineage. These dogs thrive when given an opportunity to use their minds and bodies.
Unfortunately, some people underestimate giants and think of them as big couch potatoes. Often the complaints and behavioral problems can be a direct result of not having an outlet for their mental and physical energy. Giant dogs (for the most part) are not lazy and thrive when given the opportunity to train in sports, so long as you find the right sport for your individual dog.
With any dog regardless of breed or size, you’ll want to make an individual assessment about that dog and if they are a good fit for the activity. This is especially important with bigger dogs. While some will be well suited for high-impact sports like Agility, others will struggle with the intensity of them. These dogs may be better suited to less physically demanding sports.
So long as they are structurally sound and at a good weight, giant dogs can and do participate in high-impact sports including Agility, Dock Diving, and Fast CAT recreationally and competitively. Giants are strong and athletic and can enjoy rigorous sports. If you are wanting to pursue higher-impact sports with any dog, it’s a good idea to check with your dog’s veterinarian to assess your dog’s physical appropriateness for the activity.
For some giant dogs, lower-impact sports are the best option because of their physical condition, structural concerns, or the owner’s personal preference and comfort with the risk of injury. Lower impact sports are also ideal for younger dogs, big dogs with orthopedic injuries, and senior dogs looking to stay active. There are a wide variety of lower-impact sport options to get giant dogs involved in, such as Obedience, Rally, Trick Dog, or Scent Work. These sports are fun and challenging but also less physically strenuous for dogs than some other sports. But note that the higher levels of Obedience and Rally do involve some limited jumping.
Giant Breed-Specific Sports
Although giant breeds can compete and excel in any sport, there are some sports and activities specifically designed for bigger dogs. For example, the Newfoundland Club of America sanctions Water Work Tests, which build on the breed’s history of rescuing people from drowning and towing boats.
Another sport that many giant breeds excel at is Carting/Drafting, which involves dogs wearing a special harness and then being hitched to a small cart that they are trained to pull. The dog and handler then navigate a course involving various turns and maneuvers. Although today there are some all-breed draft tests, it is a sport that was developed to tap into the unique history of many dogs from the Working Group who throughout history have held jobs that required pulling carts. The Mastiff, Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, Bernese Mountain Dog, Newfoundland, and Leonberger Clubs of America are amongst the breed clubs that sanction breed-specific Draft tests.
Conditioning and Considerations
Conditioning is important for all dogs, especially those pursuing high-impact sports. If you are considering sports training with your giant dog, in addition to getting clearance from your vet, it’s a good idea to work with a veterinary physical therapist with a specialty in sports medicine. A rehab vet will be able to help you proactively develop a conditioning plan unique for your dog. This may look like in-clinic proactive treatments, supplements, and home stretches and exercises.
When selecting sports to pursue with your giant dog, it’s essential to keep in mind that giant breeds are slower to develop both physically and mentally compared to smaller breeds. Many large breeds aren’t done fully growing until they are two years old. It’s important to avoid high-impact training, like jumping, until growth plates are sealed. Talk with your dog’s vet to assess when it is safe for your individual dog to begin higher impact training. However, you can start low-impact sports foundation skills with puppies and adolescents. Giant dogs can also start training and even competing in low-impact sports while they are still growing and developing.
Giant dogs are also generally considered to be senior dogs earlier in age than smaller breeds. This means they can start experiencing age-related health complications, like arthritis, much earlier. Staying fit and active through sports can be highly beneficial to the health and enjoyment of life for giant dogs. But you and your vet will want to continue to assess your individual dog’s health and condition as they age to determine what sports and activities are still appropriate.
Can Giants Dogs Be Competitive?
Giant dogs might not be as agile as a Border Collie on an Agility course, but that doesn’t mean they should be discounted as competitors. Big dogs are thriving and excelling in a variety of sports. Giant dogs aren’t always the fastest (though when motivated their speed might surprise you!) but they can be very focused, driven, and accurate. If you have a larger dog try different sports and find what activities you and your dog like best to see what they can truly accomplish.