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Who Participates in Dog-sporting Events and Why?

Research shows that winning is not everything when it comes to dog-sports.

 AKC Helena Agility Fall 2012
Source: SheltieBoy: AKC Helena Agility Fall 2012

It was not so long ago when I went to a dog obedience trial and found I was rather early since my own dog was not going to be in the ring for a couple of hours. With time on my hands I wandered over to where the Rally Obedience competition was going on. As I stood and watched I suddenly felt an arm go around my waist and when I looked to my side I saw a longtime friend who had just celebrated her 71st birthday. She smiled, and asked "So you decided to come out here and hang out with us old girls?"

I laughed and returned her embrace. However, a moment later, I glanced around the room and noticed that her description of the people attending the meet was not really all that inaccurate. It seemed to me that the vast majority of competitors in the hall were in fact women, and most were middle-aged or older. Although this was just a casual observation on my part, this incident came back into my mind when I came across a recent scientific report in the journal Anthrozoos*. This report looked at who competes in dog-sporting events, and what motivates them to do so.

The study was conducted by a Canadian team of researchers headed by Jocelyn Farrell from the School of Kinesiology at Lakehead University. Data was collected by setting up tables at various dog-sport competitions in the vicinity of Thunder Bay, which is a city in Northern Ontario. Eventually the team collected data from 85 individuals who were willing to fill out the rather extensive set of questionnaires and surveys that were required. Because the researchers were interested in the broad spectrum of dog-sports, each of the events where they gathered data included more than one of the following activities: conformation, obedience, rally, agility, and/or field trials.

The results were rather interesting, and in some respects confirmed my friend's observation. The sample of dog-sport competitors was predominantly female (80 percent). In addition, the majority of participants (78 percent) fell into the age category of 45 to 74 years. There were very few participants between ages 18 and 24, or 75 years of age or above. In addition the majority of the sample was married or living with another individual (73 percent).

One surprise to me was the fact that the education level of the participants was skewed toward a higher level of schooling. Approximately 83 percent of the sample had obtained at least some college or university education and of these 32 percent had some postgraduate education. The researchers suggest that the relative lack of younger participants, and the bias toward people with higher education, may have to do with the cost of competing in dog-sports. Not only are there entry fees, which can be substantial, but also, if the competition is at some distance from a person's home, the cost of travel, and then food and lodging during the contest can be significant. Younger people who are still attempting to establish their careers and families might have less available funding, and more educated people tend to occupy positions that pay better, thus making dog-sports more affordable for them.

There is a myth among dog people that suggests that individuals who engage in dog-sports mostly come from rural areas or small towns. This was not confirmed in this sample since area of residence was fairly evenly distributed. Big cities, with a population greater than 500,000, accounted for 21 percent of the competitors; another 27 percent of participants lived in medium-sized cities with populations of 100,000 to 500,000; an additional 21 percent lived in small cities with populations less than 100,000, and the remaining 28 percent lived in rural areas.

The most popular dog-sport activities were obedience (85 percent), conformation (69 percent), agility (64 percent), rally obedience (60 percent), and field trials (58 percent). The vast majority of these competitors (80 percent) were active in two to five different dog-sport events with their dogs, and these individuals appear to be quite devoted to dog-sport activities since approximately 77 percent of the sample competed in 12 or more events each year.

The researchers also looked at what motivates people to participate in dog-sports. They broke up motivation into two types which they call "external motivation" versus "internal motivation". External motivation is really based on potential rewards from winning a competition. Externally motivated individuals would agree that they were competing to show others how good they are at the sport or how proficient their dog was, or primarily to win titles and trophies. In contrast, internally motivated competitors would agree with statements like, "I compete for the pleasure of discovering new training techniques," or "for the satisfaction I experience while I am perfecting my abilities," or "because I like the feeling of being totally immersed in the activity."

The researchers report that it was primarily the internal motivation, not the winning of prizes and coming out high in trial, that were the most important motivators for the vast majority of competitors. This is confirmed in by the responses participants gave to a set of open-ended questions. Analysis showed that while there were many different reasons why people engaged in dog-sports, most of these involved internal good feelings or personal rather than external rewards. These reasons the participants gave included improving their connection to dogs (36 percent), the social aspects of participation (40 percent), enjoyment (31 percent), the opportunity for physical activity for both dogs (40 percent) and humans (52 percent), or that people simply got pleasure from the time spent with their dogs and satisfaction from the team aspect of participation (34 percent). In comparison, only 13 percent of the people surveyed highlighted that it was the competition and accomplishment which served as the reason why they participate.

The social aspect of competing in dog-sports should not be underestimated. Individuals who say that the reason they participate is because "it is one of the best ways to meet people," are much more likely to be in the group that competes 12 or more times each year. One person surveyed expressed the essence of the internal and social gains of participation when she said, "I enjoy the time I spend with my dogs and the friends that I have made over the years because of the dogs."

So in dog-sports, winning is not everything. It appears that the majority of people compete in dog-sports simply because they get gratification from the activities associated with the training and achieving their ultimate level of performance, while their social interactions with like minded souls makes them feel good. That is not to say that people in dog-sports don't want to win. One participant gave a set of comments which seem to sum up the results of this study when she said, "I love to train, love to work with my dog and I like to prove to myself that I can keep things together when the pressure's on. The ribbons are nice, too!"

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Data from: Jocelyn M. Farrell, Ashley E. Hope, Rodney Hulstein and Sandi J. Spaulding (2015). Dog-Sport Competitors: What Motivates People to Participate with Their Dogs in Sporting Events? Anthrozoos, 28 (1), 61 – 71.