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Is there an ethical problem with dog participation in sport?

ByEmily Hall

Mar 1, 2017

Dog sport is a rapidly expanding field, with a Wikipedia page listing over 20 distinct sports for dogs alone, including activities like dog surfing, scootering, rally obedience and Jack Russell hurdle racing.

Dogs have partaken in sports for centuries with activities like dogsledding – or even millenniums if hunting is considered a sport; however, these recent incarnations are sports which involve dogs participating in pre-existing human activities.

When we solicit dogs to play games for our entertainment outside of our own human endeavours, how do we know whether or not it is ethical?

We make dogs play games outside of the institution of sport all the time. Owners casually play fetch with their dogs and many professional dogs, from guide dogs to police dogs, are trained with a number of physical games like finding hidden objects by scent.

It may seem an easy step from training dogs in these ways or playing with dogs, to including them in sport, but some animal ethicists often draw the line between ethical and unethical at the point when the use of an animal moves from sustenance to entertainment.

For example, while eating meat might seem normal and hunting game might be considered responsible, wearing fur coats or fox hunting is often frowned upon. The difference between killing for necessity and killing for sport is much more severe than the difference between necessary and unnecessary games, but the logic is similar.

Of course, in some instances the sport itself does involve the death of a dog, in which case it seems overwhelmingly unethical. Dog fighting, for example, is an activity with its roots solely in human entertainment, distinct from the kind of play fighting that domesticated dogs engage in on their own.

It involves high levels of stress for all dogs taking part, and death for some. Society has widespread condemnation for dog fighting, and I think the reasons are sound. There is a concept in dog sport called ‘base condition in voluntary play’, which examines the techniques used to initiate or coerce the sporting activity.

Proponents of this concept argue that we can sense, or even scientifically detect, signs of fear in dogs, and that if the dogs exhibit signs of fear while the activity is being initiated then they should not continue to participate in the sport.

Activities that fit this criteria, which are arguably simply more organised forms of play in which the dogs engage on their own, are ethical, whereas dog surfing, which puts a dog in a situation that they would never naturally be in, would need to be more closely examined.

The question of dogs in more traditional sport with their owner is a separate issue entirely: studies show that when there is a close bond between a dog and their owner they will often imitate each other’s emotional coping mechanisms and even copy each other’s behaviours.

In my backyard, many a game of football has been eagerly invaded by my golden retriever who clearly wants to be included and understands more complicated concepts like ‘constant possession’ but has yet to grasp simpler ones like ‘goals’.

Other sports have less clear indications of consent, and can’t be joined without human intervention, such as paragliding or surfing, both sports which dogs have accompanied owners on. Should owners be allowed to bring their best friend along and, if so, is it a question of sport, or one specific to the very nature of dog-human relationships?


Image courtesy of Emily Hall

By Emily Hall

As a writer, Emily contributes to news, features, comment, science & technology, lifestyle, tv & radio, culture and sport. This native Seattlite is a cake pop enthusiast who can regularly be found trying to make eye-contact with stranger’s dogs on the streets of Edinburgh.

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