Hoopers: what is it, and what dogs can play?

What is Hoopers? Hoopers is a dog sport that tests the dogs around a course of obstacles that the team navigate together. There are arches called hoops for the dogs to go through - think giant croquet, this is Hoopers! The other obstacles are tunnels that are shorter and wider than those used in agility, barrels for the dog to run past or turn on, and long mats for them to run over. Some countries also have a barrier called a gate for the dogs to run past; these are occasionally seen in the UK. Competition courses are either just hoops or a combination of the other equipment.

Can my dog do Hoopers? Yes! Hoopers is suitable for all ages and breeds: the tiniest to the tallest every dog can play, and even tri-pawed dogs can join in the fun. Because there is no jumping or tight turns, Hoopers has a much lower impact on the dogs than many other dog sports. Hoopers equipment is great for puppies to explore, and for proprioception and coordination.

As young dogs start maturing, Hopers is a great way to build teamwork and confidence with their handler - and it can be a great foundation for agility. Older dogs that may not be so agile can still join in the game and enjoy keeping that bond strong whilst training together.

How expensive is it? Hoopers equipment is relatively cheap, especially when compared to other sports. The hoops can be made at home and garden bins make a safe alternative to barrels. The big costs are the tunnels and mats, but these can be found for under £150 and aren’t necessary for practising at home or at the park.

Do I have to run? That’s up to you: if you are fit and want to run around with your dog, then yes! It's about having fun together. At competitions distance handling is promoted but isn’t compulsory in the UK. I love distance handling: being able to steer my dog with a few cues whilst I remain relatively stationary is a bit magic. For handlers that are less able or may need walking aids or use a wheelchair, you can still do Hoopers: the cues are individual to each team, so as long as you put in the practice you will be distance handling in no time.
Image by Gina Rymer
We spent years developing a dog that could work away and listen to instructions; now most herding breeds don’t have a flock available to them, so Hoopers can be a great way to use those instincts. Likewise, many gundogs don’t go out on shoots, but practising steering at a distance helps tap into that need and give the dog an outlet. For the working breed dogs, it’s a job they can do with their humans - of course it will make them happy!

What if I don’t have a ‘sport’ dog? You don’t have to own a working type dog, I used to compete with my chihuahua. In fact, she’s the reason I got into Hoopers! Finding a tiny dog sport isn’t easy and we tried everything: scent work, tracking, rally, agility, even bite work. Then we found Hoopers and it was like we found the key to our lock! Hoopers is about teamwork and building confidence in the dog. Because it's just running, no jumping, dogs like pugs, French bulldogs and dachshunds can join in safely. But also the giant breeds we have playing Hoopers include newfoundland, wolfhound and mastiff. It really is accessible to all breeds: dogs that love to run will love Hoopers.

What is the point in teaching your dog to run through hoops? It sounds easy, doesn’t it, but it takes practice and lots of different skills that can transfer to real life. It improves your teamwork and your dog’s ability to listen to cues from you, especially at a distance. It will improve their recall because they are learning to listen more.
Image by Gina Rymer
They learn directions - yes, your dog can understand and turn left and right as long as they have a good sat nav (you) that remembers which way is which! It can help them with learning to wait in a sit or stand until they are released when they know something exciting is going to happen. In Hoopers it’s the running, but it could be waiting to get out of the car or waiting to go for a play with friends. The big thing for me is spending time with your dog, working together and having fun together. Every moment spent with your dog is precious and building a bond, with trust and understanding of how to play this game of Hoopers together, really is the best feeling.
Where can I find out more? Canine Hoopers World offers online Hoopers training to both dog trainers and owners around the world. There are online progress awards to work through with your dogs, and there is even a special puppy award! Affectionately named the Poopers award, this is a great foundation for puppies that want to try a sport: no equipment is needed for this level. The adult levels only require six hoops and four  barrels to do all the levels, so they can be done at home or park. The core courses are for distance handling and are open to all. Dog trainers who want to learn how to teach Hoopers confidently and safely can do our instructor courses.

There is a free Facebook group, and guides with all the information to get started. We also have a podcast available on Apple, Amazon, Google and Spotify where I talk to pet professionals about all things dogs.

In summary, any dog and handler can have a go at Hoopers - so try something new with your dog and join us in a whole new world of fun, everyone’s invited. Remember to stay safe, be kind, wash your hands thoroughly, keep your dogs on lead around livestock, and don’t let them lick toads!
Image by Gina Rymer
So, do I have to distance handle? You don’t have to, but most dogs will start to work away from the handler once they understand the game. This doesn’t mean the dog doesn’t need you: it means they are feeling confident, and you are working as a team. It’s also a great outlet for many dogs that were designed to help us with a job at a distance: think about herding and working breeds, and gundogs.

Author: Carrie-Anne Selwyn
Date: 13/12/2023