When Mark Lukas started Soccer Collies in Ocala, Florida 15 years ago, he had no idea how many animals he’d save along the way.
He founded the organization as a tribute to his son, who died in a jet ski accident, and originally used the pick-up games of soccer to connect with dog owners whose animals love to play the sport. Along the way, however, he began to notice that every kid attending the events wanted a soccer dog of their own.
“So, we started inviting rescue organizations to bring ball-motivated dogs to our events,” he says. “A high percentage of those rescue dogs found a home because of them.”
Since then, Soccer Dogs has been dedicated to helping ball-obsessed dogs find forever homes with soccer-loving families.
Lukas works closely with local shelters and rescues to help them recognize ball-motivated dogs. Then the rescues are invited to join Lukas and his dogs, Bek and Honey, for a game. Lukas estimates that over 100 dogs have found homes because people have noticed them at these events.
“I’ve spent many hours working with rescue dogs at Marion County Humane Society identifying potential soccer dogs and developing the foundation for the Soccer Dog Adoption Program,” Lukas says, adding that his ultimate goal is to help rescues train potential soccer dogs to not only help raise awareness about the dogs but also make them more adoptable because of their skills.
Lukas has seen impact the Soccer Dogs events can have on rescue animals. Honey, his most recent rescue, is the perfect example of how the power of fun can help heal a dog.
A New Life for Honey
“An older man adopted her as a puppy and raised her until I adopted her from him,” says Lukas. “She’s a high-energy dog and he felt he couldn’t give her the exercise she needs.”
Honey’s story is common among surrendered pets, and Lukas says that many high-energy, high-maintenance dogs are the first ones to be euthanized at shelters because of their energy needs. Fortunately, these energy requirements are the exact reason these dogs make excellent soccer dogs.
“A high ball drive is necessary to train for soccer,” Lukas says.
The rules of dog soccer are simple: a crowd of people forms a circle around the dog and a very soft ball (the dogs enter the circle and play the game one at a time).
“When the dog pushes the ball out of the circle, then the dog has scored a goal,” says Lukas. “The dogs score a lot of goals, which brings a lot of smiles and laughter.”
While Honey has a love for balls and a lot of energy, she experiences some fear due to socialization issues, particularly around children. Soccer dogs that work the organization’s events need to be both ball crazy and love people, so Lukas’ current goal is to make sure she’s comfortable around people.
“The work we do is really helping her accept people as friendly playmates,” says Lukas. “We visit assisted living facilities and elementary schools during the week and we attend public, private, and corporate events on weekends to play dog soccer.”
It’s no surprise that all this socialization has done wonders for Honey’s shyness. The team attends public events such as fairs and festivals on weekends and during the week visits assisted living facilities and schools. Since Lukas adopted her, Honey has attended over 30 Soccer Dog events and is becoming much more comfortable with crowds.
“We use very soft balls [to play soccer] and she still pops a lot of balls because she sees the balls as prey and she attacks them,” says Lukas. “I’m thinking about calling her Honey Bee because she stings the ball; she gets so excited and plays very hard and fast.”
How to Play Soccer with Your Dog
If you’re interested in training your dog to become a soccer dog, Lukas suggests bouncing a basketball front of your dog.
“The dog will tell you if they want to play with the basketball,” says Lukas. “Those that push the ball around will be easy to train.”
Then, you’ll want to train your dog to push the ball towards you without picking it up and carrying it—this is where larger balls that a dog can’t hold in its mouth come in handy. To start, practice in a hallway or small area to prevent the ball from going all over the place.
“Once your dog can bring you a large ball, then the training is over,” Lukas says. “Play a lot and let your dog touch the ball a lot and they get better and better soccer skills.”
It’s relatively common for dog breeds intended for working situations (e.g. hunting, sled pulling and herding dogs) to develop extreme anxiety, says Dr. Julie Reck, who runs the Veterinary Medical Center of Fort Mill, so activities like soccer can be an excellent way for them to expend energy quickly.
“Dogs with anxiety demonstrate a significant reduction in anxious behavior (pacing, whining, barking, chewing) when they receive intense exercise,” she says. “Ball activities tie into the canine predatory instinct, as dogs innately study quick movements and are intrigued to chase fast-moving objects. These instincts tie in extremely well with ball sports.”
In fact, Reck says that 15 minutes of quick sprints while chasing a ball or fetching equals the energy expenditure of about an hour of dog leash walking.
“Working individuals and busy families with limited time can utilize ball sports to quickly provide their pet with intense exercise and mental enrichment,” Reck says.
Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and adventurer, whose work has been published in DiscoveryChannel.com, Yahoo!, & Popular Mechanics.