Pickles was feted. He lived life as a celebrity dog, starring in a film, The Spy with the Cold Nose, earning medals from canine-advocacy groups and receiving a year’s food supply. The medals, attached to Pickles’ weathered red collar, remain on view at the National Football Museum in Preston, England.
Beyond these chance intersections between pets and the game, do dogs themselves play soccer? The idea has intrigued me since attending the 2005 US RoboCup Open at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. There, I watched teams of Sony AIBO dogs programmed to play four-a-side games on artificial turf. The Japanese word aibo means “companion.” Before being discontinued earlier this year, the robot dogs, marketed to Japanese consumers, eventually became the most commercially successful robots in history. These “bots” play amazingly well, considering that their moves are not controlled by programmers but rely on algorithms devised in artificial-intelligence labs.
Flesh-and-blood dogs, typically burly Labradors, occasionally join me and my friends during casual weekend soccer games at an Atlanta park. One dog in particular likes to flop down in the standing water at the goalmouth—a born goalkeeper, ready to soil his jersey.
In order to avoid injury to ourselves and the dogs, we shoo them away. But Kim Schive, who breeds Shetland Sheepdogs in Carlisle, Massachusetts, says that youth soccer coaches have sometimes looked admiringly at her Shelties when she takes them on park outings. Some of her dogs, she says, use their front paws as “hands,” whereas other breeds typically rely on the nose to propel a ball.
One dog, Toby, “would often stop an airborne ball by actually jumping up, catching it between his front paws, and slamming it to the ground in perfect position to be propelled forward with his nose.” He “would also ‘head’ the ball if it was airborne and if he was close enough to me to knock it back to me with his head. He had a real knack for leaping into the air and hitting the ball at just the right angle to drive it back to wherever I was.”
Toby may have only played in the World Cup in his dreams, but he was an AKC best-of-breed and herding-group champion. Playing soccer, says Schive, looked like another expression of his herding drive.