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The fast-paced sport of dog agility has rapidly grown to become one of the most popular dog events. Agility captivates spectators of all age, regardless of how much they know about dogs and dog training. And of course, it’s even more fun to play.

Origins of Dog Agility

Dog agility’s roots go back to the United Kingdom and the legendary Crufts Dog Show. In advance of the 1978 Crufts annual show, as part of the show committee, John Varley was tasked to create an event that would entertain the audience between existing conformation and obedience segments of the show. John Varley collaborated with Peter Meanwell to create the first dog agility demonstration. The 1978 Crufts agility demonstration aired on Belgian television.

Varley, who narrated the competition, said his goal was to “bring some fun into the more serious side of Crufts … it has been designed to test a dog’s ability over a number of obstacles and against the clock.” The competition started with an Alsatian Shepherd (or, as we would call them, a German Shepherd Dog), and then several Border Collies.

On August 11, 1994, the AKC's first licensed agility trial took place in Houston, Texas, at the Astro World Series of Dog Shows.
Diane Vasey - AKC Gazette

This first agility course was similar to our modern agility courses. It contained tunnels, the now-retired collapsed tunnel, a frame and jump (including one made from a literal tire), and a catwalk. Varley suggested in the original narration that perhaps the catwalk should be renamed a “dog walk.” Of course, it ultimately was.

Initially, they only had one jump, which was very high. After the success and popularity of the 1978 demonstration, agility returned to Crufts in 1979. In 1980, The Kennel Club (the official kennel club of the United Kingdom) officially recognized dog agility as a sport and began sanctioning trials.

Agility’s Equestrian Roots

The inspiration for the first dog agility demonstration for Crufts came from the sport of equestrian show jumping. Varley, who had experience in the horse world, worked with Meanwell, an experienced dog trainer. He also had a successful history with Working Trials, a UK dog sport. This sport is a physically demanding civilian equivalent of police dog work. Furthering the connection to the horse world, the first Pedigree Chum Agility Stakes Finals occurred in 1979. They held this event in collaboration with the Olympia Christmas Horse Show in the UK. In the years to come, many dog agility competitions and training classes would take place in horse arenas.

The first AKC Agility National competition, held in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1996.
Diane Vasey - AKC Gazette

Development of AKC Agility

In 1993, the American Kennel Club held an advisory committee meeting around agility as a sport. This committee named Sharon Anderson as the AKC consultant on agility. Anderson, who would later receive an AKC Lifetime Achievement Award, served as the Director of AKC Agility before retiring in 2008.

On August 11, 1994, the AKC’s first licensed agility trial took place in Houston, Texas, at the Astro World Series of Dog Shows. 192 dogs from 58 breeds entered the trial. Dogs and their handlers traveled from across the country and Canada to compete. In 1996, the AKC established its first World Agility Team, which competed in Morges, Switzerland. That year, the large dog team earned ninth place in the international competition. Also in 1996, the first AKC Agility National competition took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with more than 200 dogs entered.

Diane Vasey - AKC Gazette

Growth and Expansion

As a modern sport, agility is welcoming to dogs of all sizes, with multiple jump heights. In 2009, the AKC Canine Partners Program was created, which enabled mixed-breed dogs to compete in AKC performance sports like Agility.

As agility courses have become more technical and as we learn more about canine safety, the sport has evolved. For example, in 2016 the AKC suspended use of the collapsed tunnel. The Agility Course Test (ACT), an entry-level agility event for new dogs and handlers, also now has a virtual option.

Today, agility is one of the most recognizable canine sports, with more than one million entries into AKC programs annually.

Related article: Get Started in Dog Agility at Home
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