The fast-paced sport of dog agility has rapidly grown to become one of the most popular dog events. Agility captivates spectators of all ages—regardless of how much they know about dogs and dog training—and it’s even more fun to play.
The Beginning 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, explained that 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.
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—and, 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 with a successful history with Working Trials (a UK dog sport that is a physically demanding civilian equivalent of police dog work). Furthering the connection to the horse world, in 1979 the first Pedigree Chum Agility Stakes Finals were held in collaboration with the Olympia Christmas Horse Show in the UK. In the years to come (including today), many dog agility competitions and training classes would take place in horse arenas.
In 1993, the American Kennel Club held an advisory committee meeting around agility as a sport and 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. There were 192 dogs from 58 breeds entered in the trial, with dogs and their handlers traveling from across the country and Canada. In 1996, the AKC’s first World Agility Team was established and 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 was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with more than 200 dogs entered.
1996 AKC Agility National Championship Winners – Tulsa, Oklahoma
8″ – Barbara Cecil and Celina (Papillon)
Growth of Agility
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. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Agility Course Test (ACT), an entry-level agility event for new dogs and handlers, now has a virtual option so that everyone can compete safely while maintaining social distancing.
Today, this is one of the most popular and recognizable canine sports, with more than one million entries into AKC Agility programs each year.