You’ve probably seen agility on television or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to attend a local agility trial in person. No doubt you thought it looked like a fun activity to do with your dog. Well, it is! Dog agility is one of the fastest-growing canine sports in the United States because it’s exciting, challenging, and a whole lot of fun.
Of course, agility classes are a great place to get started in the sport. But perhaps your dog is still a puppy, you’re still training basic obedience, or you want to get a feel for things before investing in lessons. In that case, there are plenty of things you can try at home to prepare your dog for agility obstacles and gauge your interest and his enthusiasm for the activity. And as an extra bonus, even these basic skills can help build your dog’s confidence, decrease his anxiety, increase his trust, and introduce him to new experiences.
1. Ensure Success
Unlike behaviors such as Leave It or Come, agility is just for fun. There’s no need to stress over how quickly your dog learns these new skills. Set your dog up for success by starting small and raising your expectations slowly. Some dogs might be ready to move past the basics in a few weeks, but other dogs need a more patient approach.
Remember to use lots of encouragement and praise when your dog is successful. According to accomplished trainer and agility competitor Arlene Spooner, an AKC Executive Agility Field Representative, you should keep your early home training sessions short, no more than five or 10 minutes at a time. “Keep it fun and stop before your dog loses interest.”
2. Increase Attention
Agility is a team sport. Without guidance from his handler, a dog doesn’t know which obstacle to take next while running around the course. Your agility dog must learn to focus on you despite distractions and exciting surroundings. You can foster greater attention by teaching your dog to make eye contact with you on a cue like Watch Me or Look. Start in a quiet location where you are the most interesting thing around, then slowly build up to more distracting locations.
3. Teach Tricks
Tricks let you improve training techniques like your timing and the placement of rewards. Plus, they increase your dog’s coordination and confidence which will help in the agility ring. Certain tricks are particularly beneficial for dog sports. For example, teach your dog to touch his nose to your hand or a target. By moving your hand or choosing a strategic target placement, you can move your dog or adjust his position. This is handy when teaching him to enter the contact zones at the end of an agility obstacle. Or try training your dog to walk backwards. Back Up teaches your dog basic body awareness because he must pay attention to what all four paws are doing. Finally, teaching your dog to jump through a hoop is a great introduction to the tire jump.
4. Develop Flexibility
According to Spooner, tricks that increase a dog’s flexibility are great for agility training. Spin gets your dog twirling right or left and stretching his sides. In the beginning, you can use your new nose targeting trick to lead him around in a circle. Bow is a great trick for stretching your dog’s back. And finally, consider teaching your dog to weave a figure eight around your legs. The tight turns are great for flexibility and a good introduction to weaving through the weave poles.
5. Work on Handling
So much of what happens on the agility course depends on how well an owner handles his or her dog. That includes sending a dog out in front, moving him from one side to the other, or having him work at a distance. Start by teaching your dog to work comfortably on either side of you. Spooner suggests, “When the dog is comfortable walking on the side you indicate, try jogging and running. Reward him for staying on the same side until you indicate a switch. A treat in the hand on the side you want is a great motivator for most dogs!”
Another introductory handling exercise is teaching your dog to move away from you either to your left or to your right. Try tossing a treat in the desired direction to help him get the basic idea that he doesn’t need to beside you all the time.
Finally, teach your dog to wrap around an object (turn tightly around it). This is a great foundation for turning tightly over or between jumps. Use a cone, barrel, or even a garbage can and send your dog out and around the object. Shaping works well here. Start by rewarding any approach to the object and work your way up to having your dog walk around and return to you.
6. Increase Body Awareness
Surprisingly, dogs don’t have stellar body awareness. Where their front paws lead, the rest of them sort of follows. But with obstacles like the dog walk, your dog needs to be aware of exactly where he’s placing each paw. There are lots of ways to help your dog increase his body awareness.
First, teach him to perch on things. Use an upside-down sturdy box, plastic bin, or even a foot stool and encourage him to interact with it. He can place one or more paws on top, jump on it, or even sit on the top. This is great practice for the pause table. Climbing inside objects will also help him think about body position. Flip the box or bin over and lure him in or reward any exploration until he’s willing to fit his whole body inside. You can even make a line of boxes and teach him to crawl or step through them. Finally, walking through a ladder will get your dog thinking about each footstep. Lay a ladder flat on the ground and with a food lure or a hand touch, entice him to step through the rungs. Once he’s got the hang of it, see if you can get him to increase his speed.
7. Build Confidence With Moving Objects
One of the scariest obstacles for a novice agility dog is the seesaw (or teeter). It seems stable to your dog until he starts to climb. Then suddenly it moves and bangs down on the other end. That’s a lot for your dog to get used to. Instead, start with lower objects that move so your dog gets used to shifting ground beneath his paws. A skateboard or child’s wagon can come in handy here. Or build a wobble board. It’s a piece of plywood, at least two-foot square, with something small underneath, like a brick or a tennis ball, to make it unstable. Reward your dog for any interest in the board, then encourage him to put a paw on top. Eventually, see if you can get him to stand on it completely and balance through the wobble.
8. Conquer Fear of the Dark
Some dogs have no problem running through a tunnel the first time they see one. But many dogs are intimidated by the dark opening. They need to get comfortable with being in a covered space. Although you can buy an agility tunnel to use at home, to get started it’s just as easy to build your own mock tunnel with a blanket and some chairs. Drape the blanket over the spaced-out chairs and teach your dog it’s fun to walk through to the other side. You can even use a large open cardboard box. Keep the length short at first so your dog can see the other side. And don’t force him through. Instead lure him or poke your head through from the other side and encourage him to follow you in.
9. Jump for Joy
Jumping is a critical agility skill and an easy one to practice at home. Use a broomstick or other pole and balance it between two low objects like a stack of books or flower pots. Don’t practice on a slippery surface or you risk your dog injuring himself. And be sure the pole will fall if your dog accidentally hits it, so he’s not hurt.
Remember, agility isn’t a high jump competition. It’s essential to keep the jump height low, at walking level for growing puppies. As Spooner says, “What a dog can jump and what they should jump are two different things. You don’t want to cause an injury. You can gradually work up to the dog’s competition jump height, but there’s no rush. He’s got plenty of other things to learn before he’s ready to compete.”
10. Introduce the Weave Poles
The weave poles are probably the most challenging obstacle to teach, and there are many different training approaches, so you’ll likely need expert guidance to help your dog master this skill. But for an easy at-home version of the weaves, you can stick tomato stakes or similar sized poles into the ground outside. Space the poles 24 inches apart and always ensure your dog enters between the first and second poles in the row from his left side.
By mastering these basic skills at home, you and your dog will be ahead of the game when you enter the sport. You can continue your training by attending agility classes at a nearby AKC Training Club or a local training facility where your dog can practice on actual agility obstacles. For help finding local clubs and a chance to try the obstacles, look for AKC’s My Dog Can Do That events. And when you’re ready, consider the Agility Course Test (ACT) which is an entry-level agility event where beginning dogs and their handlers can test their skills. In no time, you and your dog will be on your way to reaping all the benefits of this challenging and exciting sport.