If you’ve ever watched an agility competition, you know it’s basically a canine obstacle course. The dog must run through tunnels, leap over jumps, and weave through poles. But the dog isn’t working alone – this is a sport of exquisite teamwork. A successful run requires taking each obstacle in a certain order, and the dog relies on his handler to tell him what that is. That makes dog agility an exciting celebration of canine athleticism and the dog-human bond.
But is it right for you and your dog? Well, any pure-bred dog or mixed breed can participate. From Border Collies to Chihuahuas to Basset Hounds, this sport attracts them all. Or do you wonder if you’re athletic enough? Don’t be concerned, you don’t have to run as fast as your dog to be successful. Everyone is welcome. Read on and see how you can get started in this dynamic sport.
Benefits for You and Your Dog
According to accomplished trainer and agility competitor Arlene Spooner, an AKC Executive Agility Field Representative, there are many benefits to participating in agility. “For the dogs, there’s the exercise, the social aspect, and the feeling of having a job or a purpose. And working with their person (rather than just fetching a thrown ball) builds teamwork, trust, a deeper level of communication, and a stronger bond.”
Spooner believes dog agility benefits owners too. “Going to trials or even just classes gets people together with fellow dog people and is a great way to meet new friends. It’s also a fun way to get exercise. Plus, planning handling strategy and reading course maps work your brain like any other puzzles, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about all the studies that show how beneficial it is to spend time with dogs.”
Suitability for Your Dog
Now you know how beneficial agility can be for your dog, but is he suited to the sport? Spooner acknowledges that confident and happy-go-lucky dogs are going to have an easier time picking things up. But she says that doesn’t rule out other personalities. Even dogs with problem behavior can benefit because agility teaches them that there are rules in life and following those rules leads to great rewards.
With patient training, even anxious dogs can gain confidence and conquer their fears. After all, if they can run over a seesaw, the rest of the world seems less scary. Spooner has worked with dogs with all sorts of fear issues, such as fear of men, other dogs, or noise, and she has found agility to be a catch-all for improving those issues in day-to-day life.
She also worked with a high-energy dog who tended to bite to get what she wanted. “Agility taught her self-control and how to work for things she wanted in a socially acceptable way. She thrived in agility and worked out her issues to such an extent that she ended up being a really great therapy dog.”
Even certain physical disabilities don’t have to keep your dog out of the ring. For example, deaf dogs are welcome to compete. And although jump height is normally based on the height of the dog (so a Papillon would be jumping a lower height than a Boxer), there’s a lower jump height available, called Preferred, for any handler who thinks that would be better for their dog. Spooner says many handlers with older dogs use that option.
And speaking of older dogs, as long as they are up to the challenge, they’re welcome in the ring as well. Participating in agility will keep their bodies spry and their minds sharp. Spooner is looking forward to seeing an almost 14-year-old competitor at this year’s AKC National Agility Championship. Not just with seniors, but with any dog, be sure to ask your vet about whether agility is a suitable activity. And Spooner suggests if you do start training, “start slow and let the dog’s muscles build up.”
Suitability for You
It might surprise you to know that agility participants range from seniors all the way down to kids. In fact, if a Junior competitor (handlers under 18 years of age) can control a dog, he or she can participate. You might think you have to keep up with your dog’s running speed, but that’s not the case. With careful planning of your movement through the course and distance training (teaching your dog to work away from your side), you can compete regardless of your speed.
And disabilities don’t hold agility handlers back either. Spooner says, “AKC gets all types of physical abilities from world-class athletes to, well a few weeks ago I was at a trial where a woman in her 90s was competing. I’ve seen wheelchairs, oxygen tank back-packs, walkers/canes, and more.”
Tips to Get Started
To get a taste of the sport at home, you can start training simple foundation skills and working with home-made obstacles like a large open box for a tunnel, or a hula hoop for a tire jump. There are also plenty of books and videos that walk you through training. But there is no substitute for getting into an agility class. Find a local club and audit a class to see if the instructor’s teaching style suits you. Look for positive training techniques and lowered equipment for beginners. Full size equipment should wait until your dog is comfortable and has mastered the basics.
Spooner also suggests going to local trials to become familiar with how the sport works. “You’ll learn more if you leave your dog at home, plus an excellent way to learn is to volunteer – there are lots of jobs that don’t require experience, such as setting jump bars, and it gives you a great perspective of everything that goes into running a trial.”
And remember, you don’t have to enter competitions to benefit from the sport. Not every dog will enjoy that kind of environment and you might not want the pressure to perform in front of a crowd. Classes and a backyard course can provide all the fun, exercise, and challenge you need.
Basic Agility Moves
During a dog agility trial, your dog will be off-leash and free to run wherever he chooses. This is where the bonding and teamwork come in. You can’t touch your dog, so using only cues and body language, you must direct him where to go because the order of the obstacles changes every time. It’s essential to communicate clearly with your dog, and he needs to keep his eyes on you as much as possible.
Besides encouraging focus, it’s key to teach your dog to work at both your right and left sides. Most trick training is done with the dog right in front of the owner, so dogs learn this is a great place to be. After all, they get most of their treats in that position. For agility, you need to convince your dog to move beside you.
Start by rewarding him for sitting beside you. Then work toward moving, slowly at first then building up to a run. It can help to use an object like a garbage can or tree as a guide and move in a circle around it. Be sure to go in both directions with your dog on the outside. Only put him on the inside (between you and the object) when he’s mastered the skill. For an extra challenge, line up two objects and run around them in a figure eight.
Another basic move is teaching your dog to go out in front of you to tackle an obstacle. You won’t always be able to keep up and run by his side, so he needs to understand working at a distance. An easy way to build this skill is by using a low jump (a broomstick balanced on some books will do) and a favorite toy or little bag of treats. Start by throwing the toy or bag over the jump so your dog can chase after it, jumping the obstacle as he goes. Once he understands the game, you can add a verbal cue like “Go” and start adding distance a little bit at a time. Don’t forget to play this game with your dog starting on both your right and left sides.
These basic moves should get you started at home. The more difficult handling is best taught in a group or private class. Your instructor will pick up on any subtle body language mistakes you might be making such as turning a shoulder.
Basic Agility Equipment
An agility course is made up of a series of obstacles, usually 14-20 depending on the class and level of competition. The big ramp-style obstacles are collectively known as the contact obstacles because they all have “contact zones” (usually painted a bright yellow) that the dog must touch with at least one toenail when descending. The following list explains the basic agility equipment you will find in the ring:
- Jumps are made of a bar between two stands. The dog must leap over the bar without knocking it down.
- Tire jumps are donut-shaped rings suspended in the air. The height of the tire is based on the height of the dog, and he must jump cleanly through the opening.
- Open tunnels are long canvas tubes. They can be either straight or curved, and the dog must enter at one end and exit at the other.
- Weave Poles are a series of six to 12 upright poles spaced out along a straight line. The dog must enter to the right of the first pole and weave through the others without missing a pole.
- Seesaws or teeters are shaped like a teeter-totter at the playground. The dog must run up the side touching the ground then ride the seesaw down the other side as it pivots with his momentum.
- Dog walks have an up ramp at one end, a flat elevated middle section, and a down ramp at the other end.
- A-frames are made of two broad ramps hinged together into a peak. The dog must scale the up side, scramble over the top, and descend to the contact zone.
You can purchase most of this equipment online for backyard use. Or you can find DIY plans on the web and build it yourself. Finally, you can make simplified versions by adapting things you already have lying around like tomato stakes for weave poles or a blanket over two chairs for a tunnel.
For help finding local clubs and a chance to try the obstacles, look for AKC’s My Dog Can Do That events. And consider taking the Agility Course Test (ACT) which is an entry-level agility event where beginning dogs and their handlers can test their skills. No matter how you start your agility journey, you can look forward to a stronger bond with your dog and years of fun.