Dog agility is a sport in which a handler directs the dog though an obstacle course. It is an exciting sport that began in England in 1978 and became such a success that it is now gaining worldwide popularity. Dog agility demonstrates a dog’s ability to be agile, versatile and quick. Any person with any breed of dog can participate in dog agility. All you need is a positive attitude, commitment, teamwork, and proper training for both dog and human handler. It is a great way to exercise while building a strong bond between you and your pet. The benefits of agility are unlimited for dogs and people of all ages and backgrounds.
Originally modeled after equestrian stadium jumping competitions, an agility course consists of different obstacles that the dog must maneuver around, over, and through as directed by its handler. The obstacles are set up by a certified judge to meet guidelines and are set up for safety and spectator appeal. The performance of the dog and handler are evaluated by the judge according to the rules of a particular organization. Dog agility is a race against the clock. However, accuracy is also very important.
A standard course consists of various jumps, tunnels, weave poles, a tire jump, a pause table where the dog must lie down or sit for a count of five seconds, and three obstacles that the dog must climb. These include an A-frame, a teeter totter, and a dog walk made up of various planks that the dog must walk on while touching certain zones on the obstacles themselves. Participants do not know until shortly before start time just what obstacle layout and sequence will be assigned.
Both purebreds and mixed breeds can compete in agility competitions. Dogs are divided into different categories according to size and ability. In the Agility Association of Canada (AAC), a dog progresses through the various levels by successfully completing qualifying courses as judged at competitions. The first level is called the Starters class, where all dogs begin competing. This class involves a simple course and the focus is on the fluent running of dog and handler. The next level is Advanced, where the course becomes more intricate and difficult. The handler and dog are challenged with a shorter time allowance. The final level is Masters, where the dog and handler must navigate a challenging course while racing against the clock. There are also divisions within levels according to the unique attributes of the dog.
Many organizations include a Junior class, where children have the opportunity to get involved and compete with their pet. People of varying physical abilities can also get involved. For example, some organizations have a class where trainers direct their dogs around a course from a wheelchair. There are also Specials and Veteran classes, where older dogs and dogs with a range of abilities are given the opportunity to compete. The Specials class is designed for dogs that have difficulty jumping or need extra help because they are limited by certain health problems (but are still healthy enough to compete in agility). The Veteran class is for all dogs over 7 years of age. This class also includes dogs that have been competing in the Specials class for over one year and is over 5 years of age.
So what if you want to join agility just for fun? If you are not interested in competing, any dog can participate in non-competitive agility classes. Agility training uses positive reinforcement, making the experience fun for both dog and handler. Instead of forcing a dog to complete an obstacle, rewards and praise are used to encourage the desired behaviour. This teaches dogs self-confidence because they learn to “overcome those obstacles” on their own. You do not have to compete to enjoy the sport of dog agility. Its greatest value is in building a strong human-animal bond and giving you and your dog something new, active, challenging, and fun to do together.
Puppy owners should keep in mind that their puppy should not use full-sized agility equipment until their bones are fully developed because strong impacts could lead to growth defects or future joint problems. Many organizations offer classes for young dogs that feature smaller sized agility equipment so it is both safe and fun to start puppies early. It is important to remember that training a young puppy is different than training an adult dog because puppies have such limited experience in this world. The puppy may process new information like an adult, but for the dog, everything is new because he/she is still a baby. Being so young, the dog lacks mental stamina and concentration needed for long periods of training. Keep training sessions short (5-10 minutes) and avoid bombarding him/her with lots of new stimuli or confusing demands. Train when the puppy is alert and most interested in you, such as before mealtimes or after naps. Take time to enjoy the learning process and always keep a positive attitude.
Even older dogs can begin learning agility at any age. Agility equipment can easily be lowered to suit any dog’s needs. Running agility is a safe and enjoyable way to keep you and your older dog active and healthy. It also helps to maintain an active mind, helping to keep your dog’s cognitive function sharp.
Before starting agility training, you should visit your veterinarian to ensure that your dog is in good physical health and up-to-date on all necessary vaccines to begin training classes. Your dog should also have basic obedience skills so he/she can develop the focus needed for agility training. Physical and mental fitness is an important part of agility. A dog does not have to be big or heavy to be strong in the context of fitness. An agility dog should be strong enough to carry its own weight effortlessly. Your dog’s strength and endurance is what will keep him/her fast on an agility course and enable him/her to overcome one obstacle after another.
There are organizations across the country that teach, practice, and organize competitions in agility. The cost varies, depending on the class and type of competition you decide to participate in. Search for a club that best suits the needs of you and your dog and always look for qualified agility instructors. Regardless of whether or not you wish to do agility for competitions or just for fun, check the credentials of the instructors and ask about the methods used in the class. A few organizations that may help start your search are listed below:
Developing teamwork involves patience, trust, leadership, and the building of confidence of both dog and trainer. Participation in agility at any level, whether for competitions or just for fun, has benefits for both mental and physical health. It teaches owners how to properly train their pet and fosters obedience. Dogs are wonderful companions. The sport of agility is just one way for us to build that strong lifelong relationship with them.
By Amy Cheung – Pets.ca writer