Guide To Dog Agility

Are you one of those hands-on dog owners that like to participate in things, and that find it somewhat unsatisfactory to just throw a ball at the park for the dog to run after? Perhaps you have been looking for a game or a canine sport that would also be fun for you, and if so, we have the answer!

Agility is a dog sport that has the owner participate as well; it is a sport full of adrenaline, physical activity, fun for both you and your dog, and – if you compete – the chance to win titles and prizes!

Nobody starts out as an agility expert, and it takes patience and training before your dog will do what is expected on the agility course and before you are ready to provide your dog with proper support! Is agility right for you? You won’t know until you’ve tried.

Introducing Agility

Dog Agility Jump

Do you remember when you were little, and when you would play games with your friends outside; balancing on fallen tree trunks, jumping over streams, zigzagging through the bush and climbing hills? Agility is basically the same – but for dogs! The owner or handler guides the dog through an obstacle course, where the path the pair is supposed to take is predetermined. The course will usually have jumps, tunnels, bridges, teeterboards and more, and the performance is timed by the judge if competing in a trial.

The idea is for the dog to go through the obstacle course as fast as possible, and to take on the obstacles in the correct order and without making mistakes. The handler runs with the dog through the course; they can give hand signals and verbal direction, but no touching and not treats are allowed.

The dog runs off-leash, which can be a real challenge as there are often other dogs present and potentially a loud cheering crowd. To successfully complete an agility course when practicing alone with your dog is one thing, but to do the same with distraction and in a possibly stressful environment is something completely different.

It is a fun sport that dogs tend to love, and it will give them plenty of exercises – both physical and mental – while also challenging them and keeping them entertained. The sport does require the dog to be in good physical shape, and to fall within a certain age range as the jumps and climbs can put a lot of stress on growing- or aging joints.

Origins of the Sport

Dog agility competition

It was in 1978 that agility first made an appearance in England, during a halftime show at Crufts – one of the world’s biggest dog show events. The idea came from horse shows, and a group of people wanted to show off the skills of their agile, enthusiastic and well-trained dogs.

The performance became an instant success, and it soon started showing up in other halftime shows of dog events, until it caught the interest of the general public! People started wondering if their dogs could do the same, perhaps even better than those dogs they had seen in the show, and shortly after – the sport was officially born!

Sanctioning organizations were formed, not only in England but in the rest of Europe, in North America and other places, and examples of those currently active on the agility scene are the AKC (American Kennel Club), the USDAA, NADAC, the Agility Association of Canada and the Agility Dog Association of Australia.

Today, you can find Agility courses, competitions, and performances in almost any country, and it has become a mainstream dog sport that is available for everyone who is interested in giving it a try.

Some dog owners participate and practice just for fun, while others train to improve their personal record and compete. The popularity of the sport shows no signs of subsiding, and experts predict that it will only continue to grow and expand.

Can All Dogs Do Agility?

There is no rule for what dog breeds can compete in Agility, but some breeds seem to have more of a natural ability to exceed in both successfully completing a course and doing so fast.

It comes as no surprise that dog breeds like the Border Collie are one often seen in the top of international Agility competitions, but you will also see other breeds of all sizes and shapes compete! Some smaller breeds, like the Papillion, has proven themselves in big competitions worldwide, so provided you have a healthy dog and the will to push yourself – there is nothing stopping you from participating with your dog in Agility.

Most courses and competitions also allow mixed breed dogs, and even the AKC – an organization otherwise known to greatly favor purebred dogs – is now allowing mixed breeds to compete in many of their hosted Agility competitions. This is good news for all those mutt owners out there, and many mixed breed dogs have gotten great results in both national- and international agility trials.

While Agility requires tremendous focus and communication between dog and owner, it is one of the sports that has proven to be ideal for high-energy dogs and for dogs showing signs of hyperactivity.

These types of dogs often struggle with competitive obedience and other slower type sports, but Agility gives them a chance to be themselves and to perform stunts and follow commands at a very high speed. It is fun for them to push themselves, and you may notice a significant change in your otherwise hyperactive dog’s behavior, once starting with Agility.

A dog practicing- or competing in agility should preferably be older than 1 year, as growing joints and bones could be harmed with all the challenging jumps, climbs and more. The same applies for an older dog, who might have undiagnosed bone- and joint pain, so makes sure you take a trip to the vet before engaging in a new physical activity, to avoid risking injuries. All dog sports come with certain risks, but by making sure your dog is fit for it – the risk becomes significantly smaller.

Taking an Agility Class

The best way to start is to sign up for an Agility class, as it will give you a chance to work with professional trainers for a solid foundation. There are a lot of videos on the internet that could aid you in your process, but by working with someone who knows what they are doing, you’ll be off to a much better start.

In an Agility class, you will likely be surrounded by other people (and dogs) that are eager to learn, which could easily serve as both inspiration and a valuable learning experience.

You can find local Agility classes by looking online, or by contacting a local kennel club for information. They are usually hosted by kennel clubs, by private trainers or by some other type of canine organization, and the easiest way to find these is by googling agility and your location. When you take part in an agility course, you will quickly realize whether it is the right sport for you and your furry friend.

Once you know the basics, and once you have received the guidance from a professional trainer, there is nothing stopping you from continuing on your own; YouTube videos are great for further inspiration, and you could go on to practicing on your own with your dog, and perhaps even with friends and their dogs!

Building Your Own Agility Course

You can practice Agility in your own backyard! It is easy to make a course with things you have at home, or you can purchase an Agility kit with the basic things you need to set up obstacles.

If you are unsure of how to do it or what obstacles to using, look online for ideas for basic Agility courses, and expand it as you see fit. The smartest thing is to start slow, with only a couple of obstacles, and to work your way up from there when your dog is ready.

You can start with basic jumps; start with one, then add a second and then a third, and see how your dog does and how you feel about it.

The downside to practicing at home is that you don’t have anyone correcting you if you are doing something wrong or something that could potentially hurt your dog, but common sense goes a long way, along with preparation and proper research. Don’t overdo it and keep the sessions short and fun, and always offer fresh water even if it isn’t hot outside. If your dog is having fun – he or she will perform a lot better!

Good Commands to Teach

For your dog to be successful in Agility, you need to communicate with each other, and trust one another. Before you get started, there are a few basic commands you might want to teach your dog, and if you can – teach your dog to respond to body language and hand signals!

The 4 commands you want to make sure your dog knows are Sit, Stay, Down and Come/Here. Teach these verbally while also making an accompanying hand sign every time, and soon enough – your dog might learn to respond only to the hand sign.

Common Obstacles

Agility is a sport where you can be creative when making the courses, but you will usually find the same types of obstacles no matter where you practice or compete, as this helps make sure the team is prepared, and that they have practiced the obstacles they will be asked to pass. Some of the agility obstacles you are likely to see on an agility course – especially during trials – are:

+ Weave Pools
+ Tire Jumps
+ Pause Table
+ Regular Jumps
+ A-Frame
+ Dog Balancing Walk
+ Tunnels
+ See-Saw

Summing Up the Game

Many larger agility contests will span over the course of a couple of days, and on the first day, you will usually see the handlers walk the course without the dog – a so-called walkthrough – as they may familiarize themselves with the course before the competition starts.

It is a funny thing to see as they will often “practice” by talking to a dog that isn’t present, and these handlers tend to be very focused from the moment they step onto the course (with or without a dog).

The ring crew and the competition judge comes in once the walkthrough is over, and they will then go on to calling the first team. The team stands on the starting line, and then the handler gives the signal to the dog to get started, and they both start running the course! There is no touching allowed and the handler may not carry treats, as this is considered cheating, but any verbal commands or hand movements are permitted and encouraged. It will often be loud at an Agility trial, but it is part of what makes it so exciting.

The whole point of the sport is to run the whole course without any mistakes or faults, and if this is achieved – it is referred to as a “Q” or a Qualifying Run.

It qualifies the pair to move on to the next round, and if their score is exceptionally good (with good and competitive time), they might even be awarded a sought-after colored ribbon! Winning is, of course, something you will want for yourself and your dog, but it is the Qualifying Run you aim for in a competition.

This is because with enough points you have the chance at earning a title, a title that is then added to your dog’s name as a permanent accomplishment.

Final Words

Agility is a fantastic sport for active and fun-loving dogs, and it is a chance for you to have fun (and hey, get some free exercise) too! No more monotone fetch games at a park, and instead you get the opportunity to run alongside your dog and to help him complete challenging obstacle courses.

If that sounds like something you and your dog could potentially enjoy, the next step would be to do the necessary research to see if there are any local Agility groups or organizations and if there are classes you can sign up for to learn the basics.

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Janni is a dog loving writer who currently shares her home with two rescue dogs - Emmett and Frankie. Writing doggie-inspired articles is a way for Janni to share her knowledge, find inspiration, and help others.