By Dr. Becker
If you’re looking for a way to spend more time with your dog that goes beyond the typical neighborhood walk, agility training may be just the sport for you (and your canine buddy).
The sport is growing in popularity among young and old pet owners alike, who note that it’s a wonderful way to increase bonding and provides an outlet for dogs with high energy.
Basically, agility training involves teaching your dog to run through obstacle courses, weaving around poles, going through tunnels, jumping through rings, walking on seesaws and more. This provides incredible mental and physical benefits to your dog and a new challenge to owners, too.
You can take part either just for fun or competitively, it’s up to you and your dog, but either way it’s a good idea to get some background guidance first in order to avoid injuries. Fortunately, with its increasing fanfare, it’s easy to find an agility club near you.
Why Is Agility Training so Popular?
Agility training began in 1978, quite accidentally, when a horse enthusiast employed his dog to perform tricks typically reserved for horses as entertainment for people watching the Crufts Dog Show in London. The tricks were a hit, and the sport of dog agility was born.1
During agility training, your dog learns how to conquer various obstacles, like weave poles, tunnels and a teeter board. Basic agility courses also have standard jumps, a tire for your dog to jump through, a dog walk and a pause table, where your dog must pause for five seconds during the course.
Though taking your dog on a run through such a course may seem unnatural at first, agility is designed to wake up your dog’s natural instincts.
If given the chance, most dogs enjoy hunting and chasing. In the wild, this would encompass jumping over fallen trees, scooching under bushes, running up and down hills and more, which is why so many dogs love the chance to use these skills when on an agility course.
While challenging your dog mentally and physically, and boosting his coordination and confidence, you and your dog must work as a team.
You, the handler, will run alongside your dog through the course, which demands in-tune communication and trust. Handlers also benefit in the form of improved concentration and perseverance while dogs also benefit by:2
- Increasing alertness
- Increasing endurance and stamina
- Developing communication skills
- Developing speed
- Developing obedience skills
If you’re doing agility training in your backyard, you can take the course at your own pace. But competitively, the idea is to complete the course as quickly and accurately as possible.
This means you’ll get a workout, too, while running next to your dog. (If you cannot run with your dog, it’s possible to give direction from a distance, but it’s recommended you find an experienced trainer to teach you how to do this.)
It’s up to you, the handler, to be familiar with the course ahead of time in order to direct your dog swiftly through the course. As noted by Boise Agility Runners & Climbers (BARC):3
“… [I]t’s the dog who negotiates the obstacles; the handler provides direction through the course using body motion, speed, hand and voice signals.
The obstacles include different kinds of jumps, tunnels, weave poles and ‘contact obstacles’ that the dog climbs or scrambles over. Agility is taught using positive, reward-based training methods so that dogs learn to love playing the game and working with you!”
Can Any Dog Take Part?
Dogs of any breed, shape or size can take part in agility, although certain dogs, especially working and herding breeds, may be more suited for the sport than others. BARC vice president Ariel Agenbroad told KIVI TV:4
"It's really good for bonding and having a great working relationship with your dog, especially dogs like Border Collies, Shelties, Aussies and Labradors that have a lot of energy but like to work with their owners … It can be a wonderful outlet for that."
There is typically a minimum age for dogs in order to compete (usually 9 months to 18 months), and you should be sure your dog is in good health prior to starting training.
You should also consider your dog’s personality and temperament. Questions to consider before deciding to try agility training (and whether to take part recreationally or competitively) include:
- Does your dog get anxious around other dogs or strangers?
- Is your dog fearful in crowds?
- Is your dog aggressive toward people or other dogs?
- Does your dog like to run?
- Does your dog respond to your guidance or prefer to blaze her own trail?
Keep in mind that agility competitions may involve hundreds of dogs and their handlers, and some are off leash. In order to do well and enjoy the experience, dogs should know basic obedience commands and get along well with other dogs and strangers.5
Agility Training Classes
If you’re considering competing in agility, attending agility training classes is a must. The instructors will be experienced in teaching both you and your dog how to best navigate the obstacles together. During training, you can use a healthy treat or coveted toy to encourage your dog along, however during competitions it’s typically just you and your dog that will go through the course.
Even if you’re doing agility just for fun, agility training classes can be a rewarding way to spend time with your dog. To get started, you can find an agility club here.