Bonding Activities That Awaken Your Dog's Natural Drives

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog training agility courses

Story at-a-glance -

  • Agility can be a great bonding activity for you and your dog; it can be done just for fun or at a competitive level
  • Agility training involves teaching your dog to run through obstacle courses, weave around poles, dash through tunnels, jump through rings, walk on seesaws and more
  • Agility courses are designed to awaken your dog’s natural drive to run, jump, chase and hunt
  • Any healthy adult dog can participate in agility, but some dogs, especially working and herding breeds, may be more suited for the sport than others
  • It’s important to take steps to prevent injuries in your agility dog both before and after competitive events

If you’re looking for a dog-centric activity that provides opportunities to spend more bonding time with your pet, and/or your furry BFF is a high-energy model, have you considered agility training?

In a nutshell, agility training involves teaching your dog to run through obstacle courses, weave around poles, dash through tunnels, jump through rings, walk on seesaws and more. Needless to say, this level of activity can deliver invaluable mental and physical benefits to your dog (and to you!), and you can approach it as a “just for fun” adventure, or competitively.

Some great reasons to consider the sport with your dog, according to agility handler Jill Hedgecock in an article for the online magazine Bark:1

  • You get to bond with your canine companion while engaged in a fun activity
  • You learn new ways to communicate with your dog
  • You both get plenty of exercise
  • It’s an opportunity to improve your dog’s behavior and confidence outside the ring

Agility Can Stimulate Your Dog’s Drive to Run, Jump, Chase and Hunt

During agility training, your dog learns how to master various obstacles, such as weave poles, tunnels and a teeter board. Basic agility courses also feature standard jumps, a tire to jump through, a dog walk, and a pause table. And while agility courses may initially feel unnatural to your dog, they’re actually designed to trigger his natural instincts.

Given the chance, most dogs will engage in hunting and chasing activities. In the wild, this involves jumping over fallen trees, ducking under bushes, running up and down hills and more. With time and practice, many dogs begin to approach agility courses as exciting opportunities to use their natural skills as hunters and athletes.

Agility training requires that you and your dog work as a team. As her handler, your job is to run alongside her and guide her through the course using the movements of your body along with hand and voice signals. This will require mutual trust between you and your dog, and the ability to effectively communicate with each other.

The more you practice, the more you’ll improve your ability to concentrate and persevere, and the benefits to your dog will include improved alertness, endurance, stamina, speed, and communication and obedience skills.2

If you’re doing agility training in your backyard, you can take the course at your own pace, however, competitively, the goal is to complete the course as quickly and accurately as possible. This, of course, means that you’ll get a workout, too, while running next to your dog. It will also be up to you to familiarize yourself with each course ahead of time.

What Types of Dogs are Best Suited for Agility?

Dogs of any breed, shape or size can take part in agility, although certain dogs, especially working and herding breeds (e.g., Border Collies, Shelties, Aussies, and retrievers), may be more suited for the sport than others. There is typically a minimum age requirement for competitions (usually 9 months to 18 months), and you should be sure your dog is in good health before you begin training.

Here’s something you don’t see every day. Watch Rudy the Bulldog take on the 2019 Westminster Kennel Club Masters Agility Course. As one YouTube commenter observed, “Rudy wasn't there just to compete, he was there to crush stereotypes about bulldogs.”

It’s also important to consider your dog’s personality and temperament. Questions to consider include:

  • Does your dog get anxious around other dogs or strangers?
  • Is he fearful in crowds?
  • Is he aggressive toward people or other dogs?
  • Does your dog like to run?
  • Does he respond to your guidance or prefer to blaze his 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, your dog should reliably respond to basic obedience commands and get along well with other dogs and strangers.

If you’re considering competing in agility, attending training classes is essential so that experienced instructors can train both you and your dog how to navigate the obstacles together. During training sessions, you can use treats or a favorite toy to entice and reward your dog along the course, however, these won’t be allowed during most agility competitive events.

Even if you’re doing agility just for fun, training classes can be a rewarding way to spend time with your dog. You can find a list of agility clubs here.

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Preventing Injuries in Agility Dogs

It’s impossible to prevent 100% of injuries, 100%, but it is possible to reduce the chances your canine athlete will be hurt by taking preventive action.

Adequate training and conditioning for agility is obviously of paramount importance in preparing your dog to compete and prevent injuries. Swimming, hiking, daily sport-specific conditioning, targeted training and practicing some aspect of agility training several times a week will help condition your dog’s musculoskeletal system to handle the demands of this high energy game or competition.

Hands down the bulk of injuries I see related to agility training aren’t from accidents on the course itself (which can happen, on occasion) but from improper or inadequate body conditioning, muscle and tendon resiliency or running a dog that hasn’t recovered, musculoskeletally, from previous sessions.

A warm-up before competing helps your dog’s body prepare for action. A proper warm-up period is 5 to 15 minutes of light walking or trotting on a surface similar to the event surface. Among other benefits, this will allow your dog to mentally adjust to the new environment. This can be followed by short periods of running over low jumps to maintain the benefits of the warm-up until it’s show time.

Part of the warm-up should include some active stretching to reduce the risk of strains and sprains. Active stretches involve movements that stretch your dog’s legs and spine in ways that mimic the movements he will make during competition. Remember, these are active stretches (not passive or static stretches) performed immediately after the warm-up period, while your dog’s muscles are still warm.

After each training session or competitive event, your dog should have a cool down period. Decrease the intensity of exercise slowly over 10 to 15 minutes, which can be accomplished by taking her from a jog, to a fast walk, to a 5-minute slow walk.

The time to do passive range-of-motion exercises and static stretching is immediately after your dog’s cool-down, while her muscles are still warm — never when her muscles are cold. Statically stretch your dog’s large muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, paraspinals, triceps) to maintain their length and flexibility.

In between agility events, you can help support your dog’s frame with routine maintenance such as chiropractic and acupuncture, physical therapy, massage, and stretching.

Whatever you can do to keep your dog’s musculoskeletal system in good condition will not only help prevent injury during training and competitive events but will also go a long way toward maintaining her mobility and quality of life, throughout her life.