Dog Agility 101 | PetMD
Dr. Paige Adams is a veterinarian and mom to a family of athletic dogs consisting of three Border Collies (Zara, Theory, and Rise) and a Beagle mix (Magic). Together, they circle agility poles, tackle wobbly seesaws, and traverse agility tunnels. Sounds like fun?
This exciting activity is agility training. It’s essentially CrossFit® for dogs, says Sean Prichard, certified canine fitness trainer (CCFC) and head fitness trainer at Pant & Wag. He notes that there are two main forms of agility training for dogs: informal training, which can be done in the backyard, and competitive training.
With the help of Dr. Adams and Prichard, we’ll explore how you can add some high-energy excitement to your weekly routine of walks and games of fetch.
What is dog agility training?
Agility training is a high-energy dog sport that teaches your pup to maneuver obstacles with direction from you, his handler, using hand and voice signals. Whether you choose to participate in competitive agility training (complete with judges and timed obstacles) or have fun in your own backyard, it’s a great way to bond with your dog and improve his physical and mental health.
“An agility course strengthens all major muscle groups, increases cardiovascular health, and improves balance and coordination for our four-legged family members,” explains Prichard.
Regardless of your dog’s age, Adams recommends pet owners take x-rays of their dogs’ hips, shoulders, and elbows before conditioning them for competition.
Agility training also provides opportunities for dogs to meet new people and pets, which can help them develop their socialization skills. And Adams reminds us that the most important thing is to have fun with our dogs. “We do this to become a team and have fun with each other,” she says.
Can dogs of all ages compete in agility training?
Puppies should not engage in strenuous or repetitive exercise, says Adams. Playing on the agility course can be fun, but consult your veterinarian to determine when your pup is old enough for more challenging tasks. Please note that dogs must be at least 15 months old to compete in agility competitions.
Older dogs can also benefit from the physical and mental exercise of agility training, but it is important to adapt the course and pace to their needs. For example, Adams’ 9-year-old dog is semi-retired from competition and jumps lower heights that match his abilities.
Regardless of your dog’s age, Adams recommends pet owners take x-rays of their dogs’ hips, shoulders, and elbows before conditioning them for competition. This will ensure they don’t have joint problems that could increase the risk of injury in a high-impact sport, he explains.
Are certain dog breeds best suited for agility training?
Any breed of puppy can enjoy the physical and mental challenges of agility training! That said, people-pleasing puppies and food- or toy-motivated dogs are the easiest to train. And, above all other breeds, Border Collies reign as champions in agility racing, Prichard says.
How to train a dog for agility
Instead of jumping right into it (or jumping over 20-inch hurdles), our experts recommend taking a step-by-step approach to agility training:
Familiarize your dog with the equipment. “Let your dog walk around them, smell them, urinate on them, whatever he needs to do to feel good about these foreign objects,” Prichard shares.
Use positive reinforcement. Instead of pushing or pulling your dog during the course, encourage him to do it alone, rewarding him with high-value treats and praise throughout the course.
Add obstacles. Once your dog has completed the obstacle course, reward him with a treat. Repeat this over and over, Prichard says, picking up speed as your dog becomes more comfortable. Once they have mastered the simple course, add more challenging elements.
Please note that if you and your dog plan to compete, the course you take must meet regulatory standards. Deviating from the rules or course could teach your pup bad habits. Unlike competitive training, “casual training is much more flexible, since you can really do whatever you want as long as it’s fun and fitness-based for your dog,” Prichard says.
Dog Agility Equipment: What You Need
Ready to start? Our experts say that most commercial agility kits will be sufficient for the occasional pup and their owners. If you plan to compete, “be sure to work with a trainer or someone who can guide you on the best and safest products and how to use them,” Adams suggests.
There are several types of agility jumps for dogs:
The goal is for your dog to clear the jump without displacing the top board or bar. But don’t make the jumps too challenging, especially when you’re just starting out.
Jump height is based on the dog’s measurement at the withers, which is the height of a dog from the ground to the highest point of its shoulder blades. Start by adjusting the height to your abilities until they reach their maximum.
Whether your pup chooses to crawl through a tunnel or run at full speed depends on his skills and confidence to get through a tunnel without seeing the end point.
Dogs who are just getting used to agility training may appreciate an agility tunnel with a stable opening and sandbags or anchors to keep it firmly in place.
In competitions, a pup must enter a set of 12 agility weave poles spaced 24 inches apart, at maximum speed. Without missing a pole, the best competitors focus their sights forward, getting as close to the center line as possible.
The agility A-frame is an obstacle that is shaped like the letter “A.” The dogs must climb up the A-frame to the top and then down the other side. To successfully complete the obstacle, dogs must make contact with the takeoff base and landing base (designated in yellow).
Consider starting with a mini-A frame and gradually increase the height as your dog becomes more comfortable; Regulation size is 9 feet tall.
An agility dog seesaw typically consists of a long, narrow board that balances on a pivot point in the middle, resembling a park seesaw. It should have a non-slip surface to help dogs maintain balance.
To use the seesaw, dogs must first climb onto the board at one end. Then, swinging on the swing, they shift their weight and head to the opposite end. It’s important for the puppy to ride the seesaw until he makes contact with the opposite side and then disembark, says Adams.
The dog walk agility obstacle is not for beginners, at least for those who like to do everything at full speed. It consists of a center section that is 48 inches off the ground and has two ramps. “This obstacle is long (three sections, each 12 feet long) and quite narrow (about 12 inches wide) for how quickly the dogs run through it,” says Dr. Adams. “It’s one of the last obstacles we teach the dogs for safety reasons, and we do it slowly so we know the dog has full control of the body.”
Adams says the table, also called a pause table, is a piece of dog agility equipment that is only necessary if you plan to show your pup on an American Kennel Club (AKC) agility course. “The dog must remain on this table while the judge counts five seconds and then the handler releases it,” he explains. “The goal of the table is to show obedience during a high arousal/arousal situation.”
If all this equipment seems like a lot, remember that pet owners and their pups trying agility just for fun don’t need everything on this list, just the items that seem fun to you and your dog. DIY kits and plans are available, but Adams warns that creating your own obstacles could be dangerous for your dog.
Dog Agility Classes and Shows Near You
No room for a backyard agility course? No problem. There are many places to try the sport and do hands-on training. You can even compete at the level that best suits you and your dog.
Non-competitive agility trails. Look for agility courses called “fun matches,” Prichard says. If you and your dog are looking to make new friends and have fun in the field, this might be the most suitable agility level for both of you.
Local human societies. You’ll probably find that they offer classes and fun community agility trails, Prichard says.
Official sanctions. If you are interested in competing, check out the official AKC and US Dog Agility Association (USDAA) event calendars. The AKC schedule can be found here and the USDAA schedule here. If you work with a coach, you’ll likely know the ins and outs of upcoming competitions and practice facilities.
Cover image: Getty/s5iztok