If you have never heard of canine Agility sports, you and your dog might be missing out on something great. On the surface, this is a fairly simple competition that involves leading a dog through an obstacle course. On a deeper level, this is a way to have a lot of fun with your dogs and to improve their physical health.
There is no doubt that good exercise is essential for dog health. Studies show that regular strenuous exercise does not cause problems later in life. The dog is meant to be an active creature, and it shows in many ways.
Agility training can also provide good exercise for you. Although the dog will be doing most of the work, you will need to run around and lead them from one obstacle to the next, which means you will have to keep up with them.
When Should I Start Agility Training With My Dog?
According to the official AKC rules for Agility competitions, a dog must be at least 15 months or older and must be registered with the AKC. Dogs of any breed are eligible, including mixed breeds.
If you want your dog to be a serious competition dog, you should start them as young as possible. That being said, a young puppy is more likely to injure themselves on an obstacle course. Don’t try to start this training until they are at least 9 weeks of age. Even at that age, you need to monitor them closely and limit their activities as needed. For the average person, it would be best to start at fifteen weeks.
When you begin training a puppy, you do not simply turn them loose on a full course. Instead, you should use foundation exercises to build their Agility in preparation for the real deal.
How Do I Get Started With Agility Training?
This sport can seem rather intimidating to beginners since it requires both special equipment and very close control of the dog. We will attempt to simplify the matter by breaking it down into a step-by-step process.
Step One: Foundational Exercises
As we mentioned earlier, these exercises are mostly intended for puppies. However, an adult dog that has never done any sort of Agility training can still benefit from this basic training. There are many Agility exercises, and each trainer has their own set.
Tug-of-war (using a rope toy) is a great Agility exercise that you probably would have done anyway. Puppies love this kind of thing and do not usually require any encouragement to get started. Once you get them excited, you can use the toy to lead them around, enticing them to jump and climb as they attempt to reach the toy.
You can also set up some boxes in a line, with a slight gap between them. Using toys or treats, you encourage the dog to jump on top of the first box before leading them down the line. You might also consider training the “stay” and “go” commands at this time.
You should use a wobble board if you plan to put your dog on a seesaw. By leading the dog onto the board, and getting them to walk from one end to the other, you help the dog to build confidence. Not only does this exercise remove the fear of wobbly surfaces, but it also helps your dog to build a balance and grace that will serve them well.
There are many other exercises that you can do, too. For instance, you might set up three low hurdles and encourage your dog to jump them as you run alongside them. When we say “encourage” here, we mean that you use a mixture of praise, commands, treats, and toys to direct the dog as desired.
Step 2: Constructing Your Course
Every Agility course is different, but most of them share a set of common elements. If you take a look at the AKC rule book again, you can see that there are strict rules about this kind of thing.
The rules mandate that certain obstacles be used and that each dog performs on the obstacle in a certain way. If you are planning to enter any competitions, you will need to learn these standards and apply them from the start. The following obstacles are covered in the rule book:
- A-Frame: This is a simple climbing obstacle that is made from two flat boards. The bottoms of each board are painted bright yellow, and this yellow area is called a contact zone. The dog must walk up one side and down the other without stopping, and must touch the contact zone of the far side as they go.
- Dog Walk: This is another raised platform, but this one consists of two ramps that lead to a narrow walkway. This is perhaps one of the easiest elements of your course to construct. Both ramps must have a contact zone, and the rules are similar to those for the A-frame exercise. The dog must ascend, cross the walkway, and descend smoothly, touching the contact zone as they go.
- Seesaw: This exercise is almost self-explanatory. The dog is taught to run onto the end of a seesaw. They should then continue along until they reach the other end. Of course, the seesaw will drop after they pass the midpoint, and this should not slow them down or disturb them. Both ends of the seesaw must be marked with contact zones. Training a dog to do this may require a more gradual process.
- Pause Table: This might be one of the simplest exercises. The dog is made to jump on a table, where they must stand with all four paws touching the table for five seconds. It doesn’t matter if the dog sits or lays down as long as all four paws touch the table. The height of the table can be anywhere from 8 to 24 inches, depending on the size of the dogs involved.
- Open Tunnel: Many dog owners find that their pet enjoys running through a tunnel. Small collapsible tunnels are available online and at some pet stores, and they don’t usually cost a lot of money. This is one of the cheaper pieces of equipment that you will need. The rules for this exercise are very simple. The dog must enter at one end and travel straight through to the other end. To train your dog for this exercise, simply make them sit at one end of the tunnel and call them from the other end of the tunnel. Make sure the tunnel is laid straight so that they can look down the tunnel and see you.
- Weave Poles: This is probably the most difficult of the dog Agility exercises. A series of standing poles are set in a line, and the dog must weave between them. This means that they go from left to right, moving in a zigzag formation while avoiding the poles. The rules for this exercise are strict, as the dog must not fail to pass a single pole. If a single mistake is made, the dog must restart the exercise. Only three attempts are allowed, so this is a make-or-break exercise. This exercise will usually require a multi-stage training process in order to get it right.
- Bar Jump: These are exactly like the hurdle jumps that are used in track competitions. The dog must jump over a bar that is supported by a small frame. The bar cannot be attached to the frame in any way. It must simply be laid in place so that it will be knocked off when hit. This is done for both safety reasons and competitive reasons. If your dog comes up short, a detachable pole will hopefully prevent any injury. Likewise, it makes it easier for the judges to tell who made the jump and who did not.
- Panel Jump: This is a variation on the bar jump, in which multiple bars are used. Each bar has a small panel attached to it, and when placed together these panels form a wall. This one can be a little more intimidating for the dog because they cannot see what is on the other side. The competition standards dictate that the dog must jump the top bar without displacing it from the frame.
- Double Bar Jump: This is another variation on the bar jump. The only difference is that there are two bars instead of one. Both bars are set at the same height. The dog must clear both bars in a single jump. The distance between the bars should be equal to half the jumping height. The dog must jump over both bars without displacing either one. A variation on this one, called the ascending double bar jump, is also covered in the rule book.
- Triple Bar Jump: As you might guess, this is yet another variation on the bar jump. In this version, you have three bars to jump, and each one is slightly taller than the one before. The exact heights will vary according to the size of the dog, as specified in the rule book. To complete this exercise, the dog must make all three jumps in quick succession without displacing any top bars.
- Tire Jump: As the name implies, this one involves jumping through a tire that has been hung from a frame. Technically, you are not supposed to use a literal tire for this exercise. The rule book contains instructions for building a “tire” that is composed of multiple segments. These segments can break apart on impact. Judging standards dictate that the dog must jump through the tire without breaking the segments loose or toppling the frame. Thus, you want to try and produce a smooth jump with as little friction as possible.
- Broad Jump: This is a long-distance jump in which the dog is made to jump over several panels that fit together and form a wide ramp-like structure. These devices are usually sectional so that you can start small and gradually lengthen the jump. Standards dictate that the dog must clear all sections without touching them.
- Jump Wings: The wing jump involves jumping over a bar while passing between two “wings” on either side. Standards indicate that the dog must not touch the bar or either wing. Remember to put a special focus on safety for this one.
- Wall Jump: This is one of the hardest and most impressive of feats. Many people are amazed at just how high a dog can jump when they are determined to do so. This Pit Bull can jump about four meters straight up a wall! The rules for this exercise dictate that the dog must make it over the wall without displacing any of the top bars.
As you can see, there’s a lot of possibilities here. It should be noted that not every competition will include all 15 of these elements. Still, a well-trained Agility competitor must be able to do all these things and must do them on command.
You can read our complete article on Agility obstacles, here.
Step 3: Lightly Controlled Training
When you first put your dog on the course, don’t try to be too strict and regimented with the training routine. Make it feel like playtime. If your dog is enjoying themselves, they will be more motivated to continue training. Going too strict too fast can take all the fun out of the process and cause your dog to lose interest. This stage of the process could well be described as structured play time.
You should still try to build good habits at this time, so do not refrain from all correction during this stage. Instead, keep the training in the form of gentle encouragement, and reward often. Some trainers prefer to use food as a reward while others prefer toys and/or praise. All of these methods are acceptable.
Step 4: Highly Controlled Training
Once your dog has gotten a good feel for the course and different obstacles, it is time to start putting them through the paces. You do this by leading them through the course in a set, repeated pattern. Get your dog used to this pattern so that there is no question as to which way they are supposed to go. The dog must understand what is expected, and this will not come without a certain degree of trial and error. This stage of the process might well be described as competition rehearsal.
How Much Is This Going To Cost?
Getting into this sport is going to cost you some money, but probably not as much as you might think. There is a lot of specialized equipment to build, but most of it can be improvised from a variety of common materials. Sections of PVC pipe are one of the most popular materials because they are cheap, easy to work with, and readily available. In fact, the competition rule book states that the frames for bar jumps must be made of interlocked PVC.
You will need to buy some wood, and this is not particularly expensive. If you live in a rural area, you might be able to save a little money by gathering your wood. You can also use stones and earth to build a dog walk or an A-frame if you really need to save money. Cavemen built many things out of nothing but stones and earth, so there is no reason that you cannot borrow this idea.
There will also be costs associated with any competitions that you may enter. It will cost you $25-$50 to register your dog with the AKC, and most contests will also have an entry fee. Be prepared to spend a little money if you want to hit the competitive circuit.
You can read our complete article on Agility training costs, here.
Do Dogs Enjoy Agility Training?
Under most circumstances, dogs absolutely love this kind of thing. As we mentioned earlier, the dog is a very active animal, and they seem to be at their happiest when they are on the go. By directing their energy into a specific goal, you teach your dog to focus themselves on a particular task as opposed to just running around and playing aimlessly. This helps to bring a greater level of discipline and control to your animal, and the best part is that you can accomplish this without any harsh discipline.
Dogs love to play, and their love of Agility training is just a natural extension of that fact. Also, all dogs have an inherent desire to please the pack leader, and that means you. When your dog performs a task and is rewarded by their master, it seems to make them very happy, as it mimics the natural pecking order that exists in a pack of wild dogs.
What is a ‘Fault’ in an Agility competition?
A fault is simply a mistake. This can include many things, such as running the obstacles out of sequence, displacing the bar on a jump, failing to touch the contact zone on a dog walk or any number of minor infractions. The best way to avoid these faults is by studying the rule book thoroughly.
What are the different competition levels in AKC Agility?
There are three different classes that your dog might fit. These include Standard, Jumpers With Weaves, and FAST (Fifteen And Send Time). As you might guess, these levels might be described as “easy, medium, and hard.” The standard class mostly includes contact obstacles like the dog walk and A-frame. The jumpers class is usually a fast-paced course with a lot of jumps and no contact obstacles at all. The FAST division uses a special scoring system (for which it is named) to provide an additional challenge for the most advanced canine athletes.
That’s A Wrap!
The sport of Dog Agility is exhilarating for the dog and their owner. But it requires a special level of confidence on the part of the pup and lots of practice for both. Getting a dog started earlier in their life allows them to get aquatinted with the obstacles and building that much needed confidence. We hope this helps you on your quest to conquer many courses ahead and grow that bond with your pup.