Dog agility, a fun and captivating sport in which dogs compete by racing through a course of various jumps and obstacles at a high rate of speed, is now recognized as the fastest growing dog sport in the world.
Agility first debuted in England in 1978 as an entertaining halftime activity at the world-famous Crufts Dog Show. The creators of the demonstration based it on horse jumping competitions, creating a course to highlight dogs’ speed and natural agility. It was a huge success, and soon spread across the world as a competitive canine sport. The AKC held its first dog agility competition here in the U.S. in 1994.
Dog agility is often called “the sport for all dogs”, since all types of dogs are allowed to compete, regardless of size, weight, height, age, and breed (both purebreds and mixed breeds are eligible). The only restriction is that dogs must be at least 1 ½ years old to compete.
The Basics Of Dog Agility
Organized agility competitions, called trials, involve a course made up of various obstacles through which a human handler guides his or her dog as quickly as possible. Like equestrian jumping events, scoring in dog agility is based on making it through all the obstacles, without incurring any faults, in the fastest time.
Every competition has its own unique course setup, and competitors must walk through and memorize the course before each event. Courses are usually made up of about 12-20 obstacles laid out in a 100-foot by 100-foot area, and these obstacles must be taken in a specific order. They include things like bar jumps, tunnels, weave poles, tire jumps, teeter-totters, bridges, and A-frames. (You can see photos of many of these obstacles on Wikipedia’s dog agility page.) Since courses need to be customized for different sizes of dogs, unique configurations of obstacles are set up based on the individual height class that the dog is in (you certainly wouldn’t want a Chihuahua and a Great Dane running the same course!)
Each dog must run the entire course off-leash with no food or toys as motivation. The handler runs alongside the dog, and is allowed to give physical and verbal commands and signals to guide the dog, but is not allowed to touch either the dog or any of the obstacles while running the course. If the dog misses an obstacle, knocks down a jump bar, doesn’t touch a specific contact area on the obstacle, or takes an obstacle out of sequence, the dog and handler team gets point deductions. At the end, the dog with the fewest faults and the fastest time wins the class.
Dogs compete in classes based on their size and level of ability, so a dog who is just starting out in agility is not thrown in with dogs who have been competing for years. As the dog improves, he or she progresses to the next level of competition.
Watch Tex the Border Collie win the 2015 Masters Agility Championship below:
Although herding breeds like Border Collies are the ones most commonly found at agility trials, you’ll also see dogs of every breed and size, which is what makes dog agility so exciting. Many small toy breeds, like Chihuahuas and Papillons, have a real knack for agility, and can really hold their own in competition!
Benefits of Dog Agility
The benefits of agility, for both dogs and humans, are many.
- Agility is great exercise for your dog. Training and competing keeps your dog in top physical shape, increasing strength, balance, muscle coordination, and endurance. It’s also a great way for your dog to run off excess energy.
- Agility is great exercise for YOU. Since handlers are required to give direction while running the entire course, you would be amazed at the cardiovascular benefits and increased endurance you can achieve!
- Agility increases focus for both you and your dog. Running a dog agility course is like running a maze – it takes a great deal of focus and concentration. Your dog must be focused on you for the entire time, and you must memorize and be able to recall the precise order of the obstacles under pressure.
- Agility strengthens the bond between you and your dog. To compete in agility, you and your dog must not only have excellent communication with each other, but also a sense of teamwork. In dog agility, unlike the proud mother of a child piano prodigy who can only watch performances, you’re an essential part of the team! Your dog relies on you for direction, and you rely on your dog to do his or her part to complete the course. And since dogs love to accomplish tasks and please their humans, agility provides a very special bonding experience that’s shared by you and your dog alone.
- Agility increases confidence. Training and competing in dog agility gives your dog a task to master, and it gives you a great deal of satisfaction seeing your dog improve day by day. Plus, being around other dogs during training and competition provides excellent socialization opportunities for your dog.
- Agility prevents boredom. This is why so many breeds with high drive (like Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, and Cattle Dogs) love the sport of dog agility. It gives them an outlet and a “job” to perform, lessening the likelihood that they’ll develop other undesirable outlets like digging up the yard, or excessive barking or chewing.
- Agility is FUN! And who doesn’t want a little more fun in life?
Things To Consider Before Starting
Dog agility is great fun and has numerous upsides. However, there are a few things to keep in mind before starting your dog in agility training.
- There is potential for injury. Agility dogs are athletes, and just like human athletes, overuse injuries such as muscle pulls, tendon injuries, and cruciate ligament tears can occur. It’s important to always pay attention to your dog’s gait, watch for signs of pain, and never push so hard during training that it can lead to injury.
- Competing in dog agility can be expensive. Between class fees and entry fees for trials, agility competitions can get pricey. However, this will depend on the frequency with which you and your dog compete. You can still do agility with your dog at home or at special facilities that have courses available without having to compete in trials.
- Not all dogs are “built” for agility. Although dog agility is open to all breeds, not all breeds may be designed for the sport. Dogs with very short legs and a potential for back problems (such as Basset Hounds and Dachshunds) may have challenges with some of the obstacles, while brachycephalic breeds (like Pugs and Bulldogs) may not have the endurance required due to difficulty taking in air while they’re running. If you have any concerns about your dog’s ability to participate, as well as his fitness level or any other health concerns, talk them over with your veterinarian.
How To Get Started
First, before undertaking any new physical activity with your dog, always check with your veterinarian to make sure there aren’t any health conditions that may cause problems during strenuous activity.
Also, make sure your dog is the appropriate age to start training. Young dogs should be at least 1 year old before starting training; if they are too young, there’s too much stress put on their developing joints. Likewise, although there are many older dogs who participate in agility, older dogs are more prone to injury, and they could suffer from arthritis, making agility painful for them.
Once your dog has been medically cleared for strenuous activity, the next step is making sure you have a good, solid foundation in obedience training (if you don’t already). Dogs who participate in agility must be able to reliably follow basic obedience commands such as sit, stay, wait, and coming when called.
Before you start basic dog agility classes, it’s always a good idea to attend an agility trial to see the sport up close and personally. To find agility events and organizations in your area, check out the US Dog Agility Association’s website, or the American Kennel Club’s Agility event calendar. For a complete list of dog agility organizations worldwide, check out Wikipedia’s Geography of Dog Agility page.
Now you’re ready for the next step: dog agility classes! Most classes are usually about an hour long and meet once or twice a week (depending on the organization teaching the class). Classes provide not only a good, solid introduction to dog agility, but also the opportunity to meet and get to know other dog parents in your community.
During agility training, keep the following in mind:
- Never force your dog to do anything that makes him or her anxious or afraid.
- Start small and with short sessions until your dog becomes more confident.
- If your dog balks at a certain obstacle, skip it and move on to another.
- Remember not to get too wrapped up in competitiveness – agility should be fun, not frustrating, for both of you.
- Always reward your dog for performance. Treats and praise go a long way towards motivating your dog to want to achieve more.
Fun For You AND Your Dog
Dog agility is a wonderful sport that requires speed, precision, training, and exceptional communication between dog and handler. In return, agility provides an opportunity to boost your dog’s confidence level, harness his energy, engage his brain, and strengthen the bond between you.
So now that you know the basics, why not get out there and have some fun? 🙂
Have you and your dog ever competed in dog agility? Please tell us your story in the comments below!