Dog Agility Training For Beginners: Tips, Tricks & More

Dog agility is an exciting, fast-paced, competitive sport that is rapidly gaining worldwide popularity with spectators and dog owners alike. So, what does the sport of dog agility involve, and could your pet be a champion in waiting?

The sport of dog agility is a thrilling test of the dog’s athletic ability and obedience and the owner’s training and handling skills.

Competitors are required to race against the clock, directing their dogs around a course of obstacles that may include hurdles, ramps, see-saws, tunnels, and “weaving” poles.

Let’s look a little deeper at agility training and how it can be a great outlet for working dogs.

What’s Training Entail?

There are different classes for dogs of different sizes and experience. Basically, the taller the dog, the higher the hurdles the pup will be required to jump. Inexperienced dogs learn the skills required by the sport over lower obstacles and less technically demanding courses.

The scoring system for agility events is based on faults that are accumulated for knocking down hurdles and other course infringements, as well as on the time taken by each combination to complete the course.

Dog agility is enjoyed right across the world. In the US, dog agility competitions of different levels and formats are run by the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), the American Kennel Club, and local licensed regional dog agility groups.

Experienced competitors who make the grade can compete in prestigious championship events such as the Westminster Kennel Club’s Masters Agility Championships held in New York.

Here’s a great video of Jan working with her dog on Agility training.

Becoming a Champion

If the sport of dog agility sounds like the kind of event you’d like to get involved in, then you’ll need to know what breeds and types of dog are best-suited to the sport. In this section of our guide, we take a look at what it would take for your dog to be a potential champion!

Any dog over 18 months of age can take part in agility events. Although many pedigree breeds do take to agility work better than others, in theory, any dog can try it, including cross-breeds. That’s why according to the USDAA “dog agility is … ‘a sport for all dogs.'”

Regardless of the dog’s breed, good physical fitness and energy levels are essential. Also, dogs that are highly intelligent, quick-thinking, and keen to please have a definite advantage when it comes to learning the sport. For these reasons, working breeds tend to be particularly successful in agility classes.

Best Breeds For Agility

The following breeds are well-suited to canine agility. Of course, this list is not exhaustive.

The Border collie

Energetic, intelligent, and bred to respond to a handler’s instructions, the Border collie has an awe-inspiring record in agility classes.

Labrador retriever

The Labrador retriever is a larger sporting breed that is very successful in canine agility classes. Labs are bred to work in the shooting field, retrieving game birds for their handler. The breed is active and intelligent, being responsive and very trainable.

Jack Russell

The Jack Russell is a lively, intelligent breed that does very well in agility classes. Originally bred to flush foxes and rabbits from underground, these nippy little dogs are easily bored and love to work and learn.

Standard poodle

Standard poodles are extremely intelligent, trainable dogs who are very successful in agility classes for larger types. They are athletic, agile, and built for speed, making them an excellent choice for agility work.

German shepherd

German shepherds are strong, active dogs that are extremely trainable. They are also very intelligent, making them quick to learn and fun to train and handle in agility classes.

Shetland sheepdog

The “Sheltie” is a real livewire! Like the Border collie, they are an intelligent, speedy breed that was originally bred for herding work, and they take readily to agility classes.

Welsh corgi

Corgis are also a working breed that was traditionally used to herd cattle, sheep, geese, and even horses. These intelligent, energetic little dogs are surprisingly agile and are particularly adept at making tight turns and negotiating weaving poles in agility classes.

What Breeds Aren’t Good?

Lazy, heavily-built dogs that prefer a gentle stroll to vigorous exercise are generally not suitable for agility. The bulky physical conformation and ponderous gait of breeds such as bulldogs and mastiffs simply make them too slow, and too much work over large jumps can accelerate the development of degenerative joint problems as these pups age.

Also, negotiating obstacles such as a “catwalk,” “window jump,” or “A-Frame” may not be physically safe or even achievable for very large or long-legged dogs whose balance may not be secure.

At the other end of the scale, short-legged dogs may struggle with the jumping elements of activity classes for obvious reasons. However, there are always exceptions, and breed-specific clubs exist where tailored agility events are staged to cater for all abilities and sizes, from Danes to dachshunds.

Agility by its very nature is a very energetic sport for both dog and handler. It is therefore essential that dogs taking part can breathe easily to ensure that their bodies are provided with an adequate supply of oxygen to cope with the demands of the activity.

Some flat-faced breeds such as pugs and bulldogs may be affected by a condition called brachycephalic airway syndrome. Dogs with this condition suffer from respiratory problems, have noisy breathing, and are quickly tired with exercise, sometimes to the point of collapse, especially in warm, humid weather. In general, brachycephalic dogs are not considered to be suitable for dog agility work.

Therefore, it is essential that owners have their pet examined and passed fit by their vet before undertaking agility classes or competitions with their dog. Also, events that are taking place during hot weather should be avoided.

Should You Do It?

Of course, a fit, energetic dog is only one member of the team! As a handler, you’ll need to be quick and on your toes to be able to keep up with your pet and guide him around the agility course. So, if you’re a couch potato, you’ll need to get your own fitness up to scratch before you can seriously expect to do well at agility events!

Don’t rush right into agility work or you could injure yourself! Get checked over by your family doctor before you get involved, and only start sprinting around agility courses with your pooch when you’re fit enough to do so safely.

Safety

Many dogs thoroughly enjoy taking part in agility, but injuries do occur to both canine participants and their owners!

Agility is not a good sport for very young puppies, especially large breeds. That’s because puppies’ joints, bones, and muscles are still developing. If you put excess pressure on growing bones, your dog could develop arthritis and dysplasia in later years.

Before you start any form of exercise program with your pet, you must ask your vet to give your dog a physical examination. Agility involves lots of climbing, jumping, twisting and turning at high speed, all of which puts considerable strain on the dog’s body. If, at any stage in your dog’s training, your pet is reluctant to do something or shows signs of injury such as yelping or limping, take him to your vet and have the damage checked out right away.

Temperaments

Agility work involves entering and running through tunnels, negotiating see-saws, jumping onto tables, and climbing up and over A-frames. Some dogs find these activities frightening and don’t enjoy the experience at all.

When training your dog, take your time and be patient. Never force your dog to do something that scares him; you could risk creating a fear that will last your poor pet a lifetime. Never use corrections. That will make your dog associate the obstacles with an unpleasant experience. Instead, use treats and lots of patience to guide and reward your pet when he gets it right.

If your dog takes to agility like a duck to water, how will he react to the sights and sounds at a competition? The atmosphere at agility trials is pretty full-on with lots of cheering spectators, loud noises, and plenty of barking dogs! How will your pet react to that? It’s a good idea to take your dog along to a small, local dog agility event to see how he copes before you try competing at a larger show.

Agility at the upper levels of the sport involves working off-leash. How well trained is your dog? Does he always come to heel when you call him?

Before you join an agility class, go along and evaluate it for safety. Are the off-leash dogs well-behaved and obedient? Does anything happen that would make you feel uncomfortable about taking your pup along? Is the agility area well-fenced and away from roads? And, is the agility area tidy and free from sharp objects and potholes that could present a danger to your dog?

How to Get Involved

If you want to try dog agility with your pet, it’s a good idea to attend an agility event or demonstration first so that you can see what will be demanded of you and your potential canine athlete. You can find details of forthcoming events that will take place right across the country on the USDAA website in their Event Calendar.

Also, your local area will most likely have a dog agility group that you could join. Many small dog agility clubs offer taster sessions where you and your dog can have a go at agility to see if your dog enjoys the experience.

Equipment

Whether you intend to compete in agility competitions with your dog or just want to have fun training your pet at home, you will need to invest in a few pieces of basic equipment, including:

Open tunnel

Open tunnels are a test you’ll find on all agility course, and they’re one of the easiest obstacles to master for a beginner. The tunnel can be approached from any angle, and your dog simply runs straight through and out the other side, as fast as possible. The open tunnel can be straight or curved as your dog becomes more confident and experienced.

Jumps

Every canine agility course contains a few hurdles or jumps. Jumps can be straight bars or panels and can be set up as single fences or in lines of up to three. Choose lightweight, easily portable hurdles and make sure that they can be knocked down easily so that your dog doesn’t injure himself if he knocks into one.

Start by setting the hurdles at a very low height until your dog is confident. Obviously, the smaller the dog, the lower the hurdle height should be. Never be tempted to see how high your pup can jump. Over-facing your dog will ruin his enjoyment and could result in an injury.

Weave poles

Weave poles are a very tricky challenge for the agility dog. Your pup must enter to the right of the first weave pole at top speed. Then, while remaining focused straight ahead, your plucky pup must weave his way through each pole as fast as he can, keeping as close to the center line as possible.

If you’re good at DIY, you can make your own set of weave poles, using some PVC pipe.

Final Thoughts

Does your dog have what it takes to be an agility star?

Well, canine agility is a sport that almost any breed of dog can enjoy, provided that the dog is fit and healthy. Unfortunately, big, heavy breeds tend not to have the speed or agility that’s essential to excel in this discipline. Cross-breed dogs win many agility events, so if you have a mutt of uncertain parentage, he could be a future agility champion even if he’d never win a prize in the show ring!

Start your canine agility journey by checking out the USDAA website to find out more about this exciting, challenging sport that you and your dog can have fun taking part in.

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