Dr. Paige Adams is a veterinarian and mom of an athletic doggie family made up of three Border Collies (Zara, Theory, and Rise) and one Beagle mix (Magic). Together, they zoom around agility poles, tackle teetering see-saws, and zip through agility tunnels. Sound like fun?
This exciting activity is agility training. It's essentially CrossFit® for dogs, says Sean Prichard, a certified canine fitness coach (CCFC) and head fitness coach at Pant & Wag. He points out that there are two primary forms of agility training for dogs: casual training, which can be done in your backyard, and competitive training.
With the help of Dr. Adams and Prichard, we’ll explore how you can add a bit of high-energy excitement into your weekly routine of walks and games of fetch.
What Is Agility Training for Dogs?
Agility training is a high-energy dog sport that teaches your pup to maneuver obstacles with direction from you, their handler, using hand cues and voice. Whether you choose to participate in competitive agility training (complete with timed obstacles and judges) or have some fun in your own backyard, it’s a great way to bond with your dog and improve their physical and mental health.
“An agility course strengthens every major muscle group, increases cardiovascular health, and improves the balance and coordination of our four-legged family members,” Prichard explains.
Regardless of your dog's age, Adams encourages pet parents to get X-rays of their dog's hips, shoulders, and elbows before conditioning 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 shouldn’t practice strenuous or repetitive exercises, Adams says. Romping around on the agility course can be fun, but consult your veterinarian to determine when your puppy is old enough for more challenging tasks. Keep in mind that dogs must be at least 15 months old to compete in agility competitions.
Senior dogs can also benefit from the mental and physical exercise of agility training, but it’s important to tailor the course and pace to their needs. For example, Adams’ 9-year-old dog is semi-retired from competitions, jumping lower heights that match her abilities.
Regardless of your dog's age, Adams encourages pet parents to get X-rays of their dog's hips, shoulders, and elbows before conditioning for competition. This will ensure they’re free of any joint issues that could increase their risk of injury in a high-impact sport, she explains.
Are Certain Dog Breeds Best Suited for Agility Training?
Any breed of pup can enjoy the physical and mental challenges of agility training! That said, people-pleasing pups and food- or toy-motivated pooches are the easiest to train. And above all other breeds, Border Collies reign as agility course champions, Prichard says.
How To Train a Dog for Agility
Rather than jumping straight into it (or jumping over 20-inch hurdles), our experts say to take a step-by-step approach to agility training:
Familiarize your dog with the equipment. “Let your dog walk around them, sniff them, pee on them, whatever they need to do to feel good with these strange objects,” Prichard shares.
Add obstacles. Once your dog has completed the obstacle course, reward them with a treat. Repeat this again and again, Prichard says, gaining speed as your dog becomes more comfortable. Once they’ve mastered the simple course, add more challenging elements.
Keep in mind that if you and your dog plan to compete, the course you practice should match regulation standards. Deviating from the rules or course could teach your pup bad habits. Contrary to competitive training, “casual training is much more flexible, as you can really do whatever you want as long as it's fun and fitness-based for your pooch,” Prichard says.
Dog Agility Equipment: What You Need
Ready to get started? Our experts say most commercial agility kits will be sufficient for casual pups and their pet parents. If you plan to compete, “make sure you work with a trainer or someone who can guide you on the best/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 getting started.
The jump height is based on the dog's measurement to the wither, which is the height of a dog from the ground to the highest point of its shoulder blades. Start with setting the height to their abilities until they work up to their wither.
Whether your pup chooses to crawl through a tunnel or dash through it at full speed is up to their abilities—and their confidence to traverse a tunnel without seeing the end point!
Dogs just getting used to agility training may appreciate an agility tunnel with a stable opening and sandbags or anchors that hold it firmly in place.
In competitions, a pup must enter a set of 12 agility weave poles spaced 24 inches apart—at top speed. Without missing a pole, top-dog competitors focus their sight straight ahead, weaving as close to the center line as possible.
The agility A-frame is an obstacle that is shaped like the letter "A." Dogs must climb up the A-frame to the top and then climb down the other side. To complete the obstacle properly, dogs must make contact with the takeoff footing and the landing footing (designated in yellow coloring).
Consider starting with a mini-A frame and gradually increase the height as your dog becomes more comfortable; the regulation size is 9 feet tall.
An agility dog teeter typically consists of a long, narrow plank that is balanced on a pivot point in the middle—resembling a park seesaw. It should have a non-slip surface to help dogs maintain their footing.
To use the teeter, dogs must first climb up onto the plank at one end. Then, balancing on the teeter, they shift their weight and make their way to the opposite end. It’s important that the pup rides the teeter until it makes contact with the opposite side, then disembarks, Adams says.
The dogwalk agility obstacle isn't for beginners, at least ones that 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 fast dogs run across it,” Dr. Adams says. “It’s one of the last obstacles we teach dogs for safety reasons, and we do it slowly so we know the dog has full body control.”
Adams says the table, also called the pause table, is a piece of dog agility equipment that is only necessary if you’re planning to show your pup in an American Kennel Club (AKC) agility course. “The dog must remain on this table for the judge’s count of five seconds, and then is released by the handler,” she explains. “The goal of the table is to show obedience during a high arousal/excitement situation.”
If all this equipment sounds like a lot, remember that pet parents and their pups trying agility just for fun don't need everything on this list, just the items that sound like fun for you and your dog. There are DIY kits and plans, but Adams cautions that making your own obstacles could prove dangerous for your dog.
Dog Agility Classes and Shows Near You
No space for a backyard agility course? No problem. There are plenty of spots to try out the sport and get hands-on training. You can even compete at the level best suited for 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 some new friends and have fun on the course, this could be the agility level best-suited for you both.
Local humane societies. You’ll likely find that they host both classes and fun community agility trails, Prichard says.
Official sanctions. If you’re interested in competing, check the official AKC and US Dog Agility Association (USDAA) calendars for events. The AKC calendar can be found here and the USDAA calendar here. If you're working with a trainer, they’re sure to know the ins and outs of upcoming competitions and facilities for practicing.
Featured Image: Getty/s5iztok
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