Considering Agility Training

Love Dog

In This Chapter

  • Finding out what’s involved in agility
  • Taking a look at course obstacles
  • Assessing whether your dog has what it takes
If you’ve never seen dogs performing an agility course, get ready to be amazed. It’s part crazy playground game, part circus act, and part synchronized equestrian-show-style jumping. It’s fun, it’s fast, and it’s a little bit daunting. Dogs and handlers compete for time and accuracy on a pre-designed obstacle course. The dogs run free and are guided only by the handler’s voice and movements. Courses are designed with standard obstacles, and competitors must run through, jump over, teeter on, and wiggle under all of them in a set order.
“Wow,” you’re thinking. “My dog could probably do that. He runs, jumps, teeters, and wiggles all over the place! Where do I sign up?” Before you enter the nearest competition, understand that agility requires a lot of off-leash control. And I mean a lot of off-leash control. If you’re sure your dog is ready for agility training, be further warned: Agility is addicting. Dogs love it, and people get pumped . . . it’s an athletic, competitive activity that can quickly become your obsession.
In this chapter, you find out more about exactly what agility training and competitions consist of, and I help you determine whether you and your dog are well-suited for agility.

Discovering Agility

Agility is a relatively new activity in the dog world, but it has become wildly popular in its short life. Why? Because it’s fun, fun, fun. It all started in England in 1978. John Varley, a committee member serving at the Crufts Dog Show, wanted to keep the crowds entertained during breaks. He and dog trainer Peter Meanwell set up something that resembled an equestrian-show jumping course and sent a few dogs out to run, jump, and generally mesmerize the assembled guests. It was a hit.
Within months of the original demonstration, dog owners were clamoring for more organized events, and by 1980, agility was recognized as an official sport. Agility organizations were formed to provide instruction, designate rules and regulations, and create benchmarks to judge individual mastery.
Few things in life take my breath away and leave me on the verge of tears. A moss-lapped river, a sun-sparkled ocean, a lake at daybreak. I get this same feeling when I watch the synchronized movements of dogs and people working together.
Agility is a sport based on the ancient partnership between humans and dogs — a partnership that exists only rarely today. You can’t perform agility without your dog, and your dog can’t do it without you. One gives direction, the other follows, off-leash and free. Agility reinforces the connection between you and your dog as you work together toward a common goal.
So where can you find out more about agility? How can you decide whether it’s the right sporting event for you and your dog? Agility enthusiasts are always willing to welcome new members and share their love of the sport. Attend an event, view agility online, or observe a class. Watch carefully, ask questions, and if your curiosity is piqued, consider participating in a beginner’s program. Several levels are available to encourage participation in a less competitive, family-friendly format.

Remember

Agility is an amazing way to spend time with a dog. No matter the level at which you choose to participate, you will be teaching, and your dog will be learning and looking to you for direction. Together, you’ll build skills and master obstacles, collecting those magical “Ah-ha!” moments when you and your dog just flow.

Agility practice takes full advantage of all the basic training skills you know — off-leash. You’ll meet other people who love their dogs, just like you. So how about it?

It’s All About the Obstacles

When you first look at an agility course, you’ll notice a lot of different things going on — dogs leaping over several different types of jumps, climbing up ramps, and racing across bridges and teeter-totters. “Hmmm . . .” you might think, “it’s all very interesting, but what exactly is the point?”
The sport of agility boils down to teaching your dog how to navigate each obstacle correctly, and, once you’ve mastered that, being able to direct your dog through a course of obstacles of varying sequences. If you’re competitive or want to earn titles for your achievements, you can enter organized events where judges rate your performances.
The following sections explain the five categories of obstacles you’ll encounter on the agility course.

Jumps

Agility dogs do a lot of jumping. There are different types of jump obstacles — some challenge a dog’s ability to leap high, others test precision on jumping through, and still others see whether a dog will leap over something he can’t see through.

Bar jumps: A bar is spread between two poles and set at a specific height. The height is determined by the dog’s size, as measured at his shoulder (also known as the withers). See Figure 11-1.

Figure 11-1: A bar jump.

Spread jump: Multiple bars are arranged to test a dog’s ability to jump high and wide. See Figure 11-2.

Jump with wings: This jump has decorative sides to instill a handler’s ability to direct from a distance — the sides block the handler from getting up close to the jump itself. See Figure 11-3.

Panel jump: This one looks like a solid wall. A dog must clear this jump without touching it. Hard to do — from my vantage, climbing over looks like more fun! See Figure 11-4.

Figure 11-2: A spread jump.
Figure 11-3: A jump with wings.
Figure 11-4: A panel jump.

Tire jump: A tire or tire-like object is anchored in a frame. Jumping through it seems hard enough — but a lot of precision is also required to take this at full speed. See Figure 11-5.

Figure 11-5: A tire jump.

Broad jump: This is the only jump brought over from the obedience ring. Panels are laid out to a premeasured width to test a dog’s ability to jump low and long over the width. See Figure 11-6.

Figure 11-6: A broad jump.

Contact obstacles

These daunting obstacles are suspended in the air and would be highly dangerous if not for colored, designated zones that require a mindful approach and dismount. During a trial, a dog must touch these zones, or contacts, to validate his completion. You’ll find three contact obstacles in the sport of agility:

The A-frame: Two 4-foot panels are arranged at a climbing angle (specified according to the size of each dog in timed trials). A dog must climb up — that’s the fun part — and then descend carefully. See Figure 11-7.

 Figure 11-7: An A-frame.

The dog walk: This obstacle looks like a cross between a balance beam and a bridge. Suspended 3 to 4 feet above the ground, balance is everything — jumping off early is a big no-no. Geared for the finish, a dog who has learned to run through the obstacle safely running through the colored zones, is a master of self-control. See Figure 11-8.

The teeter: This one looks like a seesaw from a school playground. The teeter’s 1-foot width tests a dog’s balance and self-control. He must run up the teeter in a controlled fashion, pause as the obstacle shifts downward, and then run off — running through the colored zones as he goes! See Figure 11-9.

Figure 11-8: A dog walk.
Figure 11-9: The teeter.

Tunnels

Two kinds of tunnels are used in agility: open and closed. Both types are secured to the ground to prevent shifting or movement.

Open tunnels: This type of tunnel is open at either end and can be arranged as a straight-line run-through or angled to test a dog’s processing skills as he’s running at top speed. See Figure 11-10.

Closed tunnels: These tunnels sport a wide, barreled opening with an attached draping fabric section, or chute, that a dog must tunnel through to emerge. See Figure 11-11.

Perhaps the most comical term in agility is tunnel sucker. This dog has a fetish for tunnels and will routinely break from other activities for a quick run through a tunnel!

Agility UKC-style

The United Kennel Club (UKC) has some unique obstacles that aren’t seen in events sponsored by other agility clubs. The UKC’s crawl tunnel simulates the movements of a typical tunnel, but it looks more like a ribcage than a closed chute. The swing plank and sway bridge simulate the moves of the dog walk, but these obstacles differ slightly in that they swing. Whether you compete in UKC events or not, you gain diversity practicing on these obstacles if you can find them! For more information on these UKC obstacles, visit their Web site at www.ukcdogs.com.
 Figure 11-10: An open tunnel.
Figure 11-11: A closed tunnel.

Weave poles

This obstacle sports 6 to 12 upright poles that a dog must weave through. It sounds easy, and maybe even a little fun. But people who love agility will tell you that this is one of the biggest challenges on the course!

Calling all dogs

One thing I love about agility is that there’s a venue for everyone — even at the competitive level. Purebreds and mixed breeds mingle, testing both the course and the clock. Jumps and contact obstacles are adjusted for dogs of different heights and ages. True, you may not win the highest score with your 12-year-old mini Dachshund, but you two can get out there and run — or waddle if necessary — with the best of them. There are classes for junior, senior, or disabled handlers as well.
Admit it — it sounds like fun, doesn’t it? If you’ve got the gumption — and a fit and agile dog — read on. See if the agility bug bites you!

Table

This 3-x-3-foot table tests a dog’s self-control. In the midst of tunneling, weaving, and jumping, a dog must leap on the table, assume a stationary pose (“Sit” or “Down”), hold it for five seconds, and then blast off at top speed!

Deciding Whether Your Dog Has What It Takes

I’m not a singer. Don’t get me wrong — I can pick up the hairbrush microphone and belt out a pretty credible version of “I Will Survive,” but that doesn’t mean I want to be the next American Idol.
The same can be said for dogs. All dogs can run, climb, and jump. But competitively? Repeatedly? With lots of noises and limited snacks? Not all dogs want to sign up for that.
On the other hand, if you’ve got a thrill-seeker on your hands — a natural athlete who really does want to be the next canine American Idol — chances are good that he’ll love agility.
I’ve shared my life with both types of dogs. I’ve had “Eveready” dogs, who would urgently wake me in the predawn hours so we could get the day started. A bright, expectant gaze would fix on me: Sleeping? Why are you sleeping? No more sleeping! Agile and alert, these dogs took to agility like fish to water. But I’ve loved the opposite, too: sweet, tolerant types who preferred more solitary activities like the “joring” activities explained in Chapter Harness Sports: Bringing Pulling Dogs to the Starting Line or sedentary activities like pet therapy, discussed in Chapter Participating in More Hobbies and Breed-Specific Events.

Agility as a confidence booster

In my work as a trainer, I often run into dogs who “act like wild animals” according to their frustrated caregivers. They jump and nip and pull uncontrollably on the leash. Very often, it turns out that these dogs are acting up because they’ve never been taught how to behave. Mishandled and misunderstood, many of these “unmanageable” dogs come around quickly with some basic training skills and become wonderful, eager-to-please companions. I often recommend a sport like agility to refocus their energy and reward their drive to please — and play.
Consider your dog: If he hasn’t been trained and behaves wildly, it may simply mean that he doesn’t know what you expect. Work on the foundations of good behavior, and your dog just might surprise you. You could have a diamond in the rough — an agility master in the making.
I took my first agility class with a mixed-breed Terrier rescue named Hope. Feisty and disgruntled, Hope had been tossed a few lemons in life. Jumps weren’t Hope’s thing, and she wouldn’t set foot on the bridge. But the A-frame! Hope came to life on the A-frame. On the way up, she would concentrate, her head bent low and her expression deadly serious. Coming down the other side, she’d open up, head and tail held high for all to see. Hope, Queen of the A-Frame! Those two sections of scratched-up wood gave her so much joy; I would look forward to our class work all week long. While we never entered an event, we still had a great time together, and it did wonders for her attitude and confidence.

Personality traits suited to agility

How can you tell whether your dog is agility-eager? Consider these five personality traits:

Gumption: Agility dogs have gumption. They see a new object and want to investigate it. They get energized when they see other people and dogs. They like new adventures. Sound familiar? Does your dog do back flips when you jingle your keys? That’s gumption: an adventurous spirit.

Focus: This sport requires attention to details and an ability to filter out distractions and stay completely focused on the task at hand. In order to excel in agility, a dog needs to be addicted to action, attentive to verbal direction, and mindful of subtle body cues.

Determination: Agility is a “can-do” sport — one that requires a fall-down-and-get-back-up attitude. Why walk if you can run? Why hurdle a jump when you can sail over it? A dog who is willing to try something new and repeat it again and again until it feels natural will enjoy the rigors of agility.

Cooperation: Agility is a team sport. Dogs who are motivated to follow direction and trust their people do best at it. Often competing in close quarters with other dog-person teams, a dog must pledge full allegiance to his partner and be able to ignore anything else that might be going on.

Sociability: This sport involves a lot of socializing — with dogs and people, sounds and stimulations, unfamiliar objects, and unpredictable activity. If you go to weekend events, they can last all day. Will your dog be up for it? Will you?

Remember

As you’re reading over these attributes, remember agility is a team sport. Not only will your dog need these attributes — you will too! Agility requires bending, turning, and running while staying upbeat and focused. The bottom line? While you won’t need to scale any walls or leap tall buildings, you will have to exert yourself out there.

Tip

Don’t overlook agility because you don’t think a competitive sport is right for you. When you participate in agility, you’re not really competing against someone else — you’re competing against yourself. It’s just you and your dog against the clock and your own expectations.

Is agility in your future? While only you can decide, let me share one big secret: You can try it just for fun. You don’t need to learn every aspect of the sport to have fun with agility. You can think of it as a recreational activity, one that you can explore and enjoy without a major commitment.

Evaluating your dog’s body type

Agility evokes a passion that knows no breed or pedigree. Terriers love it; Hounds do too. Companion breeds will happily apply their lap-jumping skills to the cause of completing a course. Sledding dogs, Retrievers, and Working breeds — the sport of agility seems to hold something for each one.
Before getting started, however, consider how practicing agility will affect your dog physically. It may seem like a heavy thought, but it’s very important in the broad scheme of things. Injuries, in addition to being painful and life-altering for your dog, can be a huge financial burden to remedy or fix, or force a dog with great potential into an early retirement — all for stresses that can easily be avoided.
One of my most beloved dogs, Whoopsie, thinks like a sporting dog and runs with wild abandon in her dreams as she snoozes on the couch, but there’s a glitch in the system . . . she isn’t built very well. She’s dysplastic in her elbows. She’s front-heavy. She’s prone to structure tears in her ligaments and joints. After a long hike, she often comes up lame. I still love her to pieces, but I would never dream of taking up agility with her. Sure, she’d be into it, but it would endanger her health and well-being.

Take a minute and imagine your dog’s skeleton up on the wall like one of those posters you see when you go to your veterinarian. All dogs are not created equally. Consider how your dog’s form will affect his ability to function.

Tip

If you observe or take a class, speak to the instructor to ensure he or she will be mindful of your dog’s particular needs during practice rounds and mock competitions. A novice Basset Hound can’t perform at the same level as an experienced Australian Shepherd. Modify your expectations for the size and breed of your dog. Following are some characteristics that may affect your dog’s ability to participate in agility:

Angular posture: The perfect agility specimen looks a lot like a Border Collie. Angled hips set to propel forward at top speed, sloped shoulders, which serve as the perfect shock absorbers as the dog leaps, twists, and balances on the obstacles. It’s no surprise that this breed excels at the sport of agility, as do Australian Shepherds and Whippets.

A deep-chest: As a general rule, deep-chested dogs have a tendency to trot rather than run. They jump by lifting their heavily boned frames up into the air and coming down with a harrumph. Modify jump heights and dissention angles to ease their efforts and the shock to their physique. Keep your enthusiasm high to encourage their speed and participation. Deep-chested breeds include the Giant Mastiff, as well as Sighthounds and Mountain Dogs.

A straight back: Dogs with straight backs are flat-lined and not well angled to absorb the shock of repetitive leaps, sharp-angled landings or turns, and jarring stops. When practicing, keep the jumps low and spread the angle of the contact obstacles so the dismount isn’t jarring or abrupt. Straight-backed dogs include Corgis, Terriers, Retrievers, and Shetland Sheepdogs.

A long spine: While Pretzel-the-Dachshund might get super-charged at the thought of competing, he certainly shouldn’t be forced to do repetitive jumps or scale obstacles set at sharp angles. Long dogs have tricky spines and temperamental discs: Be mindful of this — your dog’s spine is the only one he’s got. Along with Dachshunds, Corgi breeds and Basset Hounds fall into this category.

A short snout: Dogs with short snouts have a rougher time oxygenating than other dogs. Don’t push them when they’re working to catch their breath. These breeds are often barrel-chested and top-heavy as well. Ramps should be set at gradual angles, and jumps should be positioned inches below the elbow. Bulldogs and Pugs fit this characterization.

Tip

It’s a good idea to check with your veterinarian for recommendations regarding any limitations that may apply specifically to your dog before beginning agility.

Being realistic about sensory limitation

Handicapped dogs are great: They don’t complain; they adjust. That said, physical limitations may hinder agility participation. Compromised vision or blindness precludes participation, too. If your dog can’t see an obstacle clearly, he can’t manage it. If you suspect visual problems — or degeneration if your dog is aging — please have the issue checked out before urging him to be active.
Dogs with hearing loss or deafness can do agility just fine. Some organizations have specialty classes; others invite competition at any level. Yours will be a silent theatrical run with plenty of posturing to wow the crowd!

Considering your dog’s age

Your dog’s age is a big factor when deciding whether he’s ready for agility. Off-leash control requires time, training, and maturity — something a young puppy blissfully lacks. Each agility organization has a lower age limit; regardless, most dogs aren’t ready for this level of focus until they are one to two years old.

Giving a puppy a head start

The age factor is more than just a maturity issue: There are serious health risks, too. Growing puppies have growth plates, which are areas of soft, immature bone from which bones grow and lengthen. Growth plates don’t fully harden with calcium and minerals — a process known as closing — until your dog is between 12 and 18 months old. This process takes longer in larger dogs. Strenuous, high-impact, repetitive activities can cause permanent injury to these fragile areas.
But don’t shut the book just because you’ve got a puppy chewing on your shoelace or an adolescent dog making off with your cellphone. There is much you can do to safely prepare your growing puppy or young dog for a future in agility. Here’s a checklist:

Socialize your puppy with people and dogs, but control the experience. Dog parks are fun but can be over-stimulating. Be mindful of who is influencing your puppy and how — don’t let him interact with aggressive dogs or rough players of any species.

Expose your dog to a variety of sights, sounds, and experiences. Walk him through town, in the woods, and near natural bodies of water. Make sure he’s comfortable walking on carpet, wood flooring, and AstroTurf.

Bring your puppy to an agility event or class just to watch the older dogs perform. (Call the organization first to ensure they’ll allow noncompeting dogs to attend.) Let your dog experience the bang of the teeter-totter, the calls of competitors, the barking, the cheering, and the general happy mayhem associated with agility gatherings.

Encourage your dog’s curiosity with exploratory games. Lay a ladder flat in your yard and lead him over it. Lay a broomstick on the floor and pretend it’s a jump. Rest a 12-inch plank on the ground and lure your puppy straight across!

Get started teaching basic obedience directions like the ones listed in Chapter Encouraging Self-Control before You Launch into Lessons. Familiarize your maturing puppy with directional cues, such as “Go out” and “Left” or “Right,” by repeating these words as you toss a toy or move in each direction.

Don’t sit at home, marking the days off on your puppy growth plate calendar. An active, well-socialized puppy will have a real head start in agility.

Advancing during adolescence

Adolescence. Just the word is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many. No matter the species, it can be a challenging time. The good news for dog lovers? Canine adolescence is short — only about eight weeks (typically occurring between the ages of 4–6 months) from beginning to end.
Adolescent dogs are ready to begin more advanced training. They’re enthusiastic learners, so use this time to hone your on- and off-leash training skills. Continue to socialize your dog, and direct him in unfamiliar places. Bring him to the train station or a softball game. Enforce his obedience when an off-leash dog is nearby. Take an advanced training class to prepare you for the rigors of working around other dogs and people.

Considering older or veteran dogs

Agility is, for the most part, a younger dog’s game. But don’t discount the veterans — they can surprise you with their enthusiasm and game.
There’s no upper age limit on agility. A few gray hairs on the muzzle won’t disqualify your dog — or you — from competing on a recreational or competitive level, but there are a few age-related factors to take into consideration:

Our dogs’ bodies age just like ours do. Cartilage weakens, bones become more brittle, and muscle tone and flexibility decrease. Exercise keeps the body fit, but too much vigorous exercise can lead to joint and muscle injuries.

– Conditioning is an important part of the training routine for any dog, but for older dogs, it’s essential. Keep your senior athlete slim, and make sure all exercise sessions are bracketed by a gradual warm-up and cool-down.

– How are your dog’s eyes? Cloudy, compromised vision will make it difficult for your dog to gauge his position on the course, and this could present a safety issue. If your dog’s vision is poor, it’s best to find another activity.

If you’re thinking of beginning agility with an older dog, get your veterinarian’s approval first. Find an agility instructor who understands your dog’s limitations, and adjust jump heights accordingly.

by Sarah Hodgson

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