Watching the clever Border Collie, Tex, win the 2015 Westminster Dog Agility Contest or the whip-quick retriever, Joy, earn the large dog agility prize at the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge is enough to get your tail wagging, even if you don’t have a dog. The speed and discipline these canine competitors exhibit is inspirational. So, it’s no surprise that many pet owners get into agility training for dogs as a form of bonding and a fun way to exercise.
We all know how much energy dogs have to spare and we don’t often have enough time to walk or run them as much as we would like. Agility training is a perfect way to train your dog and make good use of all that pent up energy. It also makes the best of their competitive nature.
Dog agility training also requires obedience skills, making it good for dogs that have never taken a class before or for those needing to brush up on good behavior. It gives your pooch something to focus on and somewhere to channel his energy. Agility training is highly recommended for dogs of all ages.
The sport itself is surprisingly young. It started in the UK in the late 1970’s as a way to entertain spectators during intermission at a traditional dog show. The sport caught on like wildfire and soon dogs all over the world were learning how to leap, tunnel, and weave.
But, it takes a special kind of dog to do well at canine agility competitions and a strong bond between dog and handler to succeed. Certain breeds excel at agility, in much the same way as a particular pedigree might lend itself more readily to hunting or herding than others.
If you’re interested in getting started in the exciting world of dog agility, here are some tips and tricks for beginners.
Agility Training for Dogs
The Ultimate Beginners Guide
Aside from fame and adoration, agility training for dogs is a great way for canines and master (or mistress) to bond.
Learning to communicate well with your animal will not only help her learn her place in your family’s “pack,” but will also help her behave when you go into the vet’s office for your next checkup.
It will take a lot of patience, time, and dedication, so make sure you’ve got all three in spades before you invest a good deal of money in training courses or expensive equipment. Agility training for dogs is not the same as obedience training and it should not be used in its place.
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Obedience Training vs. Agility Training for Dogs
Obedience training can start from puppyhood but dogs should be over one year old before any intense agility training begins. Before that age, their skeletons have not matured enough. After that first year, age is no barrier. Indeed, even very old dogs can learn to be more agile, but go gently with them.
Obedience training teaches dogs to understand basic commands such as ‘sit’, ‘stand’, ‘stay’, ‘down’, ‘fetch’ and ‘leave’, and little barks as a polite greeting. Agility training for dogs builds on these skills. Your dog will learn how to negotiate tunnels, tires, A-frames, high and long jumps and see-saws.
The training takes place around a set course, and if on a competitive level, training is carried out against the clock. At competition level, the dogs compete against others for the fewest faults in the fastest time. For general exercise, not in the competition arena, the dog owner or handler walks or runs around the course and directs and controls the dog while he’s off his leash.
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The Right Dog for the Job
You can either begin with a dog you already have a good relationship with, or scout out new talent. As previously mentioned, some types of dogs do better than others when it comes to agility. Jumping, abrupt changes in direction, and crawling are all activities that are hard on a dog’s joints.
Breeds that are prone to joint problems, such as shepherds, retrievers, Great Danes, and Dachshunds may not be the best candidates. Also, very young dogs and mature dogs can hurt their joints more easily. You should consult with your veterinarian about a joint dog supplement if your dog will be doing dog agility training on a regular basis.
A dog must also possess the right temperament in order to do well in agility training for dogs and competing. He should be well socialized, so that he behaves appropriately around crowds and other dogs.
Dogs that get bored easily or get into mischief when unsupervised are also great choices, as these qualities normally indicate intelligence. Starting a dog agility training routine may even serve to correct some undesired behavior, as it may satisfy a dog’s curiosity and desire to learn.
You’ll also learn to communicate on a whole new level, making discipline outside of the arena easier too.
Talk to a veterinarian about your dog’s ability to perform tasks commonly associated with dog agility. Make sure you’re up-to-date on all of the recommended shots as well. This is an entrance requirement for most dog shows as well as a good precaution in case your dog gets into a scuffle with someone else’s.
You can never be certain of how well-trained your competition will be or how responsible the other owners are. Even if your dog knows the basic commands and follows them well, there’s no guarantee another dog won’t start trouble. It’s best to be on the safe side when it comes to vaccines.
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Equipment for Agility Training for Dogs
Once you have a dog that you want to work with, you might wish to set up a training course in your yard. Alternatively, you could stock up on portable equipment that can be set up in the park or an open meadow. Equipment doesn’t have to be expensive either.
While you can certainly purchase tire jumps, weave poles, and A-frames that have been manufactured especially for dogs, you could also source materials from junk yards, scrap piles, or second-hand shops.
Just make sure that whatever you decide to use is in good enough condition that it doesn’t pose a hazard to your animal. Check for rusty parts, sharp edges, and structural defects before you decide to implement any equipment in agility training for dogs.
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Obstacles you’re likely to run into on a competitive course can be broken down into four basic categories: jumps, tunnels, contact obstacles, and miscellaneous. Here’s a quick rundown of standard agility obstacles used by agility clubs:
- A-frame: The A-frame is a pair of planks joined in the middle at an angle so that they resemble the peak of the letter A. There are “contact” areas indicated by contrasting colors which are painted on the frame and dictate where the dog must step. The dog must go up one side and down the other, contacting the plank in the right places on each side.
- Seesaw: This obstacle looks just like what you might see on a playground, with one plank supported in the middle, so that either side can be lowered toward the ground. The dog will start at one end and walk to the other, while the plank shifts with the dog’s weight. Some clubs require that this obstacle have grips or treads on them, as a safety measure.
- Tunnels: There are a couple of different types of tunnels used in agility competition. One type is a tube with a U-shaped bend that is made of joined rigid hoops. Another style consists of a stiff collar-like tunnel, usually only a few feet long, that has a length of fabric fastened to one end. The dog goes in through the collar portion and must find its way out from under the collapsed fabric portion.
- Jumps: Like the tunnel obstacle, jumps can vary in design. Most jumps look just like miniature versions of the hurdles used in equestrian competitions. In fact, this is where the first obstacle designers got their inspiration. There may also be tire jumps, fence jumps, and log jumps.
- Weave Poles: This one might be the most exciting element to watch a dog complete, but can be one of the most challenging to train for. If you’ve ever seen a ski slalom race, you already have a good idea of what the dog will need to do to get through this obstacle. Several vertical poles are set up in a row and the dog must weave its way back and forth between them in a snake-like fashion.
The best way to decide which obstacles to train for is to take a look at which local competitions you’re interesting in entering. Find out which club the competition is associated with and hop on their website to see what their regulations are. You can even watch videos of previous competitions to get an idea of what will be expected.
Dog Agility Training Classes
When attending classes on agility training for dogs, it is recommended that you get to the venue well before the start time so you'll be able to walk your dog around the course. This will warm him up and give your dog a chance to have a sniff around and explore! Make sure you bring a doggy poop plastic bag to pick up any ‘deposits’!
Many classes work on a reward basis so it is important not to feed your dog before a class, except for a very light snack and let him have a drink of water if he wants one. Often classes will provide snacks or a meal for your dog once class is over, but do bring your own food and treats if the class you’re attending doesn’t do this.
Some ideas of treats to bring can be small pieces of chicken, liver, sausage, bacon, beef or lamb, dried foods or any favorite foods your dog especially likes. Keep dog treats to hand in a small bag in your pocket or in a special treat bag that can be bought in most pet stores.
Keep your dog on a leash at all times as well, unless instructed otherwise by the trainer in charge. It is generally advisable to avoid the use of retractable leashes, as they are too long and lack the control of a standard leash – especially when there are lots of other interesting dogs your pooch might want to investigate.
Avoid choke chains or chain leashes as well, as they can hurt your dog and he will begin to associate pain and that choking feeling with going to the agility course. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun for both of you – you can even bring some toys for your dog to play with after the training session is over.
It’s a good idea to bring wash cloths and towels too, so you can wash some of the mud off your dog if your course is outdoors, and to dry him off after his training. Depending on the weather conditions and forecast, ensure you wear comfortable clothing.
Wear boots if it’s muddy and a raincoat and sweater for cold weather and the rain. Much of the time you will be walking or perhaps running with your dog so comfortable footwear and jogging pants are a must.
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Tips to Find More Information on Dog Agility Training
To find a list of clubs and answers to more agility competition questions, there are several reliable online resources. Check out the North American Dog Agility Council’s list of clubs arranged in numerical order by zip code.
You can try the American Kennel Club’s agility page for a smorgasbord of information, including an agility FAQ and club policies. The oldest agility competition tournament in the U.S. is hosted by the United States Dog Agility Association and you can find a lot of great information on their website.
There are a great number of books available on the topic agility training for dogs too. Sniff around at your local library for books and even videos that can give you a good idea of what will be involved with your new endeavor. Go to a few shows in your city or state and try to speak with the competitors after the event.
You can likely also find several professional trainers that you can hire to work with both you and your canine partner. Poke your nose in a variety of places and identify which resources are available to you.
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You're Ready to Get Started
Remember to start off your agility training for dogs very slowly and once your canine has mastered the course you can work on his speed and accuracy or even add more obstacles. Make sure you provide plenty of water for your dog, it will be thirsty work! And the most important tip? Give him lots of praise for all the awesome tricks he’s learned!
Remember that you don’t need to bring home trophies to enjoy agility training for dogs. It will be good exercise for both of you, increase your ability to communicate with each other, give you another reason to interact, and strengthen your bond. You may even discover some new friends while trading training tips with other dog owners.
In the end, it’s not a matter of winning or losing, but how the two of you get there together and what you find along the journey. Ribbons and awards are just icing on the cake!
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