AGILITY - HOW TO
Important: Avoid letting your puppy or teenage dog jump over any obstacles. At this age, a dog’s bones are not fully developed. Jumping can seriously damage joints. For small dogs, joint maturity is at about one year old. For larger dogs, 18 months to two years. Check with your vet before you start agility training.
“I think if every dog owner engaged in agility training with his or her dog, the dog world would be a better place. Agility is that good, that fun, and that important.” – Sue Sternberg, dog trainer, shelter founder, author
Let’s see if it can change yours.
WHY AGILITY IS AWESOME
If you’re looking for a way to:
Solve behavior problems
Exercise your dog in a way that will tire his body and mind
Improve off-lead reliability
Become better at all aspects of training and communicating with your dog
Build a strong bond between you and your dog
Gain a really cool skill to show off to the uninitiated masses
Have a lot of fun
Then agility might be right for you!
Agility training is all about building a common language between dog and owner. It teaches you to use body language to communicate clearly and effectively.
Another benefit of agility is that it provides the kind of exercise that actually improves a dog’s behavior. Have you ever taken your dog for a long run, only to bring him home and find that he’s actually more hyper and crazy than when you started? That’s because vigorous exercise is good for your dog’s body, but it doesn’t always exercise his brain.
Boredom is the leading cause of behavior problems,because dogs were bred to WORK. All this sitting around at home with only a daily walk or run does not always make a happy dog. They need some kind of challenge, or they’ll find their own. And it’ll usually be something like digging up the garden, chewing the new sofa or barking incessantly at all who dare pass the front window. Agility provides the perfect combination of physical exercise and mental stimulation to keep your dog entertained and out of trouble.
Agility gives you something exciting to do with your dog. This is important if you have a hard time getting your dog to do what you say. It teaches your dog that you are lots of fun and worth listening to.Compare this to another common activity for dogs: the park. At the park, you let him off lead and he goes off to do his own thing. Returning to you is no fun because it means he has to go home. You’re not your dog’s best buddy. You’re his chauffeur.
Bonus: The skills you learn in agility class will make you a better dog owner or trainer overall. You can use what you learn from agility, whether it’s working on a new Frisbee stunt with him, getting a hyper dog to chill out, or teaching puppies not to bite.
WHAT IS AGILITY
It’s a timed obstacle course for a team that consists of a handler and a dog. The handler directs the dog through a predetermined pattern of obstacles.
A course usually has 12-18 obstacles, like tunnels, jumps, tire jumps, weave poles, and the big “ramp” obstacles collectively known as the contacts.
In a trial (aka competition or show), the dog runs the course off-lead and the handler can’t touch the dog. The human half of the team relies on body language and, to a lesser extent, vocal cues, to tell the canine half where to go.
Agility first appeared in England in 1978, as essentially a half time show at Crufts. The creators based the demonstration on horse jumping competitions, intending to show off the dogs’ natural speed and agility. Dog owners and trainers looking for something new to do with their pets pricked up their ears and said, “Hey, MY dog could do that.” Thus the sport was born.
There is an ever-growing list of agility sanctioning organizations. The ones you’ll hear about most often in the US are NADAC, AKC, and the USDAA (see below for a more complete list of national and international groups). Each organization has its own rules and style. For example, NADAC courses are spread out and focus on speed. They often challenge the handler to send their dog through the course at a distance. USDAA courses are “tighter” and more technically challenging.
For an example of a beginner course,watch this video of one of Merlin’s runs at his first trial. This course is called “Jumpers,” for obvious reasons:
What if I’m too young/too old/too out of shape?
There is no such thing in agility. This sport is open to people of all ages and athletic ability, from students to retirees. At any given trial you’ll find junior handlers, veteran handlers, and everything in between.
As far as fitness and physical ability goes, again, agility is open to all comers. In competitions, you see everything from people in motorized scooters to Olympic gold medalists. Being in shape is definitely a plus, but it’s not a requirement. Of course, agility can come with the added bonus of gettingyou in shape.
My dog is a *insert breed or breed mix here*. Can she play?
Herding breeds like border collies are the masters of this game, which is why you’ll see a lot of them at trials, but they’re not the only players. Chihuahuas, pit bulls, huskies, hounds, even Great Danes. You name it. Surprisingly, certain toy breeds like Papillons have a real knack for agility.
Most sanctioning organizations allow mixed breeds to compete.Even the American Kennel Club, for many the very symbol of purebred snobbery, has opened up some agility trials to the mutts.
I’m not sure if I have the time or money for this.
You can easily fit it around your work schedule.
One of the drawbacks to training competitively is the cost. Between class fees and trial entries, this can be an expensive sport. That doesn’t have to deter you, though. Many clubs offer significant discounts on training and entries if you work at their trials, which can be a huge help. You don’t need to compete to reap the benefits of agility training. You can take a class or two to get the feel of it and then continue training on your own at home. Or you can go it completely alone, “homeschooling” your pup with some homemade agility equipment. More on home agility below.
THE GAME IN A NUTSHELL
Agility trials are usually weekend-long events put on by local clubs, who play by the rules of their preferred organization. Each trial consists of a few different courses, or runs.
Step one of each run is the walkthrough. If you’ve ever been to an agility trial and seen a group of people walking around in the ring with one arm out and muttering commands to an invisible dog, you’ve just witnessed the walkthrough portion of the trial. These people may looksilly, but they’re actually hard at work memorizing the course and plotting out how they will run it.
Once the walkthrough is over, the judge and ring crew take their positions. The first team is called to the starting line. The handler puts the dog into position, says go, and they’re off! The team runs the course as fast as they can while avoiding racking up any faults.
Each organization has their own rules about faults, but the ones you’ll find in most rulebooks are:
Knocking down jump bars
The dog failing to place at least one paw in the contact zone on the down ramp of the contact obstacles
The dog failing to complete the next obstacle (this is called a runout or refusal)
Taking the wrong obstacle
Going over the time limit
If a dog has a clean run without any faults, it’s called a qualifying runor a “Q,”and they’ll get points added to their official record. If they get a good score, they may also receive a placement ribbon. Winning a first place is a lot of fun, but in the grand scheme of things placements don’t matter until you reach high levels of competition. However, the Qs are important – with enough points, your dog will earn a title. A title is a certificate of accomplishment. As you earn each title you stick it to the end of your dog’s name. Very snazzy.
Work on the three control exercises required for agility success: come, sit-stay, and down-stay. Practice each of these behaviours daily. Make the recall fun! Carry treats in your pocket as you work in your garden or around the house and randomly call your dog to you, reward and release to play. Make sure that "come" doesn't mean the fun is at an end! Practice sit-stay and down-stay while your dog waits for you to prepare his or her dinner. Use your release word - "OK" or "FREE" - and reward with the jackpot: dinner!
Directionals -- Left And Right
It really is helpful to be able to tell your dog to go left or right. Directionals are given for the dog's left and right - not ours! Here are good ways to practice this: On a walk, as you start to turn a corner, tell the dog "left" or "right" depending on which way you are turning. At home, take a handful of kibble from the dog's dinner -- or treats -- and play the left and right game. Give a hand signal for left and toss a kibble to the dog's left, using the cue word, "left." Next, give a hand signal for right and toss a kibble to the dog's right, using the cue word, "right." Practice daily for best results. After about a month of this, your dog should have a fair idea of left and right.
Crossing In Front Or Behind The Dog
Our dog needs to learn that we might cross in front or behind, and that it's not a problem when we do so. This work is more for YOU than for your dog!
Rear cross: While you are walking with the dog in a straight line, let the dog get a bit ahead of you, and switch your position from one side of the dog to the other. In agility, a rear cross tends to slow the dog down.
Front cross: While you are walking with the dog in a straight line, cut across in front of the dog, turn INTO the dog to change direction. Front crosses tend to speed the dog up.
This is a fun exercise that will tune your dog into watching your body language and show him that it is worthwhile to watch what you are doing and to follow where you are going.
Start with a handful of yummy treats. If you have a safe secure area to work don't use a lead on your dog. If it’s not safe to take him off-lead, tie a long line around your waist. The key is not to use the leash to pull your dog in your direction. Now, begin walking around the area making frequent changes of direction. Whenever your dog catches up to you (in any position) give your conditioned reinforcer and pop a tiny treat in his mouth. Don't call your dog or clap your hands or whistle - watching and following your moves should be your dog's idea. This is a game - keep it light and fun. And, keep it short. Quit while your dog still wants more, don't wait until he's bored and looking for something more interesting.
This exercise teaches your dog to move from one side of you to the other on command. Start walking away from your dog with your hands at your side, palms flat and showing the hand target to your dog. Whatever side he's on, you want to tell him "switch" and feed a treat from the other side when he gets to that side. Keep walking, tell him "switch" again and feed from the other hand.
Set the dog up sitting or standing at your side. Rock back and forth on your feet, crouch down a little and say something like, "Ready, let's go!” Run a few steps, toss a toy or a highly visible treat. Release dog to run and chase the motivator. You can say something like "Get it!"
Progress to running in a big circle with your dog. Try it with the dog on both your left and your right. Allow the dog to be a few feet away from you but about even with your side.
If the dog starts sniffing the ground, or otherwise is distracted, stop the game. Then get the dog's attention and start up again. Make it fun. If the dog barks while running, stop the game for a few seconds, then start again slowly. Give treats for quiet running.
We want to teach the dog to keep moving in a straight line, away from us. The behaviour is called "go on." While walking with the dog, toss a treat or a toy out in front of the dog, and simultaneously say "go on."
We hope you will "go on" with agility training!