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Exercise and Fun with Dog Agility

Imagine a dog or any of its wild canine cousins weaving through trees in a forest, jumping over logs and rocks, and ambling through piles of brush in pursuit of a rabbit for dinner. These are the same type of activities that dogs who participate in agility undertake.

Weave poles, jumps, and tunnels are some of the obstacles dogs and their handlers encounter during an agility trial. Dog agility is an ever-increasing canine sport in which a dog and its handler function as a team while the handler directs the dog through a variety of obstacles with the dog running through the course off-leash. During a competitive event, the handler tries to navigate the dog through the obstacle course as quickly and accurately as possible, attempting to get the best time with few or no mistakes. Agility trails, sanctioned by the American Kennel Club (AKC) and other organizations, take place year-round and world-wide.

Benefits of agility
There are several benefits for a dog and its owner to participate in agility. First, agility fulfills a dog’s natural instincts. As mentioned above, wild canines traverse obstacles such as trees, logs, rocks, and brush in pursuit of prey. They also do these things to avoid becoming prey. Therefore, agility courses set up with weave poles, tunnels, jumps, and other obstacles offer a dog the opportunity to mimic the natural type of scenarios it would experience in the wild.

Secondly, agility provides exercise for a dog … as well as its owner. Running through the course, weaving in and out of poles as well as through tunnels and upon seesaws provides a great cardiovascular workout for a dog; the owner/handler runs alongside providing the commands needed to complete the course.

Additionally, the interaction between dog and owner during the course-running creates a deeper, stronger bond between the two. An agility dog relies on the verbal and hand signals of the handler, and as the two work in tandem to complete the course, their dependence upon each other during the competition strengthens the dog-owner bond.

Best breeds for agility
All breeds are welcome in agility competition. Mixed-breeds are allowed to participate in local and regional agility events; however, the AKC does not permit mixed-breeds to compete in trials. Even though all breeds are welcome, certain dog breeds do best in agility. Those are the working breeds, the ones with energy and who are most genetically-gifted in running with purpose. Dog breeds such as Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Jack Russell (now called Parson Russell) Terriers, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, and Shetland Sheepdogs perform well in agility competitions. According to the AKC, the most popular dog breeds in agility these days are Shetland Sheepdogs, Belgian Tervurens, Border Collies, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Welsh Corgis, and Papillons.

Certain breeds may not perform as well in agility due to their personalities or their body composition. For example, Dachshunds have very short legs and may not jump hurdles well; pugs with their flattened noses may experience breathing problems from running the course, and giant breeds, such as St. Bernards, may not navigate the course very rapidly, particularly weave poles.

However, no breed is turned away at AKC events (expect for mixed-breeds) – the organization allows five jump heights, adjusting to the type of dog competing. The classes are divided by those jump heights to make the competition fairer between the different dog sizes. The dogs run the same course, though, with adjustments in expected time and jump height.

Dogs between the ages of one and eight seem to do the best in agility. Young dogs and puppies can be trained; however, AKC competition rules state a dog must be at least nine months old to compete in AKC-sanctioned agility events. Dogs trained in basic obedience perform the best because they follow their owners’ commands and instructions. A person can start basic obedience with puppies and young dogs and work up to agility training in the backyard or with a local group in preparation for agility competition when the dog is old enough.

History of agility
Dog agility is a rapidly growing sport. It began in England in 1978 when the Crufts Dog Show featured a jump-style course as entertainment between competitions. Dog agility came to America during the 1980s. The first AKC event was held in 1994. According to the organization, agility is one of the fastest-growing dog sports in America. In the first year of AKC agility trails there were 23 competitions; in 2003 there were 1,379, and in 2007 the number increased to 2,014.

Dog agility is sport recognized around the world. A world agility championship is held annually as is the Agility European Open and the AKC’s National Agility Championship.

Types of obstacles
When running agility, dogs encounter a variety of obstacles.

Dogs hurdle across jumps, much like a human hurdles in track competition. When training a dog, start with a small jump and increase the height a little at a time until the dog masters the height intended for its breed and size. Jump heights for agility competitions vary with different organizations and are based on the size of the dog. Measure your dog from the ground to the top of its shoulders to get an understanding of the correct jump height for your dog’s breed (see various clubs’ jump height regulations at this website.

Weave poles are rows of poles that dogs must bend around and through. This can be the most challenging obstacle for a dog and will require lots of practice and repetition during training. To train a dog for weave poles, start by staggering the poles at least shoulder-width apart for your dog. Put it on a leash and lead your dog through the middle channel between the poles. After you’ve done this many times, gradually move the poles closer to the center. This forces your dog to bend his body somewhat, working his way through the middle channel. By the time you have the poles in the correct position, your dog should have learned the bending movement needed to weave around the poles without knocking them over, the purpose of this part of the competition.

Tunnels are fairly easy to teach dogs to master. Using treats, and possibly a helper, encourage your dog to go in and out of the tunnel. Some tunnels are open-ended while other tunnels are collapsed, and therefore, the dog cannot see out the other end. Train your dog on both types of tunnels if you plan to compete in agility.

Contact obstacles include A-frames, seesaws (or teeter-totters), and dog walks. The A-frame is a teepee-shaped walkway on which dogs must be able to walk both up the steep incline and then back down the other side. The dog walk works like a balance beam, and it has ramps on each end. The seesaw/teeter-totter resembles the ones found at playgrounds; a dog must learn to walk across the object as it moves under his weight. These mechanisms are called contact obstacles because there are specific spots on one or both sides of the object on which dogs must touch with at least one paw. Dogs can be taught to make this contact by the handler leaving treats on the contact zone during training. Your dog will get the treats only by putting his paw in the contact zone.

There are three types of agility classes in AKC agility competitions. The first, called Standard Class, includes the contact objects of dog walk, A-frame, and seesaw. The second class is called Jumpers with Weaves and has only jumps, tunnels, and weaves poles; there are no contact objects. The third is FAST, which stands for Fifteen and Send Time, which is designed to test a handler and dog team’s strategy, skill, accuracy, speed, and distance handling. All competition classes offer increasing levels of difficulty; a team can earn Novice, Open, Excellent, and Master titles for their agility performances.

Although the agility competition course is run off-leash, oftentimes it’s best to train your dog on-leash, especially while training on the contact objects like the teeter-totter/seesaw and dog walk – having your dog on-leash during training on these obstacles will help him gain confidence.

Finding an agility event
You can train your dog in your own backyard, at a dog park, or at a training facility nearby. Agility events, including practice events and competitions, are held in numerous places. One way to learn where and when such events are held is by contacting your local dog club. You can also find events listed on the AKC’s website. You can find dog agility clubs listed here.

You may want to observe some competitions as a spectator before embarking upon trying out your own dog. Watch other dog-handler teams compete, observe some practice sessions before an actual competition, and talk with agility handlers. Then, take your dog for a test run, even before purchasing practice equipment. Attend a practice event/training session with your dog. Although agility is fun for many, not all dogs respond to the routine.

To purchase agility equipment, look online or at your local pet supply store and talk with others already participating in agility.

Is your dog agile?
Dog agility is a fun, competitive sport, one in which many breeds perform well and enjoy participating. If your dog is energetic and responds well to your commands, the two of you might make a great agility team. Consider this fast-paced, fast-growing canine sport as an activity for you and your furry friend!

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