By Lorraine B Johnson, MA, DVM
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Since the 1980s, dog agility has grown to be one of the most popular sports in the dog world. You as the handler guide your dog with your movement through a complex pattern of jumps, weaves, tunnels, a teeter, dog walk and A-frame trying to get the best time and stay on course.
The American Kennel Club started holding shows in 1994; it was preceded by USDAA and NADAC. There are currently at least six different organizations that hold agility trials in the United States.
Agility has developed from its original roots of mainly larger dogs to include all breeds, including mixed breeds and all sizes. It has grown from a sport of few to a sport of many dogs and their handlers. There are small practice shows (matches, show-n-goes) all the way up to Olympic-style shows and international competitions. There seems to be a fit for all levels of handlers and dogs.
So how do you get started?
You need a dog. Many of us have dogs, but can they all do agility? Most dogs can, however it isn’t always wise for every dog to be trained in agility.
Generally, any size dog can work in agility if they are fit, both mentally and physically. Some of the extremes in dogs, say very large or very small or very heavy builds with short legs and long backs, may not do as well or may be harmed by the activities we ask them to do while performing the obstacles in agility. Overly aggressive dogs or overly shy dogs may not do as well and become stressed in agility class or show situations. Some dogs can be trained through their issues, however it is important to remember this is supposed to be fun for both you and your dog.
Take a look at your dogs; if they are middle age or younger, they are fit (they can run and play without getting overly winded) and they are of the proper weight for their build, you might just have yourself an agility dog.
Is your dog friendly with people and other dogs? Can you take your dog to a public place and get your dog to pay attention to you despite all the fun things going on around them? That is sounding like good potential. Does your dog like to play with toys or love to learn tricks for food? Even better. Agility may be the game for your dog. But how do you know for sure? Jump into it; take a class.
Generally, taking an obedience or family class is a good point to start. If you have an adult dog with a good foundation of obedience, you may be ready for a beginning agility class. Usually beginning classes train handling techniques for you and foundation skills for your dog so they can be ready to run, jump, go into tunnels, do the teeter and the contacts.
The typical agility dog is looking at usually at least a year before it gets into the ring, especially with a young dog. That may seem like a long time, but it is a great journey. Training your dog is fun; the dogs love it and it builds a great relationship. Dogs with a job are better pets, better social dogs and are happy dogs.
If you don’t have a dog and want to get one with the goal of running agility, pick a puppy that is brave, trainable, resilient and physically healthy. All agility dogs should be checked by their veterinarian to make sure they have the physical ability to perform the sport. They do have to jump and run, weave and climb. However, for older dogs or dogs with less physical ability, there are classes with lower jumps; there are organizations with easier courses, too.
The best thing about agility is playing with your dog, with both of you enjoying the game. When I get ready for class, put on those special shoes and pick up that training bag, my dogs go nuts. “Pick me, pick me,” they say in anticipation. And going to the shows is great fun, a time to spend with friends with the same interest in agility from so many different walks in life.
I have several dogs that have been trained in agility. One is a star in her breed, ranking No. 1 for four years in a row; yet my other dog of the same breed isn’t the best but thinks he is and that’s what counts. He enjoys every run as much at the “star” but knocks down bars and misses turns — but he still he is my star. I have a retired star too. Now she plays the game at home and enjoys walking around the show, but doesn’t go in the ring; that’s what suits her.
The game is to have fun and enjoy your dog. Agility is a physically active sport that can be done at many levels. Find the spot that you and your partner fit in and enjoy your journey of building a great relationship with your best friend, your dog.