Agility for Dogs

What is agility?

By definition, agility is the ability to change the body's position quickly and efficiently. This kind of nimbleness requires balance, coordination, strength, speed, and endurance. Agile dogs run, jump, and dart about gracefully. Some use their athletic skills to compete in agility trials.

What is an agility trial?

An agility trial is a competitive canine sporting event where dogs of various breeds navigate obstacles and are judged on speed and accuracy. Agility courses are specially designed to demonstrate a dog's athletic ability, level of conditioning, and willingness to work with her handler. Competitions require physical prowess, along with mental concentration.

In a typical agility trial, dogs jump over hurdles, navigate around obstacles, weave through upright poles, run up A-frame structures, trot over elevated walkways, or dash through tunnels. Courses are set up differently at various trials, so the dog depends on her human teammate to guide her through the route. Well-trained dogs focus on their handlers who give directions through hand signals or verbal prompts.

What are the benefits of agility training?

Agility training can benefit both dog and handler in the following ways:

Agility training uses your dog’s natural instincts. Our pet dogs need look no further than the pantry for their next meal, but their ancestors were not so lucky. They had to hunt for their food and became adept at finding and chasing prey in order to survive. Often the chase was difficult. Hungry dogs chased small mammals like rabbits through the woods, over fallen logs, around rocks, up steep embankments, and through narrow passages created by dense underbrush. The hungry dog had to be fast and nimble to ensure his next meal. Agility courses mimic the obstacles a dog in the wild might face in pursuit of dinner and stimulate the dog’s natural hunting instinct.

Agility provides good exercise. Some dogs require lots of exercise to burn excess energy, and running through an obstacle course is a great way to do just that. The athletic challenge keeps a dog fit, helps prevent obesity, increases endurance, and strengthens bones and joints. Plus, an agility course exercises a dog’s mind, giving her opportunities to learn and solve problems.

Agility training will also help you keep in shape! You will not actually run through a tunnel or scamper around weave poles, but you will keep moving alongside your dog. Plus, you will stay focused on your dog’s progress, making split-second decisions to help her clock the best time possible while staying on course, so you get a little mental stimulation, too. Basically, agility training provides good cardiovascular, muscular, and mental exercise for you and your dog.

Agility training bonds dog and owner. Dogs are smart creatures, but it would be difficult for them to successfully complete an agility course without the aid of their owner or handler. The human member of the team guides the dog using verbal cues and hand signals, so open communication between canine and human is essential. This level of communication, and the time spent training, bond a dog and her owner in a very special way. As the dog relies on her owner for guidance on the course, she also becomes more obedient and well-behaved off the course.

What should you consider before starting an agility program?

Since agility training is strenuous exercise, here are a few things to consider before launching on this level of physical activity:

Make sure your dog is physically fit. Agility is a sport that involves lots of running and jumping, so sound joints and a healthy heart are a must. Have your veterinarian perform an overall physical exam to ensure that your dog is in good physical condition. Even young pups should be checked out because developing joints can be injured if over-stressed. Regardless of your dog’s age or how healthy she appears, get your veterinarian’s approval before you begin training her. It is also a good idea to see your personal physician, too.

Consider your dog’s temperament. Training can involve just you and your dog in the privacy of your own backyard, but there will be lots of dogs at training facilities and competitions. Your dog should be comfortable around strange dogs and strange people. This is especially important since your dog will be competing off-lead and will need to respond to voice commands immediately, regardless of distractions.

Figure out what makes your dog tick. Agility training is hard work that can become tiresome for you and your dog. While you may be motivated by winning awards, you dog will not be so impressed with blue ribbons. Figure out what best motivates your dog to persevere through the tough spots. Is it food, toys, or a big hug? But keep in mind, with the exception of hugs, these incentives won’t be allowed during an actual trial.

How do you get started with agility training?

Start by finding local agility groups in your area. Search online, ask your veterinarian, call a dog trainer, or talk to fellow pet owners at the dog park.

If you want to test the waters before joining an established program, you can expose your dog to a homemade course. Place a long, wide board on two cinder blocks and have your dog walk along the plank. Then have her jump over it. Find a collapsible tunnel at a children’s toy store and entice your dog to walk through it. Hang an old bike tire form a sturdy tree limb to see if your dog will jump through it. These are inexpensive ways to see if you and your dog really want to pursue this great sport.

If you get serious about agility training, look for a group or private instructor for expert help in learning the rules and the techniques associated with agility trials. A good trainer will train both you and your dog. There is an art to assisting your dog through a course with finesse, so pay attention in class! With a little work, you and your dog may both exemplify the very definition of agility!

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