How do I start Dog Agility?

A hairless dog jumps over barriers at an agility run

Agility is a sport for you and your dog. Like any sport, also agility can be trained and competed at different levels. It can be a nice shared hobby for you and your dog in your free time or you can compete more seriously at top-level international competitions – still not forgetting having fun!

What is dog agility?

Agility is a dog sport, where the dog is handled through an obstacle course. The roots of the sport go back to 1970 England, when it was created as a demonstration sport. The first time dog agility was shown to an audience was at Crufts dog show in 1978. The new, fast sport immediately took off and within a couple of years it was given official dog sport status in the UK. Nowadays, agility is one of the most popular dog sports around the world.

Agility can be practiced with all kinds of dogs, no matter what the size. A good way to start is to contact your local agility club or an experienced coach, who can help you to start your new hobby safely. It doesn’t matter if your dog is a puppy or adult – contrary to common belief, old dogs can learn new tricks!

It is important to move at the level of your dog’s skills, as there are levels from basic to advanced. You can also prepare your puppy for agility by safely teaching him basic agility skills, making it much easier to continue when the puppy grows up.

Agility is a sport

Agility is a sport for you and your dog, and like any sport, can be trained and competed in at different levels. It can be a nice hobby for you and your dog or you can compete more seriously at top-level international competitions – still not forgetting to have fun!

Your dog must be healthy and in a good physical condition as dog agility is physically demanding, especially for the dog. You need to focus on muscle care including warm-ups and cool-downs to avoid injuries.

Agility is also a sport for the handler who runs and moves quickly, so you need to take care of your own fitness. Remember to warm-up before doing agility, and stretch afterwards.

Dog agility is suitable for all kind of dogs and handlers

Border Collies, sheepdogs and small terriers are popular breeds in agility competitions, but you can practice agility with any breed. Only if your dog is particularly tiny or huge, it might not be allowed to compete. But agility can also be just for fun. It means you can get moving and spend time with your dog, without any competitive goals.

A hairless dog jumps over a barrier during an agility competition.
A hairless Chinese Crested taking part in an agility competition

There are no specific requirements for handlers either. Your age doesn’t matter and there are handlers well over 70 years old. Your movement skills are no hinder either. If you are physically limited, you can compensate by putting extra effort into distance handling. The more skilled your dog is, the easier it’s for you.

Competition Basics

As each course is different, handlers are allowed a short walk-through (ranging from 5 to 25 minutes on average) before the competition starts. During this time, all handlers competing in a particular class can walk around the course without their dogs, determining how they can best position themselves and guide their dogs to get the most accurate and rapid path around the numbered obstacles. The handler tends to run a path much different from the dog’s path, so the handler can sometimes spend quite a bit of time planning for what is usually a quick run.

The walk-through is critical for success because the course’s path takes various turns, even U-turns or 270° turns, can cross back on itself, can use the same obstacle more than once, can have two obstacles so close to each other that the dog and handler must be able to clearly discriminate which to take, and can be arranged so that the handler must work with obstacles between themselves and the dog, called layering, or at a great distance from the dog.

Printed maps of the agility course, called course maps, are occasionally made available to the handlers before they run, to help the handlers plan their course strategy. The course map contains icons indicating the position and orientation of all the obstacles, and numbers indicating the order in which the obstacles are to be taken. Course maps were originally drawn by hand, but nowadays courses are created using various computer programs.

Each dog and handler team gets one opportunity together to attempt to complete the course successfully. The dog begins behind a starting line and, when instructed by their handler, proceeds around the course. The handler typically runs near the dog, directing the dog with spoken commands and with body language (the position of arms, shoulders, and feet).

Because speed counts as much as accuracy, especially at higher levels of competition, this all takes place at a full-out run on the dog’s part and, in places, on the handler’s part as well.

Scoring of runs is based on how many faults are incurred. Penalties can include not only course faults, such as knocking down a bar in a jump, but also time faults, which are the number of seconds over the calculated standard course time, which in turn is determined based on the competition level, the complexity of the course, and other factors.

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