The idea of introducing dogs in a competition of agility, first appeared in England in 1978 when Crufts annual dog show presented an agility display as a half time entertainment. These days, these sorts of competitions are a standalone event with competitive trials taking place worldwide. This is why agility training for dogs for competitions or simply for fun, is quickly becoming a popular activity among owners and their pooches.
Based on horse jumping, agility training is a way to show off a dog’s natural speed and agility using various obstacles. It is also an incredibly good way to exercise your dog’s mind and body at the same time.
If you want to compete, you should know that a dog is expected to navigate 18-20 obstacles in the fastest time possible. Competitors are generally provided with a course map prior to competing and allowed to walk the course to help them (and the contestants) to get used to the course. Many dog owners choose to take their dogs to agility classes which can be found up and down the country but this isn’t the only way to participate. You can very well train your dog at home, so it’s probably a good idea to first make sure that your dog is aware of basic commands before you start agility training. One of the best methods is laid out in our article about clicker training your dog.
Steps to follow before the training begins
The first step is to decide if your dog is suitable for agility training and this means taking into consideration several factors.
Your pet’s age — age can be a big factor in how your dog should be trained. If you have a puppy under twelve months old you need to be aware that their joints are still forming, so jumps should never be higher than the elbow. Puppies also have a very short attention span and are more awkward than older dogs so training will need to be adapted and kept shorter to accommodate for this. If you plan on competing, your dog must be over twelve months of age.
Older dogs tend to have weaker joints and tire more easily than a dog in its prime so again the training needs to be adapted. Lowering the jumps will help protect joints and shorter training sessions will avoid over exertion.
Your dog’s breed — all breeds are suitable for this kind of training though the kings and queens of agility are undoubtedly the border collies. No matter what breed you have though, training can be adapted to suit.
- Smaller dogs will need lower jumps, pause table’s etcetera and will inevitably be slower than larger dogs. If you plan to compete, this will not matter as smaller breeds compete separately from larger ones.
- Larger breeds may come with some difficulty in negotiating the obstacles because of their bulk. They also may be slower than medium breeds.
Temperament of certain breeds may also make them slightly harder to work with but with patience, the right motivation, and praise, all dogs will progress.
Obedience wise, even crazy mischievous whirlwinds of fur can participate in agility training and may even benefit from it in more ways than one. As long as the training is more engaging and fun than misbehaving your dog will love it. And lastly but probably most importantly, is your dog physically able to participate in agility training? If you have any doubts consult your vet.
All of these also factor into how long you can train for. You can read more in our article about how much exercise your dog needs.
Starting to have fun is easy. First make the decision whether you want to do it at home, by yourself or go to a couple of classes. If you want to do the training at home it’s recommended to go to a couple of classes and make sure both you and your dog enjoy it before investing in any equipment. However if your dog is not one that mixes well with others you should probably be best investing in some DVD’s, or watching YouTube clips to get an idea of what agility training is all about.
Once you have decided agility training is right for both of you, it’s time to create your own agility course. Here are some things you will need to consider:
Your dog’s safety — the cheaper the equipment you buy, the less reliable it will be. This also means there will be more chances for your dog to get hurt. A hurt dog will be a reluctant dog to carry on training again. Of course you should not consider buying competition quality equipment at this stage, it can be horrendously expensive. You should however buy the best quality you can afford.
Available space — how big is your garden? Can you fit the equipment you wish to purchase in? Or do you need to downscale your ideas a little? Bear in mind when sizing things up that your dog will need room to run up to the obstacles and around them in safety.
Four basic pieces are usually enough to start the training: jumps, chutes, tunnels and weave poles being the most popular. You can always add more equipment later as your dog builds up his skills and speed with the existing pieces.
- Jumps will usually have an adjustable height bar which is easily knocked off but not easily broken. It is great to have a set rather than just one so you can vary the height, angle of approach and other factors.
- Chutes have a rigid entrance then go to being floppy and are best when made out of non-rip material which will fold for storage. They are great for building trust between you and your pooch. Bear in mind that you are asking your dog to pass through an area it cannot see out of, so it’s best to purchase a chute that can be fastened to the ground to avoid it moving and scaring your dog.
- Tunnels are a longer, dark, completely rigid space, 18 foot being a good length that you can decrease and increase the difficulty of as your dog becomes more skilled. You could start with a straight line, advance to a soft curve, tighter curve and finally an S bend. They are best non-rip and heavy enough not to move when your dog is inside.
- Weave poles are probably the most challenging of the equipment your dog will face. If you plan on competing they are a must have and need to be sturdy enough not to fall over when brushed against by your dog.
Starting the actual training: tips for beginners
Once you’re ready to start your training decide on which obstacle you want to try and master first. It is better to practice each piece of equipment separately, only putting them into a sequence as your dog becomes more skilled, confident and able. Whichever order you decide to do it, here are some tips that can help you and your dog become successful:
When practicing jumps you should lower the bar so it is only a few inches off the ground. Let your dog explore the equipment, this will probably consist of a good sniff. When he/she seems comfortable, lead them over the bar on a short lead and praise them. Repeat this process slowly raising the bar over time but never to a height where they knock the bar.
Chutes and tunnels
Chutes and tunnels have the same training basics. First fold the chute so that it is shorter in length making it a smaller challenge for your dog. Place a long lead on your dog that feeds through the chute and get him/ her to sit at one end.
Go to the other side and encourage your dog to come through using the leash as gentle guidance if they need it. As they become more used to passing through the chute you can walk alongside calling encouragement to him/her and extend the length gradually. Eventually with the tunnel you will be able to introduce the soft curve, tighter curve and S bend. As with the jumps praise, reward every success.
Probably best saved until last due to their difficulty, the weave poles have a couple of training ideas for you and your dog to achieve success. First, you could put your dog on a short leash and gently guide him slowly through the poles rewarding with each successful completion.
Alternatively you could attach a wire at your dog’s eye level which forms a pathway through the weave. This will guide them through the poles and discourage them from going off course. As your dog becomes more used to weaving, raise the wire until they no longer need it as a guide. If you are planning on competing with your dog always remember to have your dog enter the poles from the right hand side, this is a competition must.
Putting it all together
Once your dog has mastered the four basic pieces of equipment you can start to tie them together. Set all the equipment up in a course and guide your dog through using good body language and verbal command such as tunnel, chute, jumps, and weave. Reward your dog for each piece of equipment he completes successfully but slowly wean this down until he/she only receives a reward at the end of the course.
Also remember that, as your dog becomes more skilled, their speed will increase and your body language and command will need to accelerate with it. Your dog cannot be expected to figure out your body language at the last second and ideally you will be ahead of your dog at all times clearly showing the next obstacle.
Moving on from the basics, if you have the room and the inclination, you could introduce the pause table, teeter table / seesaw, dog walk and A frame to your agility training schedule:
Designed for your dog to jump onto, stop and stay for five seconds the pause table is an ideal piece of equipment for those dogs who could benefit from a little additional basic command training. Sit, stay and lie down are all commands used on this piece of equipment.
To start pause table training, first lower the table as much as possible. Run with your dog on a leash and when you reach the table say ‘table’ and pat it. This should be enough for your dog to jump on and when he/she does it you should reward and repeat several times.
Once this is successful introduce ‘sit’ when your dog is on the table and leave him/her in that position for five seconds using ‘stay’ if needed. Reward and repeat. Finally you can move off from the table using a command such as ‘go’. Ideally you will be able to start moving off before you release your dog from the table giving you a chance to get ahead and guide them. You could also teach your dog to lie down on the table as an extra skill.
Teeter table / seesaw
The teeter table or seesaw is one of the more difficult pieces of equipment for your dog to gain confidence on. Ideally you should have a friend present to aid you when training on this obstacle.
Start with your dog on a tight lead close to the neck and slowly guide his/her nose down to the plank. This allows full concentration on the obstacle in front of them. Walk your dog slowly to the centre point and stop. Have your friend ready to lower the other end of the equipment to avoid it dropping too quickly and scaring your dog. Edge your dog slowly forward so the plank lowers at a slow pace ensuring the plank touches the floor before your dog moves off.
One of your dog’s paws must always touch the contact board on both ends if you want to compete. As your dog gains more confidence, allow them to increase control over the drop of the plank but always remember to have them pause and stop at the centre point.
Similar to the seesaw other than it doesn’t move, is the dog walk. It will also take some time for your dog to gain confidence on this equipment and it is still recommended that a friend helps with initial training. Keep your dog steady with a tight lead and use your hand and a treat to focus and guide your dog across the plank. Have your friend steady your dog from the other side and when he/she reaches the other end reward them. Again, ensure that one of your dog’s paws touches the contact boards on either end.
Finally is the A frame which should be lowered as much as possible for initial training. Again, encourage your dog over the obstacle using a hand gesture and/or a treat to guide them. Raise the A frame as your dog gains confidence and ensure he/she hits the contact board with at least one paw.
Benefits of agility training
The benefits of agility training are plentiful:
- Improvements in behavior — most dogs’ bad behavior is down to being bored due to lack of mental stimulation. A long walk in the park or woods may tire your dog out physically but it will not tire them mentally. Thus, you may come home with a dog that is panting furiously, but mentally he’s just as hyper and ready to go as before you left the house. By training him you will tire your furry friend physically and mentally.
- Strengthening bonds — most dog owners would say they have an extremely strong connection and friendship with their pooch. Training however will build on that partnership creating an even stronger and more trusting bond that cannot be broken.
- Aiding communication — strengthening bonds and trust though agility will aid all areas of communication and training with your dog. Commands they may have refused to learn or may not respond to every time such as sit, stay and down will be reinforced and off lead reliability will greatly improve. Your body language towards your dog will also become clearer, making you far easier to read for him/her.
Another unspoken benefit is that it helps your dog to stay slim and trim. You can read more in our article about helping your dog to lose weight.
The most important aspect of training your dog’s agility is that you and your pooch will be having loads of fun.
This cannot be highlighted enough: if it isn’t fun your dog will not like it and the activity will be more of a punishment than a fun activity. Always try to be positive! If your furry friend fails an obstacle speak to them in a positive way saying something like ‘oh dear’. Do not act disappointed or be negative, your dog will know. Try the obstacle again and if it is a second fail simplify the task. Go slower, lower the jump or guide them in a way that will ensure their success.
And after all this training is complete? Well, there is no guarantees you will have the fastest, most skilled champion agility dog in the world, but what you will have guaranteed is a dog who is mentally and physically satisfied having the time of his/her life.