Beginner's Guide To Agility With Dogs

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You may have heard the term “dog agility” recently, as it’s becoming an increasingly popular sport. But what is it, exactly? Here’s a beginners’ guide to understanding, and maybe even participating in, dog agility courses.

What is dog agility?

Agility is a sport for dogs and humans to participate in together. It’s a fun and challenging obstacle course for dogs, with the dog's human or handler guiding the dog through the course.. The agility course might involve tunnels, seesaws, tires to jump through, or many different other obstacles. You can also create DIY agility courses yourself, which we’ll get into later!

The benefits of agility for dogs and humans

Dogs receive both physical and mental stimulation from agility. Agility courses provide physical exercise as well as the mental challenge of figuring out how to maneuver under, over and around the obstacles on the course. This can be especially beneficial for high-energy dogs. Some dog owners even find that agility helps fix behavioral problems. Agility is also great for improving your dog’s off-leash skills.

In addition, agility benefits the participating human. It’s a good way to get exercise, as you must run alongside your dog as they navigate the courses. In addition, it’s a great way to bond with your dog because it involves lots of training and working together. 

In addition to physical stimulation, agility also provides humans with mental stimulation. Your brain and body must work together quickly, as each human handler has to memorize the specific order they must have their dogs take the obstacles in, and what cues to give their dog ahead of time so the dog knows which obstacle to go to next.

A brief history of agility

Agility training started in England in 1978. In 1980, the first official rules of the sport were made by the United Kingdom Kennel Club. 

Peter Lewis, an enthusiast of the sport, was the first to suggest that the sport should be judged, and devised a system for scoring. In 1983, Lewis formed a national agility club, which further refined the rules for judging as well as obstacles. 

The sport soon spread to other countries. In 1986, the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) was formed, and other dog agility organizations followed. The American Kennel Club held their first agility trial in 1994. 

How do agility trials work?

A “sanctioned trial” is a dog agility competition put on by an organized dog club, which works under the “sanctioning” of organizations like the AKC or USDAA (United States Dog Agility Association). The overseeing organization determines the standards of the agility trial in addition to the kinds of obstacles used. In an agility trial, your dog will run a timed obstacle course with you guiding them. You will help guide them through which obstacle to take next. However, you may not touch them in any way. At the end, the dog will be given a score based on how many “faults” they had in their performance (e.g. hesitating or skipping an obstacle). 

A course in an agility trial will generally have 14-20 obstacles, which may include jumps, weave poles, tunnels and seesaws.

A given organization will usually have several different types of trials available. The AKC has three types of agility trials

  • All-breed agility trials (for breeds and varities of dogs recognized by the AKC)
  • Specialty trials (for dogs of a certain breed or variety)
  • Group trials for dogs of a certain breed group (such as herding dogs or working dogs)

Different organizations will offer different types of trials, so it’s a good idea to research them within the organization you choose. Note that some organizations are strict about purebreds, while others allow mixed breed dogs, so make sure you find an organization that will suit you and your dog!

Trials vs Matches

An agility trial is stricter and usually more expensive to enter than a “match” (also called a “fun match”), which is another agility activity you can do. A match is more informal and usually has looser rules and a cheaper entry fee–they are more “for fun” and less competitive than a sanctioned trial. Many people use matches simply as fun, inexpensive agility practice for their dog.

dog running through poles

Beginner agility training: considerations and concerns

Before you start agility training, make sure to take these things into consideration:

Human fitness: Agility is a workout for people as well as dogs! You will most likely be running alongside your dog as they weave and dodge through their agility course. This might not be a huge deal in a relatively small backyard, but it’s something to think about especially, if you are thinking of competing in trials (or simply participating in agility in a large space that would require lots of runnin). You might need to start a new workout routine to build up to it!

Dog breed: There are no breed restrictions in agility, but it’s especially good for athletic dogs, dogs with lots of energy, and hunting breeds. However, don’t feel like your dog can’t do it if they don’t fit any of those descriptions. Just make sure your dog is up to the task, physically. It’s best to schedule an appointment with your vet before beginning agility, so you can make sure your dog doesn’t have any physical ailments or pain that would get in the way.

Time: Depending on the level of depth you’re aiming for, agility can be a significant time commitment. If you decide to take a class, plan on that being at least an hour of your week. If you are learning agility “moves” in a class or online, the AKC recommends planning to spend at least 15-20 minutes a day practicing these moves with your dog. And of course, if you decide to do trials, those can take up more time! However, don’t worry about this if you are simply aiming for some fun agility-inspired backyard activities.

Money: Agility might cost you money depending on what level you want to get involved at. If you want to take an agility class with your dog, expect to spend at least $150 on a class (and keep in mind that your dog needs to have a completed basic obedience class before doing agility classes, so you will have to pay for that if you haven’t completed one yet). If you later decide to enter competitions, there are fees to do so that vary by organization. DIY agility training at home is, of course, a much less expensive option.

dog running through tunnel

Dog agility training for beginners: how to get started

There are several different options for agility training–it all depends on how serious you want to get about the sport. However, if you’re a beginner, you don’t need to worry about trials and competitions just yet. For now, try out some agility exercises at home (or at a Sniffspot), and see how your dog does with them.

Safety first: Before you start, make sure to have your dog examined by a vet to make sure they are in good enough shape for agility practice. In addition, if your dog is a puppy or teenager, do not have them jump over any hurdles, because their bones are not fully developed yet. Wait until a small dog is one year old, or a large dog is two years old, before having them jump over hurdles.

Agility training at home

Training exercises

There are many training exercises you can do at home. Try starting with these:

Recall: This is an important skill in any setting, but especially in agility. Have treats with you and call your dog’s name. When they come, reward them with a treat and then give a “release” cue (such as “free” or “ok”). You can do this randomly throughout the day as well as in more concentrated sessions. Just make sure that when your dog comes to you, it doesn’t mean an end to fun–for example, you can do this when the dog is playing in the yard, but make sure you release them to go play after you are done. You want your dog to have positive associations with coming when called.

Follow Me: Do this off-leash if possible. Start with a handful of high-value treats, and begin walking around your yard (or Sniffspot), changing direction frequently. When your dog catches up to you (at any time), reward with praise and a treat. Don’t use verbal cues or call your dog’s name–the idea is that your dog follows you while simply watching your moves. 

Go On: This simple exercise teaches your dog to keep moving in a straight line (away from you). While you’re walking with your dog, toss a treat in front of them, and say “go on.” (You can substitute a toy for a treat if your dog is more toy-motivated.) 

With these and any training exercise, keep your sessions short and end while it’s still fun. You don’t want to wait until your dog gets bored to end them!

If you want to explore more skills, dog trainer Cheryl May has a long list of agility training skills you can teach at home

Agility courses at home

There are many fun ways to build at-home agility courses for your dog, and it’s a great way to bond with your dog. Remember to take each obstacle slowly and offer lots of praise and treats along the way.

Here are a few ways you can practice agility at home:

  • Keep it super casual by using household objects to create an “agility-inspired” course: use boxes, small chairs, etc to create a fun obstacle course for your dog. Some fun ideas to start with: lay a ladder flat on the ground and guide your dog through it, or take two chairs and lay a broom between them, creating a jump for your dog. (Again, only do this if your dog is the appropriate age and size to clear the hurdle.)
  • Buy agility equipment to use in your backyard. The AKC has a handy list that explains the types of agility equipment you can buy.
  • Take it to the next level by making your home agility equipment fit the regulations of your chosen organization (only necessary if you’re going to eventually compete in trials)

Small dog agility

Don’t worry, your small dog can participate in agility! In fact, most agility venues use the same courses for small and big dogs. The difference is that they will allow a small dog more time (as they need to take more strides than big dogs to cover the same amount of area) and do not expect the same rate of speed as they do from big dogs. 

To practice agility with your small dog in your yard, just be aware of their size, make sure any equipment you buy is adjustable, and adjust accordingly (e.g. lower jump bars and so forth). Affordable Agility has a beginner’s agility bag with lots of adjustable equipment, or you can buy individual pieces like this adjustable weave pole set

If you get more serious about the sport, you may have to do some specialty training with a small dog to teach them how to get through certain parts of the course quickly (again because they need to take more strides than big dogs). Otherwise, small dog agility training is the same as big dog agility training.

The Teacup Dogs Agility Association is a great resource for small dog owners who want to participate in agility. They are an agility club that uses scaled-down equipment, and the distance between obstacles is shorter.

dog pole running

Agility classes

Many dog training organizations offer agility classes. If your dog has passed basic obedience training, you may consider taking one. Active Dog Sports has a good breakdown of agility classes and how much you can expect to pay for them. Google Maps or Yelp are good places to start to find a class in your area.

Online classes

There are even online classes to learn agility! These classes will teach you the basics as well as how to practice in your own backyard. OneMind Dogs and The DaisyPeel are two examples of organizations that offer online agility classes, and there are many more out there.

Finding agility competitions in your area

If your dog takes to their agility training and you want to start looking into competitions in your area, check out Agility Events for upcoming events in your area. You can also find an AKC Agility Course Test (ACT), which is an entry-level agility event designed to test your dog’s skills and welcome you (and your dog) to the sport of agility. These events will also teach you the ins and outs of filling out entry forms, checking in at events and so forth. While they are a test for your dog, they are designed to help you and your dog learn the ins and outs of competing, so don’t think of these as a big deal or a source of stress.

Beyond agility for beginners

If you’ve moved beyond the beginner phase and are looking to take it to the next level, check out the AKC’s guide to agility and Pet Helpful’s guide to finding the right agility instructor for you and your dog. You can also use the AKC’s website to find an agility club in your area.

For more fun outdoor activities to do with your dog, check out our list of free and easy outdoor dog training activities.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Lindy Langum
Founder - K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer - Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), NW School of Canine Studies