April 24, 2023
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Agility is an increasingly popular dog sport, especially in the United States. Once the star of national and worldwide canine competitions, agility is now more accessible than ever to everyday pet parents who are looking for a fun activity to share with their furry best friends!
But what is agility, exactly? How do competitions work — and do you have to compete in order to get value from the sport? What do you need to know before you get started?
We’ve put together a comprehensive beginner’s guide to entering the agility world. Read on, grab your running shoes, and find out if the sport is right for you and your dog!
Agility is a collaborative dog sport where dogs and owners participate together as a team. At its simplest, agility is a fun (and challenging!) obstacle course. Dogs run the course as quickly as they can, guided all the while by their handler who trots alongside them to provide direction, encouragement, and support.
Agility courses can vary: They may involve tunnels, weave poles, seesaws, A-frames, hoops, hurdles, and other obstacles. Many pet parents and their dogs also enjoy DIY agility courses which can be made from almost anything, including natural obstacles you find in your yard or at the local park. (More on that later.)
Agility training came onto the scene in England in 1978. In 1980, the United Kingdom Kennel Club created the first official rules of the sport. That wasn’t even fifty years ago!
Peter Lewis, an agility enthusiast from the very beginning, was the first person to suggest that the sport be judged. He devised a system for scoring and formed a national agility club in 1983, which further refined the rules and obstacle requirements.
From there, agility spread quickly to other countries as a fun, high energy dog sport. In 1986, the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) was formed — and other dog agility organizations soon followed. The American Kennel Club held their first agility trial in 1994. Today, hundreds of agility trials take place every year, ranging from massive structured events to casual local fun runs.
A “sanctioned trial” is a dog agility competition put on by an organized dog club that works under the sanctioning of organizations like the AKC or USDAA (United States Dog Agility Association). The overseeing agility 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. Most agility trial courses have 14-20 obstacles like jumps, weave poles, tunnels, seesaws, and more! You will help direct your dog through which obstacle to take next by giving verbal or visual signals — but you may not touch them in any way during the competition. At the end, your dog will be given a score based on how many “faults” they had in their performance (such as hesitating or skipping an obstacle) along with their time to complete their run.
Different agility organizations will often have a few types of trials available. The AKC, for example, has three types of agility trials:
Other agility organizations offer varying types of trials, so it’s a good idea to research them within whatever organization you’re most interested in. Note that some organizations are strict about purebreds while others allow mixed breed dogs. Make sure you find an organization that will suit you and your best friend!
An agility trial is stricter (and usually more expensive to enter) than a “match.” A fun match is an informal way to enjoy agility with looser rules and a less restrictive entry fee. These events are generally focused on enjoyment and community rather than fierce competition. Many people participate in both agility matches and trials, using the former as casual, inexpensive environments to practice more for the latter.
Dogs receive both physical and mental stimulation from agility. Agility courses provide physical exercise — there is a lot of running and maneuvering involved! — as well as the mental challenge of figuring out how to get under, over, around, and through the obstacles on the course.
Enrichment like agility and other dog sports (flyball is growing in popularity, too) can be especially beneficial for high energy dogs. Some dog owners even find that agility helps improve behavioral problems by giving their pets a consistent outlet and helping to build long-term confidence. Agility can also be a way to refine your dog’s off-leash skills and ability to focus on you in the face of distractions.
In addition, agility benefits the participating human.
Before you start agility training, take these things into consideration.
As mentioned above, agility is a workout for people as well as dogs! You will most likely be trotting (or sometimes even sprinting) 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 want to compete in trials or practice in larger agility spaces that require lots of running). You might need to start a new workout routine to build up to it.
Your dog might need a new workout regimen before succeeding at agility, too.I t’s best to schedule an appointment with your vet before beginning agility. Canines are notoriously stoic and good at hiding their discomfort — make sure your dog doesn’t have any physical ailments or pain that would get in the way of enjoying a physical dog sport.
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.
You can read more in our complete guide to dog exercise.
There are no breed restrictions in agility. Anyone can participate, depending on the overseeing organization! That said, some dogs tend to thrive in this dog sport more than others — herding and working breeds in particular. High energy pets with lots of biddability are a particularly great choice for agility.
Don’t let those generalizations make you feel like your dog can’t enjoy the sport if they don’t fit that description, though. As long as you’re both up to the task physically and willing to put in the work, give it a go!
Depending on the level of participation you’re aiming for, agility can be a significant time commitment.
Dog sport participation is flexible, though. Don’t worry about this if you are simply aiming for some fun agility-inspired backyard activities. That’s a perfectly valid way to enjoy the activity without having it dictate your schedule.
Agility might cost you money depending on how involved you want to be.
There are several different options for agility training. It all depends on how serious you want to get about the sport!
If you’re a beginner just looking to get your feet (and paws) wet as you start to learn the ropes, you don’t need to worry about trials and competitions right away. For now, try out some agility exercises at home (or at a private Sniffspot) and see how your dog does with them.
There are many agility training exercises you can do at home. Try starting with these:
This is an important skill in any setting — but especially in agility.
Have treats with you and call your dog’s name from just a few steps away. When they give you their attention and start to move towards you, reward them with a treat and then give a “release” cue (such as “free” or “okay”). Work up to them coming to you from a greater distance. You can do this randomly throughout the day as well as in more concentrated sessions!
Important tip: Make sure that when your dog comes to you, it doesn’t always mean an end to their fun. For example, you can do this when your dog is playing in the yard — then make sure you release them to go play some more after you are done! You want your dog to have positive associations with coming when called.
You can learn more about recall in our longer article here.
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 learns to follow you while simply watching you move about. You might consider giving a general start and stop cue to make it clear to your dog when reinforcement is available and when it isn’t, though, so you don’t confuse them by sometimes rewarding focus and other times encouraging them to sniff and explore their environment.
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.)
If you want to explore more skills, dog trainer Cheryl May has a long list of agility training skills you can teach at home.
With 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 — you want to keep them asking for more!
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 in your own space.
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, do the same as what we’ve outlined above — just be extra aware of their size and make sure any equipment you buy is adjusted accordingly. (For example, lower your jump bars.) 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.
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 and Yelp are also good places to start to find a class in your area, along with the Sniffspot best trainer guides in your community.
Virtual training courses are growing in popularity among pet parents everywhere, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It might sound strange at first — but you can learn a lot from video calling with a trainer in the comfort of your own home! These agility classes will teach you the basics as well as how to practice in your backyard.
OneMind Dogs and The DaisyPeel are two examples of organizations that offer online agility classes, and there are many more out there.
If virtual courses aren’t your thing, you can also reach out to local trainers to find a traditional in-person environment to learn agility basics. This can be an especially great option if you want to compete and need precise feedback.
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.
As an added bonus, these events teach you the ins and outs of filling out entry forms, checking in at events, and so on. While they are a test for your dog, they are designed to help you and your dog learn the general environment of competing. Don’t think of them as a big source of stress but rather as a great exposure opportunity!
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!
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.
These are the trainers that reviewed this article:
Founder - K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer - Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), NW School of Canine Studies
Brittany L. Fulton, CTC
Founder and Trainer, Dances with Dogs, Silver Spring, MD, www.dancesdogs.com - Certified in Training and Counseling (CTC), The Academy for Dog Trainers
April 24, 2023
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