Dog agility is a fun activity that can boost the bond between human and canine. The sport, practiced worldwide, has many benefits including creating structure for your pooch and giving working dogs a “job.”  Sound fun? This article will give you a run down of the sport and what to expect as you train and compete.

Dog Agility Basics

Dog agility is a sport that involves a human handler directing a dog through an obstacle course. Course layout and number of obstacles varies. Obstacles generally include standard bar jumps, tire jumps, a dog walk, an A-frame, teeter totter, closed and open tunnels, a pause table and weave poles. Dogs must complete a numbered obstacle course in an allotted amount of time to earn points toward an agility title. Courses are complicated enough so that a dog could not complete them without the guidance of their human, who may use a variety of vocal and body cues to lead their dog through a given course.

How to Get Started in Dog Agility

Before you start agility, you and your dog should pass an advanced obedience class. Your dog, at minimum, should know how to sit, stay and come on command. Even better if they can do all of these things outside and with distractions.

After you’ve passed your obedience classes, you’ll want to find a training facility that offers agility classes nearby. But before you do so, you should make sure your dog is reasonably socialized and polite. In most cases, you will be placed in a class with other dogs who are at a similar skill level. Poorly socialized dogs may be aggressive, fearful or overly exuberant. These dogs are a distraction to the other dogs and can inhibit their ability to learn. They will also impede their own progress by spending their energy focusing on the class’ other dogs and people instead of learning agility.

If your dog is poorly socialized, there is good news. Many dogs can easily overcome these issues with training, socialization and patience. Plus, there are training tools that you can use in class to work on your dog’s skills.

Case study: My oldest dog Daisy is easily distracted because she loves to greet people and other dogs. Agility classes involve a lot of downtime because each dog runs the course or exercise independently while the other dogs wait. In Daisy’s early days of agility training, I worked with her during these down periods rather than allowing her to become distracted and naughty. Treats in hand, I would practice a variety of commands: sit, spin, down, watch and hi-five. This activity proved so successful that a once eternally distracted dog began staring diligently at me, eager to train.

Equipment and Costs

Agility is not free. To get started, you’ll need to pay an instructor to attend classes. As your dog progresses, you’ll begin competing in agility “trials” or competitions. Before you compete in a trial, your dog will need a registration number from the trial’s sanctioning body – North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) and American Kennel Club (AKC) are the most popular. These one-time fees range depending on the organization, but are generally less than $50. Here is an example from ASCA. Once you have a number, you’re ready to compete. Generally speaking, one day of an agility trial can range from $40-$90 per dog and most trials last 2-3 days (although you do not have to participate in all days or events).

And don’t forget equipment. You’ll need an agility lead ($10-$30), a crate (about $20-$150), crate mat (about $15-$30), sun shade structure (about $40-$100), treats and travel water dispensers for trial days. And if you get serious about training, you could spend anywhere from a few bucks to hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars on your own agility equipment like jumps, a dog walk or teeter totter. I’ve personally only spent about $100 on equipment that includes two jumps and two sets of PVC weave poles.

What to Expect at your First Agility Trial

Your first trial can be somewhat nerve-wracking. You may not know a soul, your dog may be spooked by the new environment and course rules may confound you. Don’t worry – this is completely normal. Here are some things you’re bound to experience:

  • It’s going to be a long day with lots of down time. Plan for 8 a.m.-5 p.m. each day. You’ll probably run your dog for about six minutes of that. Make sure to bring toys for your dog, poop bags, water and treats for you and your dog, sunscreen, appropriate clothing and something like a book to entertain yourself.
  • You’ll observe cliques of people who already know each other. Don’t worry, in time you’ll get to know everyone too.
  • You’ll be asked to volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to learn the ropes faster, and you generally get rewarded with lunch.
  • Your dog might not perform the way she does during practice. She’s likely picking up on your nerves or she is not yet adjusted to the new agility environment. If your dog is used to training inside, try picking an indoor venue for your first trial to aid in a smoother transition.  And remember, things will get better with each trial.

Ready for Agility?

If you think your dog is a good fit for agility and you’ve considered the costs and time associated with the sport, good luck! I’ve trained two dogs in agility and can attest to the benefits of the sport – it has aided my very shy dog in gaining confidence and my distracted dog in gaining focus. Participating in dog agility takes a lot of hard work on the part of dog and trainer, but it’s also very rewarding.