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CANINE ACTIVITIES: AGILITY
J. L. Gauntt, JLGa...@aol.com
Copyright 1995 by the Author.
Table of Contents
* Basics of Agility
* Breeds Involved
* Health Considerations
Basics of Agility
Dog agility is a sport in which a handler is given a set amount of
time in which to direct a dog off-leash through an obstacle course.
Originally loosely modeled on equestrian stadium jumpers competitions,
the sport has evolved its own additional obstacles, scoring systems
and performance ideals. Agility made its debut as an entertainment for
spectators at the Crufts Dog Show in 1979; it has since become the
most rapidly growing dog sport in England, Western Europe and North
America. Spectators continue today to get caught up watching the dog
and handler's enthusiasm in their athletic race against the clock.
In the United States, there are several national organizations for
agility which sanction tests or trials held by local dog training
clubs. Trials which are based on the original international rules and
specifications call for the highest level of agility from the dogs
both in terms of speed and the physical ability to perform the
obstacles. There are also domestic varieties of the sport that call
for less actual agility (by using lower jump heights and smaller
obstacles) from the dog and focus more on the handling aspects of the
There are several obstacles common to all the different organizations:
Tire or Hoop Jump
Various Types of Jumps
The obstacles used in agility have been designed with both safety and
spectator appeal in mind. All jumps have easily displaceable bars so
that the dog should not experience injury should he misjudge and take
down a jump bar. All obstacles that the dog must physically scale have
'contact' zones painted on the equipment; the contact zones enforce
safe training techniques since handlers know that dogs will be faulted
unless one or more feet are in the contact zones when
ascending/descending these contact obstacles. All contact equipment
surfaces are roughened for good traction in both dry and wet weather.
In competition, the obstacles are arranged in various course
configurations, always unique from trial to trial, that offer levels
of challenges appropriate to the class and experience level of the
dogs competing. The handler must direct their dog around the course in
the sequence that has been predetermined by the judge. At the entry
levels of competitions, courses contain few complications and are more
of a test to prove the dog can competently perform the equipment
within a reasonable amount of time. As the dog and handler earn their
way into successively higher levels, the courses increase in
complexity and begin to require split second timing and coordination
between the handler and dog in order to accomplish the course within
the 'Standard Course Time' (SCT) established by the judge.
The rules are fairly simple; handlers may give an unlimited number of
commands or signals to their dogs, but may not touch either the
equipment or the dog. Dogs are 'faulted' for actions such as taking
down a jump bar, failing to put one or more feet in the safety or
contact zone when ascending/descending contact equipment, taking
obstacles out of sequence, and running past or stopping before the
next obstacle to be performed. Time penalties are additionally
assessed against dogs that exceed the SCT.
Dogs compete only against dogs of similar height at the withers within
a fixed number of jump height divisions. The number of height
divisions and the ranges of dog heights assigned to a height division
(and therefore the difficulty factor) differ considerably from
organization to organization. Regardless of the organization, the dog
with the lowest number of faults and the fastest time wins the class
or height division.
The largest national organizations are as follows:
United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA)
P.O. Box 850955, Richardson, TX 75085-0995
American Kennel Club (AKC)
5580 Centerview Dr., Suite 200, Raleigh, NC 27606-3390
United Kennel Club (UKC)
100 East Kilgore Rd, Kalamazoo, MI 49001-5598
North American Dog Agility Council, Inc. (NADAC)
HCR 2, Box 277, St. Maries, ID 83861
Agility Association of Canada (AAC)
638 Wonderland Road South, London, ONT N6K 1L8
Agility trials are open to all dogs, both purebred and mixed breed
(with the exception of those sanctioned by the AKC, which restricts
trials to AKC-registered dogs only) . Dogs of medium build that come
from breeds and/or lines of breeding that have retained their original
working abilities tend to be the most successful in agility
competitions. However, not only does no one breed dominate agility
trials, outstanding individuals of nearly every breed are seen
performing well both in local and national events.
Because of the athletic requirements of the sport, dogs that are less
agile by nature of conforming to the physical structure typical for
their breed are only rarely seen or successful in the forms of the
sport conforming to international rules (USDAA and AAC). These dogs
can be successful however at the domestic forms requiring less actual
physical agility (AKC, UKC and NADAC). This applies primarily to the
larger, giant breeds and to some extent the short-legged, long backed
Dogs must be at least 6 (UKC) or 12 (AKC) months of age to participate
in trials held under domestic rule variations and at least eighteen
months of age to compete in trials held under international rules
(USDAA, AAC, and NADAC).
Although agility training is best started with a young adult dog, some
agility training can be appropriate for young puppies; this includes
tunnel work, jumps lower than elbow height, and basic control
training. Contact equipment work (i.e. A-frames, Dog Walks, and
See-saws) should be delayed and/or kept very low until the puppy has
developed the necessary physical coordination to negotiate a plank
suspended above the ground.
Serious jumping and weaving work should be put off entirely until the
puppy is much older. Because of the long term negative impact of
jumping and flexing on immature, growing bones, owners are advised to
research their breed thoroughly and only begin intensive agility
training of this type when the dog is past the age at which the
'growth plates' are known to typically close for that breed. A very
imprecise guideline for growth plate closure in mixed breed dogs would
be 9 - 12 months for dogs under 50 pounds and 10-14 months for dogs
over 50 pounds.
Most dogs are able to participate and do well in agility until they
reach 8-10 years of age. Owners should then gradually scale back their
training and competing to obstacle heights and classes more
appropriate to their 'veterans' if they wish to continue at that
Some basic obedience training is necessary before commencing agility
training. At a minimum, the dog must be able to sit, down, promptly
come when called off-leash, hold a brief stay, maintain control around
other dogs, and accept handling by strangers. Off-leash heelwork is a
big plus but not required. In addition, a trainer/handler that has
encouraged their dog from puppyhood to play fetch will have a distinct
training advantage over someone who has not.
Initial agility work begins by introducing the dogs to low and/or
smaller versions of the obstacles. The height and/or length of the
equipment is slowly extended over several training sessions to their
full competition forms. Dogs at this stage of training require
physical 'spotting' similar to gymnastics training while they develop
the necessary skill and confidence on the obstacles. Leashes are
usually quickly dispensed with as they may become entangled on the dog
and/or equipment. Techniques or collars that apply physical
corrections of any type should not be used; they are disruptive to
maintaining balance & physical coordination (and may therefore lead to
injury) and will slow down the dog's opportunity to become physically
and mentally confident in his ability to negotiate the equipment
safely. Physical handling and spotting techniques are often
supplemented with food, praise, and fetch/tug type objects that both
lure and reward the dog to perform the equipment.
Once the basic obstacle work is learned, the dog enters the next phase
of training. During this time, the handler works to gradually
condition the dog to higher jumps and obstacle heights, and to develop
a working 'command vocabulary' of both verbal and body signals
necessary to direct the dog off-leash around an agility course. A
well- trained agility dog learns to respond instantly to commands
directing him to perform specific obstacles (when obstacles are placed
immediately adjacent to one another) as well as commands causing him
to run faster/slower, turn left/right and veer away from/closer to his
handler. At the highest levels of agility competition, it is possible
to see dogs that are able to perform these commands and maneuvers
instantly and accurately even when working at full speed several yards
away from their (much slower) handlers.
Not every dog should be doing agility and may become injured or
aggravate a pre-existing condition if the owner does not perform some
pre-screening before entering the phase of intensive training. The
pre-screening should at a minimum consist of hip, elbow, and eye
Veterinarians should be informed what is planned for the dog and the
dog should be radiographed for both hip & elbow dysplasia. The owner
should reconsider their plans for agility if the dog is rated anything
less than 'Fair'. Unobstructed vision is also critical.
Because agility is a fairly new type of dog competition, it is not
unusual for a veterinarian to be unaware of the requirements for
agility. In this case, it is very helpful for the owner to have
available a short video (2-3 minutes long) of a dog performing the
equipment; this will give the veterinarian an idea of the physical
requirements necessary for the sport. Both the owner and veterinarian
should be particularly sensitive to the dog's weight. What is a good
healthy weight for a pet dog with normal activity expectations may be
too heavy for agility training and competition. Poor performance or
injuries, which can include muscle strains and other soft tissue
injuries, are nearly always due to the 'weekend athlete syndrome' --
i.e. the dog is overweight and/or not conditioned properly.
On-going conditioning separate from the equipment training is vital to
keeping the dog's agility performance high and injury-free. Weight
bearing exercise is the most appropriate; for example walks
interspersed with short sprints condition both the dog and the
handler. Long distance, low to the ground games of ball and/or frisbee
are particularly helpful for building the dog's cardiovascular and/or
muscular capacity. Swimming can also be beneficial for improving
cardiovascular & muscular capacity.
The agility obstacles that require the most conditioning (particularly
for international style agility) are the jumps. In order for a dog to
be able to safely engage in the amount of jumping required for both
agility training and competition, the dog must not only possess the
proper cardiovascular and muscular structure, he must possess the
necessary skeletal structure as well. Skeletal conditioning is
performed slowly over time by spending at least 6-9 months of training
at low jump heights; this minimizes impact to the bones and yet
induces the rather slowly growing bones to thicken and develop the
strength needed at the correct points to withstand the impact of
landing after jumping. These months of low jump training are a good
time for a handler to work on developing the dog's command vocabulary.
Once this conditioning period is accomplished, the jumps can then be
systematically raised in training until the dog's full jump height is
reached and actual competition can be considered.
Some on-going physical maintenance of the dog is necessary as well in
order to prevent injury whether in training or competition. In
particular, nails must be kept trimmed back at all times so that they
do not catch on the equipment or impede the dog's traction. Some
sacrifice in dog appearance must be accepted in those breeds which
have a lot of hair over or about the eyes; this hair must be kept
trimmed or tied back so as not to interfere with the dog's vision.
J. L. Gauntt