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Agility: an Exciting Dog Sport

By: Dr. Ilana Reisner

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Agility is a relatively new dog sport, first introduced at the Crufts Dog Show in England in 1979. Based on equestrian jumping competitions, it is a timed obstacle course through which each dog races under the guidance of a handler.

The sport is growing in popularity because of its many benefits – not the least of which is the sheer fun of the competition. In addition to providing vigorous exercise for both dog and handler, it encourages positive training techniques. Perhaps most important, agility training increases self-confidence and is useful as a therapeutic tool for insecure or fearful dogs.

Agility Equipment

The obstacle course consists of a standard set of equipment, varying in complexity and order. Equipment includes two tunnels, a seesaw, weave poles, a variety of jumps, a pause table, and several "contact obstacles." In competition, dogs and their handlers maneuver through a series of obstacles; the winner is the dog that completes this obstacle course fastest, with the fewest errors.

Dogs of different sizes (categorized by height) are given appropriately sized jumps, which have easily displaced bars in case the dog misjudges while leaping over the obstacle. Because handlers must be sure dogs place at least one foot on them, the yellow-painted "contact zones" of scaling equipment ensure that dogs are well-balanced as they run on or off. Further, all contact surfaces are designed to provide good traction in all kinds of weather.

Contact obstacles include:

  • An A-Frame. Competitors must run up one side and down the other.
  • The Dog Walk. Animals must ascend, walk along a narrow platform and descend at the other end.
  • The See-Saw. Dogs must balance as they cross from one end to the other of a contraption that looks like a children's seesaw.
  • Two horizontal tunnels. Dogs must run through an enclosed, narrow space.
  • Jumps. These include bar-type obstacles and a tire jump.
  • Weave poles. These are a series of poles set into the ground. The dog must enter to the right of the first pole and quickly zigzag his way through them without missing any poles.
  • The pause table or box. Here the dog must jump up, lie down and stay for 5 seconds until verbally released by the handler to continue his run.

    Clearly, such an obstacle course requires excellent leash control and some prior obedience training.

    The Competition

    The sequence and arrangement of obstacles varies with each competition. The judge establishes a "Standard Course Time" (SCT) for each competition, within which the course must be completed. The challenges of each agility configuration are appropriate to the size and experience level of the competing dogs.

    During the run, handlers are permitted to issue an unlimited number of verbal or body signals to their dogs, without touching either dogs or equipment. Penalties are scored if a dog misjudges a jump (knocking down a bar), misses the painted contact zones while jumping on or off equipment or skips or breaks the sequence of obstacles. A dog will also be penalized for exceeding the SCT.

    Which Dogs Can Compete?

    Agility trials welcome both purebred and mixed-breed dogs (trials sanctioned by the American Kennel Club are restricted to AKC-registered breeds only). Because equipment is adjusted to varying heights, dogs of all sizes can compete. There's some competitive disadvantage for the slower giant breeds and for breeds such as dachshunds; however, dogs of all sizes and shapes can have lots of fun in the process.

    Although agility competition is limited to adult dogs, puppies can and should start training at an early age. Puppy courses are designed with safety in mind, with low jumps and contact obstacles. Complex tasks such as weaving - and higher jumps - should be delayed until your puppy is older. Because basic obedience skills are needed in agility training, puppies and dogs should first learn the sit, down, stay and come commands.

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