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Dog Agility

July 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Dog Activities and Training

If both you and your dog have a bit of athletic ability, agility may be just the sport you are looking for to allow you to bond with your dog while getting some exercise.  You must be prepared for the fact that you will get as good of a workout as you are giving your dog, so make sure you are fit enough to participate before you get started.

The basics of dog agility

An agility course for dogs is fairly similar to the obstacle course you ran when you were younger.  Dogs go through weave poles, ride a teeter-totter, climb an A-frame, and run through tunnels, with the handler leading the way so they get all of the elements in the correct order.  No, the handlers don’t have to go through the obstacles, but they do have to lead the dog to the start and be waiting at the end of each apparatus to show them where to go next.  Handlers are not allowed to touch the dog or the apparatus, and they are not allowed to use food or toys to entice the dog to perform.

What makes agility so challenging for both the dog and the handler is that no two courses are the same.  The judge gets to choose the course layout for each competition, and the obstacles are numbered in the order in which they are to be completed.  Dogs are judged on both speed and accuracy.  When the judge lays out the course, he or she calculates a Standard Course Time or SCT.  For every second over the SCT, the team incurs a time fault point.  In addition, the team can accumulate course fault points by going through obstacles in the wrong order or by knocking down a bar by not completely clearing a jump or by skipping a weave pole.

Fault points are added to the dog’s time to come up with a score, and the dog with the lowest total score wins.

Obstacles for Dog Agility

Although the judge can lay out the course in any order, the obstacles used are standard and fall into four categories:  contact obstacles, tunnels, jumps, and miscellaneous.

Contact obstacles generally have one section painted a different color than the rest, which indicates sections of the obstacle where the dog’s feet must touch.  For example, a teeter-totter usually has both ends painted in a contrasting color to the rest of the board.  At least one of the dog’s feet must touch in each painted area to avoid a fault.  The point is that the dog must traverse the entire board, not simply the middle section.

In addition to the teeter-totter, contact obstacles include the A-frame and the dog walk.  The A-frame consists of two boards set up with a peak in the middle.  The dog must climb one side and run down the other.  The dog walk is a horizontal plank with gently sloping planks leading up to it.  The dog runs up one of the sloping planks, across the horizontal plank, and down the other sloping plank.  The A-frame and the dog walk both have slats to assist the dog in keeping his footing.

Dog exiting an agility tunnel

Tunnels may be rigid or collapsible and come in varying lengths.  A rigid tunnel is basically a large PVC pipe that a dog runs through.  A collapsible tunnel is made of material that collapses flat.  As the dog runs through the tunnel, he or she must push the tunnel open.  A collapsible tunnel is usually attached to the end of a rigid tunnel, such that the dog runs through the rigid tunnel and then enters the collapsible portion.

A variety of styles exist for jumps, also known as hurdles.  The simplest jump is a panel jump, where one or several slats are supported between two stanchions.  The slats can be stacked to allow for dogs of differing heights.  Very similar to the panel jump is the hurdle that uses bars in place of the slats.  Using bars allows the introduction of a spread jump, where two or three bars are used, but they are not stacked on top of each other.  Rather, they are spread out so that the dog must jump a horizontal distance as well as a vertical distance.  The bars may be at the same height or they may ascend.

A broad jump is constructed of four or five planks placed close to the ground that the dog must jump completely over without touching any of the planks.  A round hoop may also used as a jump obstacle, known as a tire jump, whereby the dog must jump through the donut hole in the middle of the ring.

Miscellaneous obstacles include the pause table, pause box, and weave poles.  The pause table is an elevated table, where the handler has the dog jump up onto the table and either sit or lie down.  Once the dog is settled, the judge will begin counting out a number of seconds.  The dog may not jump off of the table until the requisite number of seconds has passed.  The pause box is a similar obstacle, only a box is taped off on the floor of the ring, eliminating the requirement of the dog jumping on and off of the table.

Weave poles can be thought of as doggie slalom.  3-foot poles are placed about twenty inches apart.  The dog must enter the obstacle with the first pole on his or her left and weave through each opening in the poles.  Skipping a pole, even if the dog goes back and picks it up, results in a fault.  Courses may include anywhere from five to twenty weave poles in a sequence.

Sanctioning Bodies for Dog Agility

In North America, there are four major sanctioning bodies for dog agility.  Each has slightly different rules, qualifications, and fault scoring systems, but all use basically the same obstacles.

dog running down bridge in agility competition

Starting in dog agility

You can start your dog in agility at any age, although dogs younger than one year should be trained cautiously to prevent damage to their developing joints.  The bigger the dog breed, the greater the probability of damage and the more care that must be taken, such as be using lower obstacle heights and simpler courses.

Some dogs are very confident and attack each obstacle with great enthusiasm the very first time.  These dogs must be trained carefully to make sure they don’t become overly confident and sloppy.  Dogs who rush through an agility course are apt to miss the contact points on contact obstacles or to skip weave poles in their exuberance.

Other dogs are scared to even get started, and must be shown how much fun the course is before they will be willing to participate.  The collapsible tunnel often creates the biggest challenge; however, the dog’s confidence will improve if the handler uses positive training with praise and rewards to coax the dog through the scary parts.

Specific training varies according to the obstacle, but there are some general principles which apply to all.  First,make sure your dog is in top physical condition and has a good basis in obedience training.  Your dog should be able to run at full speed for at least one minute in order to complete a course, and it goes without saying that the dog must obey your commands in order to get through a course in the proper order.

Break each task down into smaller steps.  No dog is going to immediately understand what you want him or her to do with the weave poles.  You might start with just one pole set up and teach the dog that the pole must always be on his or her left.  Then set up two poles and have the dog go to the right of the first pole and through the opening between the poles.  Then add a third pole so the dog learns he must then turn back and go through the next opening from the opposite side.  Keep adding poles as the dog gets more comfortable.  Once the dog has the general idea, you will start going for speed, encouraging the dog to keep his or her body close to the poles while running at top speed.

Use lower heights at the start of training.  Dogs become more uncomfortable the higher they are off the ground and the more the obstacle moves, so begin with a teeter totter that is laying flat on the ground.  Have the dog practice moving across the plank without moving off the sides.  Make sure the dog touches the contact zones at both ends.  Then raise the teeter totter just slightly so that the dog is never more than a few inches off of the ground.  As the dog becomes more confident, raise the fulcrum point until the dog is able to complete the exercise at standard height.

Use obstacles that are less intimidating to start out.  For example, if you convince a dog to go through a rigid tunnel first, he or she may be more willing to go through a collapsible tunnel later on.

Consider joining an agility club near you so you can benefit from the experience of veteran trainers and can use their equipment for training.  Another advantage to training at a club is that there are built-in distractions because the other members will be around while you are training.  While your dog might learn faster without these distractions, he or she may fall apart in competitions because of the crowd.

Agility is a wonderfully active sport for any dog, but it takes a lot of patience and consistent training to be successful.

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