You’ve probably seen the incredibly athletic dogs at Agility competitions, flying over jumps, crawling through tunnels and weaving in and out of poles at breakneck speeds. Maybe you thought this looked like a fun activity to get involved in, but didn’t know if your dog (or you!) could handle the extreme physical and training challenges that Agility presents.
The good news is that the sport of Agility can be enjoyed on many different levels. Even if you never reach the Westminster trials, setting up some jumps and other Agility obstacles in your backyard, and training your dog to negotiate them, can be great fun and provide healthy exercise and a bonding experience for both of you. Here are some pointers on getting started.
Before You Jump In . . .
First, both you and your pup should get a medical checkup. “Agility involves jumping, running and maybe crawling on the part of your dog, and certainly a bit of running and moving around for you as well,” explained Steven Appelbaum, president of the Animal Behavior College, a school that teaches people to become professional dog trainers. “It’s best to check with your doctor and veterinarian before either of you starts a new exercise program.”
Your dog’s age should also be taken into account before starting any Agility activities. Puppies under one year may suffer serious injuries and even permanent joint damage from repetitive jumping. “While serious Agility training usually doesn’t take place until the dog is 12 months, puppies over 4 months can start getting used to walking over the types of surfaces they will encounter in Agility,” said Appelbaum. “You can start by placing a piece of carpet on the ground and encouraging your dog to walk over it to come to you. Give her a (Crazy Dog) Train-Me! Treat when she reaches you. Graduate to wood next. Praise and reward results!”
Your dog should have a good grasp of basic obedience commands — Sit, Lie Down, Stay, Come – before you try to teach her Agility moves. Appelbaum recommends working with a dog trainer in a group obedience class setting, because “this will not only help train the dog to listen around distractions but also assist in socializing the dog, which is another important foundational key” for participation in Agility.
Once your dog has mastered the basics, elevate his game by teaching him fun tricks that will come in handy when tackling an Agility course. These may include: moving to the right or left, backing up, weaving through your legs, perching on an elevated object, crawling through things (i.e. a box turned on its side), and stepping between the rungs of a ladder lying on the ground.
Get On Course
When your dog has her basic commands down pat and maybe even knows a few trick moves (and is at least a year old), she’s ready to be introduced to the elements of an Agility course. Below is a list of obstacles typically found on a basic Agility track — you can start with one or as many of them as you like:
There are many starter Agility kits for sale online. You can also make your own. Most of the obstacles listed above can be created from materials you can buy inexpensively at hardware stores or online or may even already have on hand.
For example, standard jumps can be created with two stacks of cinderblocks (adjusted for your dog’s height) and a strip of plywood placed on top of them. Weave poles can be made by sticking 10 to 15 PVC pipes in the ground, allowing enough space between them for your dog to navigate around each pipe. A plastic collapsible children’s tunnel makes a perfect obstacle for your dog to crawl through. When it comes to making a tire jump, Appelbaum advises, “generally it is better not to use a real tire. The problem with real tires is they are dirty, and dogs wind up with black smudges on them. Use a hula hoop instead.”
Most Of All, Have Fun
Once the obstacles are in place, start helping your dog through the course slowly. Train her to jump over the hurdles, offering plenty of praise and delicious rewards like Crazy Dog Organic Train-Me! Treats. Guide her through the weave poles, walk her over the teeter board and help her crawl through the tunnel. Once your dog is familiar with the obstacles and has mastered the commands associated with each, you can gradually start picking up the pace.
Above all, make it fun for you and your dog. “Keep reasonable expectations,” advises Appelbaum. Not all breeds – or all dogs within a certain breed – are born for Agility. Even if it becomes obvious your pup isn’t going to be the next LeBron James of Agility, the sport can still be “fun and interesting for dogs and their pet parents. Plus, even if you aren’t competitive, it’s great exercise,” noted Appelbaum.
If you do want to take it a step further, there are hundreds of Agility clubs and classes throughout North America where you and your dog can get more formal training. Since many graduates of the Animal Behavior College teach agility, Appelbaum suggests checking out the Find A Trainer page on his group’s website www.animalbehaviorcollege.com.
The American Kennel Club also provides good information on getting started in Agility at: https://www.akc.org/sports/agility/getting-started
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