• Sharon Savage, M.S.

Agility: The Fun Way to an Obedient Dog.


The Well-Tempered Pet, Madison Pet Gazette, August 1998

By Sharon Savage, M.S.

Bored with military-style heeling drills? Pooch too peppy to bear a three-minute "down stay"? The best "obedience class" might be an agility class instead!

"Agility, " or obstacle course negotiation, originated in England in the late 1970's as a clock-beating, competitive dog sport. Until recently, it was a hobby engaged in mainly by obedience enthusiasts. But many pet owners are now discovering what these competitive types found out early on: agility training is a super way to teach your dog to pay attention to your commands.

Since dogs find the obstacles fun and exciting, motivation is a cinch. And, on the agility course, your dog views you as his leader in a sort of dance-style partnership. If he wants to move on to the next, even more, exciting obstacle, he has to look to you to tell him how to get there.

An agility training course will usually have 15-30 different types of obstacles, including jumps, tunnels, and "contact" obstacles. Agility jumps may resemble tires, windows, bars, panels, or stacked logs. Some have fancy names, like the "double over" or "wishing well" jumps. There are also broad jumps where dogs jump for length, instead of height. There are tunnels for dogs to run through or crawl under, and even tunnels of collapsed fabric that they must push their way through. Contact obstacles, like the A-frame, teeter-totter, and dog walk, require dogs to touch painted contact zones when entering and exiting.

If this description sounds a lot like Discovery Zone, you've got the picture. Agility courses are really thinly-disguised doggy amusement parks! With their infectious appeal, pet agility classes have recently begun springing up nationwide.

The size of your dog doesn't matter a bit because properly-made agility obstacles are adjustable to fit any dog's physique--from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane. In fact, I once taught a class made up entirely of Dachshunds and Corgis! Although more experienced agility dogs are usually trim and athletic, beginning level "couch potatoes" can do just fine, provided that jump heights are kept low. In most beginner classes, dogs are handled on-leash, and owners traverse the course at a mere walk.

What sorts of dogs benefit from learning agility? As far as I know, all of them! You know how parents often enrol their kids in karate--not for the activity itself, but to learn self-respect, trust, and concentration? I have found agility classes to be the canine equivalent. Shy dogs increase hugely in confidence as they conquer each new obstacle. Independent dogs finally have a reason to pay attention to their owners. Dogs so nervous they would not ordinarily accept a hot dog from a stranger will eagerly negotiate a sequence of obstacles to earn a Cheerio from one. And dogs that have had traumatic encounters with other dogs often finally overcome their negative impressions once they associate strange dogs with the appearance of…agility obstacles!

My own agility experience began back in 1989, just three years after agility was first performed in the U.S. Back then, I would drive two hours to practice with a small group of agility pioneers in a backyard. Our rickety equipment was made entirely out of loose boards and cinder blocks. In those days, rules changed so fast that local competitions would sometimes invent new obstacles or new rules on the spot. For instance, at one event, the judge insisted that dogs run the whole course with a tennis ball in their mouths (I'm proud to say, my Dagger won that event handily!). Today, agility equipment and rules are standardized, and obstacles are safe and sturdy If you'd like to explore your competitive edge, agility can be a great place to begin. I've found successful competition to be possible after just 5-10 hours of agility training. By contrast, competition-level obedience training can take years.

There are several governing bodies, emphasizing varying aspects of agility through the use of different rules and different types of obstacles. USDAA, for example, emphasizes speed and high jumping ability but is less demanding in numbers of obstacles a dog must learn. On the other hand, UKC has low jump heights but stresses precise work on a large variety of obstacles. Neither requires a competing dog to be purebred or titled. Whatever your dog's personality, he or she will likely adore the thrill of agility training. So next time you're thinking that you and your pup need to get out more, consider enrolling in an agility class!If you'd like to explore your competitive edge, agility can be a great place to begin. I've found successful competition to be possible after just 5-10 hours of agility training. By contrast, competition-level obedience training can take years.

There are several governing bodies, emphasizing varying aspects of agility through the use of different rules and different types of obstacles. USDAA, for example, emphasizes speed and high jumping ability but is less demanding in numbers of obstacles a dog must learn. On the other hand, UKC has low jump heights but stresses precise work on a large variety of obstacles. Neither requires a competing dog to be purebred or titled. Whatever your dog's personality, he or she will likely adore the thrill of agility training. So next time you're thinking that you and your pup need to get out more, consider enrolling in an agility class!

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