Dog Agility Training: Is It For You?

Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen somebody training their dog for an agility trial.

In every part of the United States—and in more than 60 countries around the world—owners are training their pups to compete at levels ranging from beginning to pro.

What is Agility?

According to the dictionary, agility means “ability to move quickly and easily.” Taking that into consideration, it’s a logical to conclude that dogs are quite agile—thus enters agility (the dog sport). In agility, dogs jump hurdles, scale ramps, burst through tunnels, traverse across moving see-saws, weave through lines of vertical poles, and crawl on their bellies. Using voice, hand, and body signals, handlers direct dogs through the obstacles in a set order. Each course is designed to test the human’s skills in training, the dog’s natural agility, and the bond between the handler and the dog. Scoring is based on time and the number of faults (similar to the way equestrian show jumping is judged), and it’s an exciting spectator event.

What Kinds of Dogs Compete?

The most common dogs that compete in agility are working breeds. While many people mistakenly believe that you need a purebred Border Collie, energetic Jack Russel, or ultra-focused German Shepherd to enjoy agility, that’s not the case at all. Just ask the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), who boast more than 40,000 members competing with more than 200 breeds of dogs—including mutts! Dogs are sorted into classes based on their experience level, skill, and size (measure by height in inches at the shoulder.)

Dogs need to have a clean bill of health and pass some basic behavior standards to be welcomed into trials, but that’s the only rule. “We see dachshunds, mastiffs, and everything in between,” says one competitor in Olympia, Washington. “I have a Labradoodle who does loves agility. He competes against a lovable mutt named Bagel, who does just as well, or better.”

What Kinds of Handlers Compete?

There’s a wide range of dog handlers, too. Most agility competitors aren’t experts—they’re just loving dog owners who want to get some exercise and have a fun activity to do on the weekends with their dogs. Most take classes from local trainers, and there are a variety of small-scale leagues, clubs, and individually owned courses that can often be rented by the hour. Kids are welcome, as are retirees. Specific training methods vary, but they’re almost all based on positive reinforcement.

Interested in exploring the world of dog agility? Ask if your local dog training organization teaches beginner’s classes, or check with the American Kennel Club for nearby clubs or leagues. There are plenty of books on the subject, and agility equipment (jumps, hoops, teeter-totters, etc.) are available online or DIY. Or simply watch for an agility trial in your area, then go spectate—and ask around for good suggestions about where to start. Just remember: you’re there to have fun!

Meet the Author: Charlotte Austin

Charlotte Austin is a Seattle-based writer and mountain guide. She has climbed, explored, and led expeditions in North and South America, Nepal, Europe, Alaska, and Patagonia. Her writing has been featured in Women's Adventure, Alpinist, Stay Wild, and other national and international publications. When she's not guiding in the Himalayas, she's exploring her hometown (Seattle, Washington), trying new recipes, and hanging out with Huckleberry, her giant black Great Dane-Lab mix. Read more about their adventures at www.charlotteaustin.com.

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