What Is Dog Agility Training?

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Dog agility is a type of dog sport that involves competition. During agility, dogs are often required to go through an obstacle course in a set time limit that requires them to jump, crawl through tunnels, weave between poles, and prance on walkways. Even though agility is a competitive sport for professional dogs and their handlers, agility training can benefit all types of dogs. 

Agility training for dogs is a form of exercise for a dog’s mind and body. It will keep them physically in shape and mentally healthy, allowing them to keep boredom at bay while providing them with some much-needed bonding time with their humans. Many pet parents agility train their dogs for fun in their yards, while others compete in hopes of making it through the course the fastest. 

This type of training is different from behavioral training or teaching your dog commands, so it’s best to invest time into obedience training for dogs, basic house training, and command skills before you begin agility training. Also, since the dog and handler must work together to get through the course, you’ll want to start with a dog who has a firm training foundation. In this article, we’ll discuss the benefits of dog agility training and how you and your dog can get started in your backyard or a local park. 

Benefits of dog agility training

Benefits of Dog Agility Training

Dog agility training isn’t just for professional handlers and their canine companions; any dog and their own can benefit from agility training. A few benefits include: 

Bonding

There’s a social aspect to agility training.1 Because dogs work together with their handlers, they’re able to bond. A handler’s job is to provide the dog with instruction to help them properly navigate the course, improving communication between them. Additionally, teaching your dog agility training can reinforce foundational training like basic commands to improve their behavior on and off the course.

Agility training can also be a great socialization opportunity for dogs because they can go to competitions or classes to meet with other dogs and their handlers.1 

Exercise

All dogs, no matter their age or breed, need exercise. Dogs benefit from the exercise part of agility training because it allows them to use their minds to figure out what to do next on the course. Meanwhile, since the objective is to move through the course as quickly as possible, they’ll be burning some calories and improving their overall physical health as well.1 Agility training is both physically and mentally stimulating for dogs and their handlers, and it’s a nice alternative to daily walks. 

Allows dogs to use natural instincts

Dogs are avid hunters, at least in the wild. While domestic dogs don’t get the same type of experiences, they still have an instinct to hunt, which means going through nature’s obstacle courses of woods, forests, and ponds to find their food. Of course, the goal is to catch prey like a rabbit or chipmunk, which dogs don’t get at the end of agility training. However, since dogs want to engage in hunting behavior, agility courses provide a great alternative. 

Is Your Dog Suited for Agility Training?

While all dogs can benefit from agility training, not all of them are well suited for it. Therefore, before you try agility training, assess your dog’s current training levels. For example, your dog might know commands that you’ve worked on in anxiety dog training, they could still be learning dog tricks, or they have learned all the basic commands and listen to you well inside and outdoors. 

Agility training is best suited for dogs who respond to you outside. For example, if your dog knows how to sit once given the command inside, they might not know it outside because being outside can have a lot of distractions, including other animals, people, and smells. 

Your dog should also get along well with other people and dogs, especially if you plan to compete. Additionally, some medical illnesses and disabilities can prevent your dog from doing agility, especially if they have to spend their time resting inside. However, many disabled dogs, including blind and deaf dogs, can benefit from some sort of agility training, and you can create your course based on your dog’s strengths and weaknesses.1

While your dog might be in a great place behavior-wise, you must consider your own availability and interest as well. Agility training takes time and work, so you must work on it regularly. While you don’t have to keep pace with your dog, you do have to ensure you have strong communication skills and your dog listens. In addition, some people may not be suitable handlers for their dogs because they don’t want to spend hours every week going through the course with them. Luckily, agility training doesn’t have to be competitive. Instead, you can slowly train your dog to navigate the course on weekends or in your free time. 

What Dog Owners Should Know About Agility Training

Of course, your dog needs foundational training to begin agility because they’ll need to listen and obey your commands to navigate the course correctly. Once your dog knows the basic commands and can be off-leash, you can begin agility training. Here are a few ways you can begin training your dog. 

1. Start with the basics

Since you and your dog are new to agility training, you might choose to take a class at a local dog training school. Beginner courses can help you learn ways to set up the obstacle course and teach your dog how to navigate it before you try it in your own yard or at the park. During these classes, you’ll learn the basic agility moves, but you can also watch videos online and learn them in the comfort of your own home. 

During competitions or even while playing outside in your yard, your dog will be off-leash, allowing them to run wherever they want. Since dogs can be easily distracted, it’s your job to keep them focused on the course. You can’t touch your dog in agility, so you’ll need to rely on cues and body language to help them navigate the course. Starting with basic commands can help ease your dog into this type of training easily. 

You should also train your dog to move around whether they’re on your left or right side.1 When teaching your dog basic commands or how to walk on a leash, you likely taught them to walk on one side of you, so your dog has learned they must be on one side or the other. However, for agility, your dog must be able to walk and maneuver on both sides of your body.1

Once your dog obeys your commands, whether they’re on one side of you or the other, you can begin teaching them how to navigate basic obstacles without being next to you. Since dogs are faster than humans, you won’t be able to run beside them throughout the entire course, so they’ll need to learn to listen to you from a distance.1

If your dog has learned scent training, you can teach your dog how to listen from a distance by getting them to navigate an obstacle by chasing treats and saying a command your dog can learn.1 Your dog may want to learn about the obstacle course as much as possible before they’re ready to train. Once you have an obstacle set up in your yard, you can let your dog sniff it or use it on their own to learn more about it and get comfortable around it. From there, you can begin teaching them how to use a certain piece of equipment. 

2. Get some equipment

Having equipment is necessary for agility training, whether or not you plan to compete. Even if you take agility courses at a training school, you can continue to practice at home. It will also allow you and your dog to play and bond on weekends or in place of walks. The best piece of equipment for dogs and pet parents new to agility are tunnels, which collapse and can be stored when you’re not using them.2

You can also invest in weave poles your dog can run through. Since the tunnels and poles are easy to set up and remove from your yard when you’re done training, they make a great option for handlers and pets that don’t plan to practice every day. 

You can leave many of these items in your yard if you don’t need the space, allowing your dog to play with them even when you’re not training. However, since agility training for dogs requires multiple obstacles to complete the course, you’ll need tons of equipment once your dog starts learning how each piece is used. Basic agility equipment to consider includes:

  • Jumps: A bar between two stands that require the dog to leap over them. 
  • Tire Jumps: Rings suspended in the air that a dog must jump through. 
  • Tunnels: Long tubes that can be straight or curved, and the dog must run through them. 
  • Weave Poles: Upright poles in the ground that dogs must weave through without missing one. 
  • Seesaws: Similar to seesaws for children, a dog must run on one end and walk down it without falling. 
  • Ramps: Ramps that a dog must walk up then down. 
  • A-frames: Similar to ramps but don’t have a flat middle section. Instead, dogs must walk up one side of the ramp and down the other.1 

You can find at-home agility equipment online in kits that come with pause boxes, tunnels, agility jump hurdles, tire jumps, weave poles, and more. 

Tips for dog agility training

3. Practice

Practice makes perfect when it comes to any type of training, but especially agility dog training. Aim to spend at least fifteen minutes a day practicing with your dog. Of course, depending on your dog’s temperament, you may have to start slow and build up the duration of practices. Remember, dogs can only focus for so long, so consider taking frequent breaks to let your dog expel any energy they have before continuing on. 

When practicing agility training with your dog, always use positive reinforcement in the form of treats and praise, and never get frustrated with or yell at them. You want agility training to be a positive experience. No dog can learn an entire course in a day, so don’t expect your dog to get the hang of agility immediately. 

4. Keep up with vet visits

All types of dogs can enjoy and benefit from agility training. However, they won’t feel like training when they are ill. If you’re using agility training for dogs to help your dog become less anxious and more focused, you should schedule regular follow-ups with a vet behaviorist. These professionals can monitor the dog's progress and provide additional resources that can help you train an anxious dog. 

Dog jumping to catch a frisbee

Final Notes

Agility dog training is a great bonding opportunity for you and your pet. If you don’t plan on competing, you can take some of the pressure off and instead enjoy agility training in your yard. Your dog will benefit from the mental and physical stimulation, promoting overall mental health and wellness. Of course, some illnesses and diseases can prevent your dog from enjoying this type of training. Therefore, you should always ensure your dog is healthy enough to begin agility or any other type of exercise. 

Talking to a Dutch vet can help you determine if your dog is healthy enough to begin training and aid you in solving behavioral problems like anxiety that can benefit from agility. 

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References

  1. Gibeault, Stephanie. “Tips for Getting Started in Dog Agility.” American Kennel Club, 17 May 2021, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/agility-training-tips-competition/.

  2. “Agility: Get Started.” American Kennel Club, 26 Oct. 2017, https://www.akc.org/sports/agility/getting-started/.

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