Getting Started in Agility: My Dog Can Jump!
July 16th, 2023
By H. K. Krueger, Ph.D.
Agility is one of the most popular dog sports in America these days. I’m lucky enough to teach agility and one of the things people often say is “my dog jumps over everything, he’d be great at agility.” But would he? How do you know if your dog is suited for agility? How do you know if you’re suited for agility?
Most of us get our start in agility with the dog we already have because we want something fun to do with our canine partner. Or maybe it’s obvious our dog needs a job and so we search out something to do. It’s true that some dogs are more suited to agility than others but almost any dog can do some agility. If you’re looking to be competitive on the international circuit you’d best be thinking border collie but if you’re out for fun, or maybe to compete locally, look no closer than the dog in your home to see if they’d be a good agility partner.
Canine Characteristics to Consider:
Agility is a physically demanding sport which means your dog needs to be healthy and sound. They need to have good vision, four legs, be an appropriate weight, and have no physical issues that would be harmed by jumping, running, and tight turns. Nor should they have any chronic pain issues. If there is any doubt whether your dog meets those criteria you should discuss it with your vet.
Dogs of many ages can participate. Young puppies can get started with foundation behaviors but they will not do any real jumping or weaving until at least one year of age or until their growth plates have closed. Older dogs can also participate if they are physically able. The expectations for performance may be modified but you can teach older dogs new tricks!
Does breed matter? Herding breeds often excel but any breed or mixed breed can play agility to some degree. I’ve seen Frenchies running agility although not on a hot day. I’ve seen Afghans and other hounds running agility but only when there was a darn good reason. Some breeds just take more work to get them excited about the game and to keep them motivated. Size does not matter either. Great Danes can do it although they have to crouch a bit to get in a tunnel. Chihuahuas can do it but they have to run to the end of the teeter and surf-it all the way to the ground.
The temperament of the dog may be a factor. If you have a dog that is reactive to people or dogs, they don’t belong in an agility class. Agility tends to be highly arousing which can lead to an environment that is overstimulating for dogs that have reactivity issues. You might consider private lessons where the environment could be more carefully managed. If you have concerns about this, you should discuss it with a certified animal behaviorist. Timid dogs often gain confidence through learning agility but it may take more time and more patience to help them learn and develop. If your dog is highly distractible, like my Gordon Setter, don’t worry. Agility training helps you build a solid connection with your dog and you will learn how to keep them focused and motivated.
Your dog doesn’t need to be an obedience champion before you start agility but it is helpful if you have some basic behaviors trained. A sit, down, stay and recall are good skills to have. However, I’ve had dogs come to train that couldn’t do any of those. I helped them learn how to teach those behaviors and if they went home and worked on it they could still progress. It also helps if your dog is food and toy motivated because those are the main source of rewards and you reward a LOT in agility. But again, toy play can be built and the majority of dogs are food motivated if you have a high enough value treat.
What about you – the human part of the team? Agility develops skills in both handling and training. It’s a dance and you need to learn what to do with your body and how to communicate expectations to your dog all while having lots of fun. It requires patience and the willingness to do consistent training even if it’s only a few minutes a day. No dog ever learned to weave by watching a Youtube video. Nor will your dog learn agility by taking him over equipment on leash with a treat in front of his nose. It takes a long time of persistent and positive training to become proficient but take heart, you’ll be having fun and building the relationship with your partner all along the way.
Physically you don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to participate. Agility does involve running and turning but some handlers can’t run well and they accommodate by teaching their dog more distance skills. I once watched a woman with severe physical limitations who stood in the middle of the agility arena and directed her dog around a course without moving more than a few feet. It was a thing of beauty. I’ve also seen people train their dog from a wheelchair so the possibilities are endless.
If you think you’d like to give it a try, look for positive based agility trainers in your area. Agility is so popular that classes are often full and it may take a while to get started. Ask if you can visit a class without your dog to get a sense of how they work. Or go to an agility trial and watch. You may soon be hooked!