Dog Agility: Why ALL Dog Owners Should Get Involved

Part One:  Getting Started!

It seems like in almost each article that I write, as of late, I brag about all that I have dog in the dog care world in the past twenty five plus years that I have been a dog trainer!  And, apparently this article is going to be no different ha ha ha!

I suppose after 25 years plus of doing anything, you dip your toe into a lot of facets of that “thing”.  I have competed in dog obedience sport, dog agility sport, dog protection sports, dog dock diving sports, dog lure coursing as a sport, dog nose work sport and a lot of random dog sports and things in between.

Running a nonprofit that took adult dogs from shelters and trained then as Service Dogs for people with physical disabilities probably taught me the most about positive reinforcement and intuitive dog training.

We once had to teach one of our Service Dogs to take the winter coat off of his partner, who was in seventh grade, and didn’t want to have to depend on a human’s help for this task.  After some practice we taught him to tug one coat sleeve and then run around to the other coat sleeve to perfect the disrobing.  From there, we taught the dog to pick the coat up, ball up the coat and stuff it into his locker.  This task allowed him much more freedom from relying on humans, and much less judgement from his peers.  His dog was cool!

Why do I bring this up?  Because I think ALL dog owners can enjoy some dog agility together.  AND, it doesn’t require any special or expensive equipment.

That is right, I said it;  “It doesn’t require expensive sports equipment”.

If you do it right, it also doesn’t require a dog training dog agility class.  It just requires some knowledge of the sport and how this dog sport differs from other dog sports.

If, however, you are the exception to the rule or there is a chance that some day you want to compete at a high level in any of the agility organizations; I suggest I specialized dog agility trainer.  You may buy some supplemental equipment, but for the most part they will have the equipment that you need to use and teach you how to use it sequentially so that you can compete to a high level.  Go to a few dog agility trials and see what you think.

Most dog owners don’t want to compete in the sport.  It takes months and months, if not years of consistent and difficult dog training to compete successfully.  But again, most dog owners and dogs and puppies will benefit from a little bit of fun and agility training.

Again, going to an agility trial will spark some interest and may help motivate you to train obedience and training your dog in agility.

Why Agility?

Agility is FUN!!!

I am boring, as a human being and dog trainer.  I think regular dog obedience and basic obedience, intermediate obedience and advanced obedience training; fun!  And, truthfully, if you do it right it is fun.  But most people are easily frustrated by obedience because they focus mostly on the negative, or their pure expectations of what they think dog obedience should look like and less on the actual dog training.  I wrote an article a few years ago how most people want their dogs to go from kindergarten to college, very quickly.  Read the article to make sure you are one that is pushing your dog too hard, too fast.

But, no matter how you cut it, or how you do it; dog agility training is just fun for both you and your dog or your puppy.  Dog walks, jumps or hurdles, pause boxes, weave poles, tunnels and pretty much all agility obstacles are fun for both of you!

It is hard to watch your dog soar over jumps or hurdles and through tunnels, or watch puppies begin to manage a puppy set agility course and not have a god time.

Yes, it can get a little frustrating, but your dog will likely have more fun with this sport because it is fast paced and requires a lot of thought and timing in order to be successful.  But oddly a missed weave pole is handled better by more dog owners than a dog that won’t “heel” when asked.  And, to some degree, I agree, I want my dogs to adhere to obedience but just enjoy agility and all the agility obstacles.

Yes, I competed in dog agility trials through the American Kennel Club, and NADAC (North American Dog Agility Council).  I never trained for USDAA (United States Dog Agility Association, being known as the most difficult competition) or UKC (United Kennel Club) agility competition. But I remember one time my dog took the tunnel about 3 times in a row, and all I could do was laugh!

NADAC is my favorite, has my favorite games, and is the most fun and lenient for all breeds and mixed breeds.  Your dog doesn’t have to be a Border Collie to excel in agility (although Border Collie owners would probably disagree!)  Mixed breeds of all ages and sized can be quite efficient and learn how to play the game or sport of agility.

Other countries and organizations other than the American Kennel Club also have events.  Crufts dogs are well known all over the world for their speed and agility!  Here is a peek at their competition and championships from this year.  Crufts dogs are amazing.

The Big Differences


Puppies can’t participate in dog or puppy agility at full speed or full  height.  Puppies are constantly growing entities and the bigger the breed standard, the longer the puppy should wait until his height and pace is raised to competition level (if at all).  Read this article on how much is too much.

Jumping high jumps is rigid on growing puppy joints.  All this jumping over, and catching themselves hard in the shoulder joint can cause dysplasia later in life. Jump heights should be short and manageable.  Essentially, barely stepping over the jump is enough to teach and positively reinforce a puppy’s jumping behavior.

Running too hard on hard, or stiff surfaces like concrete can also hurt growing puppy joints.  However, some running on soft surfaces like dirt or grass can be fine for puppies.

Consistent acrobatics should be avoided.  Too much weaving or weave poles can affect a dog or especially a growing dog’s (puppy’s) spine.  A study was done years ago, after several well known agility handlers had to retire their dogs due to injuries that were often sustained as growing puppies.   Read this from a veterinarian’s standpoint of dog sports.

Let puppies be puppies and have some puppy behaviors.  Do not put too much stress on his training or his body, especially dog agility or puppy agility training, your children’s sports dictate how often and how much they can train and play (think pitching baseball) until his body is old enough to handle the stress.

Don’t do to your puppy what you wouldn’t do to your kid

You can practice “sit”, “down” “come” and “stay” fairly frequently (within reason).  But puppy agility needs to be approached with some respect.  Too much, or too high might limit your dog’s life and pain management, later in life.

Learn to Give Commands or Cues EARLY

This is probably the biggest distinction that I struggle with in dog agility, because I have been a regular obedience dog trainer!

In dog training, we tell our dogs what they are doing AS they are doing it!  It makes no sense to me to give a command or cue like “down” or “lie down” and then struggle for twenty minutes to try and get the dog to show the behavior.  Science has proven that it is better to get the dog or puppy to show the behavior consistently, through positive reinforcement, capturing, or luring and then to tell him what he is doing (add the cue or command).  This helps to condition him to a behavior he is already comfortable performing.

If you went to China, they aren’t likely to yell at you grab you and force you down into a chair, to show you the language differences in “sit down”.  Instead, they would kindly show you, tell you, and praise you when you successfully accomplish the task and language.

But in dog agility, the dog has to know the sequence of behaviors coming up in order to gear up or slow down for entry.  Usually I have to be telling the dog two to three agility obstacles, hurdles or jumps ahead of time in order for him to even have a  chance at a “clean run”.  Speed determines how quickly and how many commands ahead; you need to command your dog.  If your dog is fast and his speed is quick, you have to work especially hard on YOUR handling (or he may take the tunnel three times in a row).

A clean run, in agility sports is a run with no mistakes and that is under the time requirement per the rules of each agility organization.  Again, USDAA tends to be more strict in time and mistakes than some of the other organizations or kennel clubs.

Again, if you aren’t going to compete in agility sports, or with organization it is not quite as important; but you should still work toward some goals and perfection even if you are simply going to be doing some dog agility at home in your spare time.

Challenging yourself and working on the dynamics of sport agility makes it more fun for both of you.  If it is too easy, it won’t be as fun or nearly as much of a challenge.  I still struggle to keep up with my herding dogs, I wish they went as slow as this Mastiff, sometimes (click  here).   Click the link, trust me, you will enjoy it!

Your Dog has to Learn to Work BOTH Sides

In dog obedience, we consider the dog being on leash on the left side, shoulders parallel with your knee; heel position.

Most people work their dog consistently on one side or another, hopefully the left side, and the dog conditions to be in this “working spot”.

When I get ready to do obedience, both of my dogs to know to get on my left side.  It doesn’t feel natural for them to be on the right side of my body in “heel” or the same area as “heel” is on my left.  This is very natural behavior for a dog, and actually desirable when you do a lot of obedience.  The dog should know where to be in accordance to your body and he is condition, or get used to being there, often.

*Remember, dog obedience (things like leash manners and not pulling you down and injuring you) is more important that dog agility; at the end of the day!  So, if in doubt work on obedience, at least, too.

For help with finding heel, click here (the same can be taught on your right side with “Side” or your preferred command or cue.     Don’t forget to use your leash when teaching.

But, when you begin shaping your dog for agility and agility events, all his entrances are not going to be on one side of your body.  You are going to have to run all over the field and switch your positions, often!  Agility and the sport there of is HARD!  It may be one of “the most difficult” sports or games that you may encounter with your dog.  And, again, that is what makes it fun!  If it was all geared to one side of your body, that would not be a challenge for you or your dog.

My female, Fury, successfully competes in both agility and obedience.

She knows, “Heel” is on my left side and “Side” is on my right side.

She also knows to drop eye contact (for those of you who know how much I love eye contact and focus and a focused heel” when she sees agility equipment or the dock and pool.

Dogs are very, very intelligent.  She can tell by the toy I use what sport we are going to be doing for the day.  I use different toys for different skills.  Tug toys are for protection sports, ball on a string or chuck it ball is for agility training, and retrieve dumbbell is for competition dock diving.

She also know which sport we will be competing in by which collar and leash, or harness she is wearing.  I have never had a problem switching sports, especially with her, I am just consistent with her training (which is essential).

Begin consistently teaching your dog which command or cue means to stay on which side of your body.  Use treats to lure the dog and a clicker to reward your dog for successful completion of said command or cue.  This is going to be very important later with your agility work.

Agility Psychology

There are two forms of belief when it comes to early dog agility training; the first is to work on the obstacles (Dog Walk, A-Frame, Hurdles, Jumps (winged and spread), Tunnel, Shoot, Table, Pause Box, Tire Jump, Weave Poles) etc.  or to teach yourself and your dog some important foot work, hand work, and body directional cues.

Interestingly, I learned both of these styles, so I feel that I have a good handle on which I think is better, overall, for learning.

Foot Work, Hand Work and Body Directional Cues

Let me be the first to admit the hard part, the obstacles and learning each of them is MORE FUN.

Many owners have no desire to learn the basics of correct foot work or hand cuing before starting real agility.  But by not doing so you are putting yourself at a disadvantage.

Your feet are known as the FIRST thing that your dog sees as he exits many of the jumps and obstacles.  If they are pointing in the wrong direction, you are giving your dog the wrong information.

Imagine with me, lying on the ground with your head poking out of the dog tunnel, or coming off of one of the contact obstacles and looking for your “owner” or your person or handler… what would you see first?  As a 12 inch or 24 inch or 28 inch dog, do you think it would be natural to look up; or look for what is in your dog’s line of sight?

Our feet are the first things our dogs see and instinctively begin to follow!  If your feet are pointing the wrong direction (trust me this happens ALL OF THE TIME) your dog is going to be confused and rightfully so!  Check out this video clip.

We must learn to give him the right “tools” in order to be able to run a “clean run” or make a SAFE entry.  There can be a lot of danger to running real agility organizations’ equipment.  One false move on the dog walk and you can have a seriously injured dog!  But not cutting jumps at tight angles can have your dog’s timing off and make him run inefficiently.

Thanks to dog agility training for the photo!

Your information that your feet give to your dog is vital.  So is the information that your hands impart about which direction they need to travel next.  Your hand, closest to the dog and on the side you want the dog to be on, should be up giving directional commands and keeping the attention of the dog.

Your feet and your hands and of course your voice tell the dog if he needs to run in one direction the “Switch” to another.  You also need to learn to keep up with him or teach him how to take cues from a great distance.   This is DIFFICULT by the way!

So, I begin by actually getting some of the footwork down by myself with no dog at my side.  Let me just tell you how long it takes to master traveling in a line with your feet pointed correctly and using the correct hand for information!  It is better to make a ton of mistakes alone, than to make mistakes that will screw up the training for your dog.

Think of this like a “dance” choreographed with your dog.  You don’t want to let your partner down, so you must practice on your own before you come together to work so that the dance can be efficient.

I like to start out with one cone, or chair, or whatever you decide to use.  Eventually I like to use the 55 gallon water storage tanks so that it breaks my dog’s view of me; so that he can get used to that.  But first work with something he can see around.

Imagine your dog on the left side of your body and picture the most effective and efficient way to send him around the cone.  You are going to want to step out with your left foot leading and your left arm and hand.  At first you will want to send your dog back to your same side, so taking a few steps with him and then getting back into position and requesting he be in heel.

I like to use the release word “GO” to get him to get up and start the motion.

Now move your body around the cone in different positions and different degrees and imagine sending the dog from there.  Think about different sending distances, how close is too close and how far is too far for both your dog and for you.  This may change once you add the dog to the scenario but be prepared to move your hands and feet appropriately to help the dog.

In dog agility, we often do what we call a “Switch” where I send the dog around a jump or an obstacle from one side of my body and then turn him and switch directions so that he is on the other side of my body.  This is the most effective way to make turns in dog agility.  There is a wonderful video that will help.  Most dogs need to learn direct foot work and turns like mentioned above and then the “Switch” before you expect to use “Back” and drive them away from you.

These are great, fun skills that will help you pass hours of time and training and get you ready for the second phase;  Obstacles!  Stay tuned for that upcoming article!  Training your dog has never been so fun!

We are here to assist you in having a delightful summer with your dog, learning and bonding and both of you being mentally stimulated!

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