In the Beginning
The sport originated in England nearly 30 years ago as half-time entertainment at the prestigious Crufts Dog Show. John Varley, a member of the show committee, approached veteran dog trainer Peter Meanwell about creating a dog jumping competition, loosely based on horse show jumping. The demonstration proved so popular that Crufts asked the participants back, and agility was born. Agility aficionados can now be found around the world, from Argentina to Yugoslavia.
In 1985, Ken Tatsch was a CPA in private practice when he went to Crufts and saw agility for the first time. The following year, he founded the United States Dog Agility Association, Inc. (USDAA). Today, it is an international organization and boasts more than 25,000 registered competitors and more than 200 different breeds of dogs, including mixed breeds.
About the time Tatsch was organizing USDAA, fellow agility pioneer Charles “Bud” Kramer founded the National Club of Dog Agility, which was later adopted by the United Kennel Club (UKC). New venues soon followed suit, including the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), which promotes safety, and Canine Performance Events (CPE), for the more casual agility competitor. The Teacup Dogs Agility Association (TDAA) features scaled-down agility equipment for dogs measuring 16.5 inches and under at the withers. TDAA founder Bud Houston of Ostrander, Ohio, also created Just For Fun (JFF), which offers team play over the course of eight weeks, much like bowling leagues.
A Venue for Every Dog
Truly, there is a venue for every dog, no matter the breed, size or age. If your dog is social, physically fit and likes to learn, he will most likely enjoy agility, whether you choose to play at a trial or just in your backyard. Older dogs or certain breeds that might normally be characterized as couch potatoes come to life when given extra attention and mental and physical stimulation. However, if your dog is aggressive toward people or dogs, learning the sport will cause more stress for you and your dog and lead to problems later on. The safety of other people and their dogs is paramount. (Which is not to say that the dog can’t eventually overcome them and one day enjoy agility. Just find a good dog behaviorist and work through those issues before signing up for an agility class.)
Monica Percival, owner of Clean Run Productions LLC, and managing editor of Clean Run, a magazine devoted to agility, encourages prospective students to check out classes first before signing up. “Unfortunately, there aren’t enough quality trainers,” says Percival. “A lot of trainers just hang out their shingle because they saw it on TV or have an obedience school and agility pulls in a lot more money for training schools, so it’s very popular. I have seen some horrific things, like equipment that’s not safe.” Clean Run maintains an agility instructor/school directory on its website, www.cleanrun.com, which is a good starting point. (For more guidance on choosing a class, see “How to Choose an Agility Class.”)
Elise Paffrath of Vermont, founded her magazine, Dog & Handler, to emphasize that mixed breeds and shelter adoptees can excel in dog sports, too, if given the chance. As part of that mission, she only covers sports that are open to all dogs. Her own dogs—mixed-breed Scout and rescue Border Collie Spryte—are highly accomplished in agility. Inspired by her first agility dog, a mixed-breed named Breeze, Paffrath opened a full-time agility training business, Breeze Through Agility, and serves as a USDAA judge.
Staying the Course
The obstacles on the course vary depending on the organization in which you compete. The UKC features some unusual obstacles, such as the sway-back bridge, which is a small slatted bridge suspended between two support walls; ramps at either end allow the dog to enter and exit. Most venues require the same basic equipment, however: contact obstacles, jumps, tunnels and weave poles. “Contact obstacles” are any piece of equipment that has contact zones, which are painted yellow. The dog must touch the contact zone with at least one paw; depending on the class level and venue, if no contact is made, the team’s performance could be faulted or disqualified.