The covered dirt arena is teeming with dogs of all shapes, sizes and colors. In the bleachers, you see small gatherings of friends, family and curious onlookers. You close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize your strategy as you and your dog wait for your turn in the ring.
The constant buzz of dogs yipping, handlers yapping and spectators oohing and aahing fades away as you open your eyes and refocus on your teammate. Her eyes gleam with excitement and she does a little play-bow at your feet. The gate steward gestures for you to enter the course as the team ahead of you races toward the finish.
You walk to the start line, ask your dog to sit and stay, then remove her leash. The judge signals that he is ready. You walk out past the first two bar jumps and turn and look back at your dog, who is quivering with anticipation. Your eyes meet and calmly, you say, “Okay.” She bounds over the jumps to you and together you dance among tunnels, weave poles, the towering A-frame, the teeter, the raised dog walk and many jumps in between. In 60 seconds or less, you experience the climactic thrill of agility: being one with your dog.
Navigating the Course
The sport at its most basic requires you and your dog to successfully navigate a course of 16 to 20 obstacles under the SCT (standard course time), which is determined by the yardage of the course and the jump height of the dog. Beginner levels, such as “Novice” in North American Dog Agility Council, or “Starters” in United States Dog Agility Association, present fewer obstacles and a simple flow around the course.
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As you progress from one level to the next, you will face more obstacles, tougher SCTs and complex courses that require more handling strategy on your part. You will be timed either manually or electronically. Each competitive venue has a different method of scoring based on “faults,” such as knocking a bar on a jump, missing contact zone or going over time.
If you and your dog run the course cleanly, without a single mistake, you earn a “Q” or qualifying run. (At beginner levels, you are mercifully allowed a few faults). These “Qs” add up to titles, whose value are determined by the team that earned them. For top competitors, top performances and titles can lead to a berth in an invitation-only national or international event. For average participants, titles are concrete proof of the time and effort you and your dog put into becoming a team. For people with rescue dogs who had to overcome issues to play the game, titles are a badge of courage.
Sport Shifts Perceptions
Introducing my rescue Dalmatian, Darby, to agility changed our lives. As a puppy and adolescent, Darby seemed to me to be a bossy, destructive diva who worshipped my husband and ignored me. In agility class, her intelligence and athleticism came to the fore, and for the first time, I realized how little I understood her. She had been a difficult dog to raise, always pushing the limits and constantly on the move. Though it wasn’t her fault, a chronic bladder problem that no vet could solve only added to my frustration. Climbing contact obstacles and jumping helped strengthen her muscles and Darby no longer has mishaps.
Most importantly, agility gave us a relationship where none existed before. The dog who used to shrug off my touch and run in the opposite direction when I called now cuddles with me on the couch. The spark in her eye when she looks at me at class or on the start line at a trial makes me insanely happy. We are a team.
“Doing agility is a relationship-builder,” says instructor Barb Scalise, who owns Canine Care, Inc., in Bartlett, Illinois. “The journey as you both learn is just amazing.” She has trained in agility a variety of breeds, most of whom were adopted from rescue organizations. Years ago, she started with her first dog, a Dalmatian, followed by a Greyhound. Currently, she competes with a Pointer, a Vizsla and two Labs. Her oldest Lab, Mocha, is a 12-year-old rescue who twice earned the American Kennel Club’s top agility title, MACH (Master Agility Champion), and continues to actively compete.
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.
A course that includes all of these obstacles is considered a “standard” or “regular” course. AKC offers a JWW (Jumpers with Weaves) class that only features jumps, tunnels and weaves, so it is very fast. NADAC’s “Jumpers” class is only jumps. USDAA offers fun strategy games like “Gamblers” and “Snooker” and pair relays. All courses are designed by a judge, and no matter how many trials you attend, you will never see the same course twice, even if you show under the same judge.
The judge’s role goes beyond course design. “Once the judge gets to the show, she must make sure that the course is set up correctly, and then she judges any faults incurred during the run,” says Elise Paffrath. “The judge is an observer, which is exhausting. In addition to travel [to the show site by car or plane], you’re on your feet all day, you have to keep things moving and there can be conflicts.”
Before your run, you have two ways to prepare your handling strategy. First, you can look at the course map, which shows you the location of each obstacle and how they are numbered. Second, you get a “walk-though” in which you and your fellow competitors walk the course. Sometimes it will differ slightly from what you read on the course map, so this is the time to review and/or rethink your strategy and memorize the course. Rather than try to remember it by number, it’s best to think of it in terms of obstacle sequences, such as “jump-jump-A-frame” to “tire-table-seesaw” and so on. (For more details about competition and the differences between venues, invest in a copy of Clean Run Production’s Competing in Agility: Entering Trials and What To Do When You Get There, by Cindy Buckholt. You can also check out the websites of each organization for rules, registration questions and more; see “Resources.”).
Old Dogs, New Tricks
Teaching a dog to do the obstacles is relatively easy and fun, though it should always be done under supervision. With expert instruction, positive training methods and patience, any healthy dog can learn how to do obstacles in three to four months.
Some pieces of equipment require more time and effort than others. For example, teaching the teeter-totter is a step-by-step process. First, encourage your dog to get used to movement under his feet by walking on a square wobble board on top of a small ball. Second, teach your dog rear-end awareness by walking him through the rungs of a horizontal mini-ladder on the ground—most dogs do not need to think about the position of their back legs, as they normally just follow the front legs. Third, slowly lead your dog across a long, narrow board flat on the ground so that all four paws walk the plank. You can raise the height of this board gradually as the dog’s confidence grows.
While your dog is learning the obstacles, your job is to learn handling skills so you can guide her from one obstacle to another. When you’re learning a new handling maneuver, it’s best to practice running without your dog and imagine her moving with you. That way, you can make many mistakes without punishing your dog with constant repetition.
“There is an art to handling,” says Bud Houston, who is a retired AKC judge and currently judges for USDAA and the Teacup Dogs Agility Association when not teaching with his wife at Dogwood Training Center in Ohio. “The [team aspect] is one of the overlooked elements of our game. Some people consider the dog to be 95 percent of the team. When you bring a young dog into the house, within months, the dog understands how you move. The same ‘laws of motion’ are applicable to agility. You must interpret how your dog interprets your movement. A lot of dogs do what I call ‘compensatory learning.’ Even though you might err in your movement, the dog is clever enough to figure out what you want of him.”
In general, our body language overrules verbal commands, so if you say, “A-frame” but your shoulders and outstretched hand face the direction of a tunnel, guess where your dog will go? (Editor’s note: See Patricia McConnell’s column for more on this subject.) The more seasoned the dog, the more weight he will give to verbal commands as your body moves ahead or laterally to prepare for the next obstacle.
Awareness of your own body cues and how to best communicate with your dog keep you thinking on your feet. Some people run their hands in their pockets to be more aware of their shoulders. Other people run “silently,” that is, without uttering a word, so as to pay more attention to their body. Often, they are amazed at how well their dog performs by reading just their body language. Patricia McConnell’s invaluable book, The Other End of the Leash, gives more insight into how we can better communicate with our dogs, both at home and on the agility field.
Donna Rock of Lacombe, Louisiana, was born without arms, and competes at the highest levels of agility with her Dobermans Annie and Quincy, using her shoulders and verbal commands to guide them. The sport appealed to her because anybody can do it. “I’m handicapped and yet I can still compete,” says Rock. “Young, old, fat, thin, abled, disabled—it doesn’t matter. It’s all about being the best you can be and doing it in a way that works for you and your dog.”
Wheelchair competitors also find success at agility classes or trials. Judy Guillot of Arizona was a stabbing victim at age 11, and in recent years, lost the use of her legs. When she saw agility on television, it didn’t even occur to her to question whether or not she could participate. “I would not be the person I am today if [the accident] had not happened,” says Guillot. “I have learned to adapt. That’s how I get that can-do attitude.” Now 58 years old, she and husband Dave play agility with five of their six toy fox terriers, stay active with their training club, and enjoy practicing and competing whenever they can.
Training Leads to Insights
While competition is the ultimate goal for many agility newcomers, some participants try the sport for different reasons. Beth Borchardt of Florida hoped agility would bring her fearful mixed-breed, Cheyenne, out of her shell. What she didn’t expect was how it would help her own shyness. “I had never shown an animal in anything and I was scared to death at my first show,” says Borchardt. “Chey did so well that she helped me get over my nerves. I was very introverted and shy and going to trials has gotten me over a lot of that. I’ll talk to strangers at shows and that has carried over to other aspects of my life.” Borchardt now participates with a white Shepherd, and has a puppy in training.
Spending extra time training your dog will teach you a lot about her personality as well as strengthen the bond between you. What motivates her most: toys, praise, food or a combination? If it’s toys, does she prefer tennis balls, squeaky stuffed animals or fleece tugs? If it’s food, does she favor dehydrated liver pieces or bits of string cheese? Is she so eager to please that an enthusiastic “Good dog!” will do? Getting to know your dog, which includes observing her physical structure and how she moves, is essential.
Lynn Sykes of North Carolina and her 14-year-old daughter, Bonnie, both do agility, which has strengthened their mother–daughter bond as well as their relationships with their respective dogs.
“Bonnie’s Sheltie is a rescue and very high strung,” says Sykes. “She’s come a long way … Agility has given my daughter a lot of confidence and taught her to finally trust her dog and to be happy with the effort of the dog. I’m proud she’s stuck it out with a difficult first dog that many people had written off. Agility has helped them both. We do other dog [activities] as well, and I’m hoping that dog sports keep her from the drugs and other horrors that waylay kids.”
The physical activity certainly promotes a healthier lifestyle. Dr. Heidi Loganbill, a neurologist in private practice in Oregon, was working extremely long hours when she and her husband decided to get a Standard Poodle puppy, Pogo. “I couldn’t make myself leave work for myself but I could for my dog,” says Loganbill. “We started doing agility and I couldn’t stand to have lots of people watch me run my dog when I was fat. I was 5’ 2” and weighed 215 pounds.” Over the next several years, she lost more than 80 pounds. She and her husband now have two more Standard Poodles, Winnie and 6-monthold Gabriel, who her keep fit.
Staying active with his rescue Australian Shepherd, Mystic, literally saved the life of Alan Silvey of Florida. In 2004, he had a heart attack toward the end of a run at a trial. “The doctor said if I hadn’t been training and running [Mystic], I wouldn’t have been alive,” says Silvey. “My main heart valve was mostly closed up, but agility kept it all flowing.” Having saved Mystic from a shelter, Silvey says it’s only fitting that Mystic saved his life in return. He says the experience taught him that while titles are nice, just being able to run with his dog and walk off the course on his own two feet are what matter most.
No matter what your motivation, agility is a dynamic sport worth trying. The benefits for both you and your dog are endless, and you might be surprised at the sheer joy of the journey.
HOW TO CHOOSE AN AGILITY CLASS
If you live near a major city, you’ll have a variety of agility classes from which to choose. Veteran agility instructor Barb Scalise, who owns Canine Care, Inc., of Bartlett, Ill., says finding a class that meets your and your dog’s unique needs is most important. She shares her three main considerations for choosing the best match:
The environment. When you enter the training facility—whether it’s a snazzy indoor training school or a fenced-off grassy field—take a look around. Is the equipment in good shape? What kind of flooring is used? Barb remembers the early days when she was first learning the sport and everyone trained their dogs on a cement floor covered with mats, which can take a toll on a dog’s joints. Today, artificial turf or thick rubber matting made especially for performance sports help ensure that you and your dog will be able to participate for years to come.
The instructor. Even if you know nothing about agility, you will have a gut reaction to what you see. If the instructor yells or students look stressed or frustrated, obviously no one is having fun. Look for an instructor who communicates well with the students and gives equal attention to each dog/handler team.
The dogs. How many dogs are in the class? Is there a lot of down time? How many often does each dog get a turn? Is safety stressed by the instructor? You don’t want a beginning or “green” dog to jump full height or go over obstacles like the A-frame or dog walk at full height. Also, only one dog should be off-leash at a time, even at the most advanced levels.
The A-frame is a tall, wooden or aluminum structure whose apex is typically set at 5' 6"or can go as high as 6' 3" at the championship level in USDAA. (Contact zones are painted on the upside and downside of the A-frame, although not every organization judges the upside contact.)
The dog walk is a raised, narrow plank that the dog must cross as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety or missing the contact zone on the exit ramp.
The pause table—a raised square table upon which the dog must do a sit-stay or a down-stay while the judge counts to five—looks deceptively easy. It is. The difficulty lies in the dog being still after racing around the course. Handlers sometimes anticipate the judge’s count and release their dog from the table too soon. The dog must then assume the sit or down position again and the judge restarts the count.
The teeter-totter or seesaw is difficult to master because the dog must walk across a moving narrow plank, tip it and hit the contact zone at the end before leaving the obstacle. The strange movement and the noise of the teeter banging on the ground can scare a dog, so it’s extremely important to be patient and follow your trainer’s instructions.
Jumps are self-explanatory, though there are quite a variety of them. They range from the simple bar jump (imagine a hurdle jump) and the wide boards on the ground that comprise the broad jump to the winged jump, which is a bar jump with plastic lattice “wings” on either end. The latter is a challenge to the dog as he cannot easily see the handler. Plus, there is more distance between the dog and handler, which is difficult for a dog new to the sport.
There are two different kinds of tunnels. The open tunnel is a tube through which the dog runs as fast as possible. The closed tunnel, or chute, looks like a giant wind sock. The dog must run through it in order to push up the material and exit. The “sock” of the chute should be straightened after every use to ensure the next dog that goes through doesn’t get wrapped up in the fabric.
The weave poles are challenging for dogs to learn because the weaving motion is unnatural to them. Twelve upright poles, each attached to a heavy steel base, are set out in a row. The dog must enter between the first pole and second pole from the right side, then fluidly step or hop between each pole to the end. Clean Run sanctions the “Ultimate Weave Pole Challenge,” in which the dog completes 60 weave poles.