Canine agility has become a very popular sport. My airedale, Charlie, and I have been competing for about 1½ years. We are having a lot of fun. Preparing Charlie to compete in agility has taught me a lot about dog training. But more importantly it has really strengthened my relationship with my dale. Charlie and I would like to encourage other airedale/handler teams to try agility. In this article I will introduce the sport of agility and offer some suggestions on getting started. In a future article I will discuss competing in agility trials.
Many of you have probably seen an agility competition, at least on TV. Dogs fly over jumps, run through tunnels, climb A-frames and snake through weave poles. But agility is very much a team (dog/handler) sport. The layout of every agility course is different. The dog’s job is to correctly perform each obstacle on the course as he encounters it. The handler’s job is to learn the course and direct the dog around the course as smoothly and as quickly as possible. So the handler has to learn to communicate effectively with the dog on the run. This requires a good deal of training and practice.
Is Your Dog Ready for Agility?
Agility is a sport that requires your dog to run, jump, twist and turn. Your dog must be physically fit to safely perform and enjoy agility. So before you start agility training evaluate your dog’s fitness. He should be structurally sound. If he is overweight put him on a diet. Make sure he gets plenty of daily aerobic exercise. If you are not sure of your dog’s fitness level, ask your vet. Even puppies can start learning some agility skills. But a puppy’s bones are still soft and growing so limit jumping and keep the jump heights low (below elbow height) until they are at least 12 months old.
Dogs also need some basic obedience skills before they can start agility training. Agility is an off-lead sport. The dog should be dog friendly and able to work off lead in class without bothering other dogs and people. This is not as hard as it sounds. If you make doing the agility exercises with you really fun and exciting your dog won’t need to create entertainment with other dogs or people.
Finding an Agility Trainer
Agility classes are offered by professional dog training schools and by agility clubs. Finding a good agility trainer is the most important factor for achieving long term success and enjoyment in the sport of agility. A good trainer will not only teach your dog how to correctly perform the agility obstacles, but will use training techniques that will motivate you and your dog. Take your time and choose your trainer carefully, even if you just want to do agility for fun. In the long run you are much better off learning agility right the first time rather than trying to retrain. Those of you that have attended Corally’s seminar know that dogs (and people) always remember the first behavior they learned the best (even if it is a wrong behavior). This means that even if you successfully retrain a problem behavior, under stress (i.e. a trial) the dog or you may revert back to that first problem behavior.
The first step in finding a good agility trainer is to familiarize yourself with the sport so you can make an informed decision. You can learn about the sport from an introductory book on agility or by visiting some agility websites. Also try to attend an agility trial to see it in action.
The best way to find a good trainer is through personal references. Talk to people you know who are doing agility. Go to a local agility trial and talk to handlers that seem to be doing well and having fun.
Finally contact the trainers you are interested in to determine which one will best meet your needs. Some factors you might want to consider when evaluating a trainer:
- Training style and philosophy
- Agility experience. How long has the trainer been involved in the sport of agility? What are the trainer agility qualifications or accomplishments (titles, championships, agility judging certifications, authored articles on agility etc.)
- Trainer’s personality.
- Try to observe the trainer working dogs (and students) in class and running dogs in a trial. Are the dogs (and students) motivated and having fun?
- What types of dogs has the trainer worked with?
- What kind of classes are offered? Is the class schedule convenient? Does the trainer offer only beginner classes or does he offer more advanced classes and training sessions that can support you even after you are competing?
- Check on the availability of the equipment. Be sure you will have access to the agility equipment for practice in between classes.
Eventually you will probably want to join an agility club. Agility clubs are great places to learn agility because the people in the club are competing and have experienced many of the problems you will encounter. Many clubs offer formal agility classes, as well as, work sessions for club members and access to the agility equipment for practice.
Seminars on agility are another way to improve your agility training program. Many very good seminars are offered in Texas each year. These seminars are a great way to learn new training techniques and ideas.
Getting Ready for Competition
The biggest mistake people make is rushing their dogs into competition before they are ready. This can lead to problems which can be difficult to solve. Take your time and enjoy playing agility with your dog. Wait until your dog is solid in training before entering a trial.
Agility competitions are noisy events with lots of distractions. Take your dog to some agility trials as a spectator and work on teaching him to concentrate on you in spite of all the activity around him.
A good way to get your Airedale ready for competition is to enter agility fun matches. Fun matches will give you and your dog a taste of a real trial. Fun matches usually offer competition level courses. There will be people and dogs milling around. There will be a judge and ring crew. But at a fun match you can train in the ring. This means you can reward, correct or redo problem sequences in the ring.
One of the best places to look for all sorts of information on agility is a Dallas-based website called Agility Ability (www.agilityability.com). This site offers discussions on many aspects of agility from getting started to competing. The site contains a list of many of the Texas/Southern Region’s agility clubs and training schools. It also contains a fairly comprehensive list of agility events (trials, seminars) in Texas and surrounding states. The site has lots of links and a good list of agility publications (books, magazines and videos).
Another good website for agility links is Dog Patch (www.dogpatch.org/agility/). This site has links to many websites with articles and forums on agility, as well as, the websites of agility organizations and agility product distributors. It also has links to websites with sample courses.