Dog Agility is not only the fastest growing dog-sport in the UK, since its introduction over thirty years ago it has spread to all corners of the globe and its’ popularity shows no sign of decline, claims Chris Park, agility expert.
From a five minute entertainment slot at a horse show to a global dog-sport with tens of thousands of participants – that’s Agility! The rapid rise in popularity over the twenty-five or so years since its inception in the UK may be surprising to the casual observer but to the increasing number of participants it is all too obvious as to why it has made such an impact. Put succinctly, “Agility is Fun!”
The wide appeal of the sport is not difficult to establish. It is amenable to all ages of handlers and to a wide variety of dogs and offers enjoyment to both, whether as a means of exercise or a competitive test. It enhances the bond between human and canine beyond pet ownership and provides a thrill of accomplishment which more sedentary canine pursuits simply can’t match.
In some ways, agility is just an extension of dog obedience training in that it requires the dog to learn tasks through the application of conditioning techniques; that is through association, repetition and stimuli response. The best results are achieved through the use of positive techniques or reward-based training.
As its title suggests, dogs are required to be agile and the more accomplished will also have a propensity to work, hence the proliferation in the sport of the “collie-type”. Many other types do participate, with success, from Miniature Yorkshire Terriers up to GSDs and Old English Sheepdogs. By inference, not all dogs are suitable to take part as the strains and stresses comfortably absorbed by the more mobile types could have a damaging effect on the stockier varieties, so common-sense dictates where the health and safety of the animal might be put at risk, caution is the keyword.
Agility in the UK is open to all dogs and pedigree and non-pedigree alike are freely allowed to participate. Sadly, this is not the case in all countries. For example, Kennel Clubs which come under the auspices of the Federation Cynologique Internationale (F.C.I.) have restrictions in certain classes which do not allow dogs without recognised pedigrees to participate. The American Kennel Club (A.K.C.) has similar restrictions.
Dog agility is a derivation of equine show-jumping, but has additional obstacles to jump. These include tunnels, tables, tyres, contact equipment and a series of poles called “weaves”. Tunnels can either be of a rigid variety, through which the dog simply has to run in one end and out the other, or of a soft variety which requires the dog to push its way through.
The contact equipment consists of the A-frame (a two-sided scaling object around six feet high) , a Dog-Walk (three 12 foot long sections of plank, the middle section of which stands about 4 and a half feet off the ground which dogs ascend and descend from) and See-Saw (again a 12 foot plank, weighted at one end). In essence they all entail processes, which come naturally to a dog, as in running, climbing, descending or jumping. By contrast, the weaves or slalom require the acquisition of a learned skill and is the only obstacle that cannot be easily and naturally negotiated by a dog.
If I said that getting a dog to complete the obstacles is no real achievement then that might give you the impression that agility is easy. True, most obstacles are not difficult but as any agility handler will tell you, it’s the spaces in between that cause the problems! Put another way, a dog might go over one obstacle, but what is he going to do next? Where is he going to go and where should he be going?
The whole tenet of agility is to get a dog to do a series of obstacles, set out in a pre-determined route, without making an error otherwise known as a ‘fault’. Add to this the fact that it must be done within a certain amount of time and you may begin to get a flavour of what is demanded.
Training a dog to ‘run a course‘ successfully takes many months, sometimes years. Even then, when you think you might be ready to enter a competition there is still the big unknown factor as to how the dog will react when in a competition environment. Believe me, if I had a pound for every time I’d heard someone wail “But he never does that in training!” I wouldn’t need to win the lottery to retire from work.
Early training for an ‘agility dog’ should be exactly the same as for any pet dog. That is, plenty of socialisation and an understanding of his place in the household. Teaching basic commands and encouraging the dog to play are also key factors. Going to a local Obedience training club is also a good idea as it gets the dog introduced to a busy working environment whilst enhancing the chances of developing a sound temperament. In addition, the dog should become familiar at working on both sides of you and should learn the elements of directional control. Of course, rudimentary work such as waiting, sending-on and recalling are an absolute must.
Agility-based training can commence from between the ages of six and nine months depending on how the dog is maturing. I find that trying to do agility work too early can lead to creating problems of both a mental and physical nature and, rather like marriage, is best not rushed in to!
While there are several good books and videos available, it is highly desirable, if not essential, to join an agility club or training group. These will be advertised in vets, or local publications but failing that the first port of call should be the Kennel Club, who will be able to put you in touch with your nearest group. There are also other agility organisations under the KC umbrella, but these might not be so easy to locate. The Internet is an extremely useful tool and sites like my own (www.agilityeye.co.uk) can assist in your search.
You can start entering competitions with your dog once he is eighteen months of age. To participate in a Kennel Club agility show your dog must first be registered with them, either on the Breed or the Working and Obedience register. Until quite recently, the KC held the threat of punitive action against any official or handler who participated in any other organisations’ agility events, but this threat has since been removed after the East Midlands Dog Agility Club successfully challenged their monopoly.
There are over 300 shows held each year in the UK varying in size from a one ring show up to as many as thirteen rings. Numbers participating have been steadily escalating and it is not unknown for one class to have more than a thousand entrants! Previous shows run over six days have had as many as 28,000 class entries and housed around 800 caravans. More usually, shows are held over a weekend and feature about five rings. You rarely get more than 3 runs in any one day with one dog, but most people enter two or perhaps three dogs at each show.
Show competitions are run under strict guidelines with rules and regulations to cover every aspect of the show, from how the judge should conduct himself through to matters of health and safety.
There are differing levels of competition ranging from Elementary up to Advanced championship level. You can only progress up through the ranks by winning a class and the majority of competitors fail to achieve the top level. The beauty of agility, however, is that you can set your own target - this could be just getting promoted up a level or two in the course of the dog’s career, or just getting placed in a class at a show (that is, finishing in the top ten percent) or simply getting around the course clear without incurring a fault. In true Olympian spirit, many people are happy just to take part and spend the day in the company of like -minded ‘addicts’!
While for most agility is just a recreational pursuit, for others it has become a highly competitive sport with associated benefits. Although prize money and high-value goodies are rarely on offer, being a successful agility handler can reap pecuniary benefits. Quality trainers are in great demand, both nationally and internationally, and they can command fees well in excess of £200 per day. Handling a dog around a course requires a variety of skills encompassing good timing, spatial awareness, positioning and quick thinking. (Having an inherently gifted dog also helps!).
A good trainer can help you hone and develop these skills in addition to simply pointing out your own handling inadequacies.
As with any sport, agility has its lores, its legends and a language of its own. It is a highly social activity comprised of totally dog-minded people whose prime concern is for their dogs, not the competition. Regardless of who wins, each person always goes home with the best dog.
Are you an agility beginner or pro? Share your stories with other agility advocates and those interested in taking part - we'd love to hear why and how you got started!