Would you believe that Dog Agility is less than 50 years old? And it was ‘born’ in the UK! It was first introduced, not as a competition, but as kind of a ‘half-time show’ at Crufts in 1978. It wasn’t until 1980 that it was recognised as an official sport by the Kennel Club. Since then, dog agility has grown rapidly and has spread across the world. It is now considered one of the most popular dog sporting events.
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What is Agility?
Agility was originally inspired by horse show jumping. Early courses were set out in a simple figure-of-eight design and consisted of a central platform (where the dogs started and finished) and a few basic pieces of equipment, including jumps, tunnels, weaving flags, a seesaw, an ‘over and under’ (now known as an ‘A’ frame) and a ‘cat walk’ (now known, perhaps more aptly, as a dog walk).
Nowadays, agility courses are much more elaborate with many more pieces of apparatus to choose from to generate trials with varying levels of complexity. A combination of up to 20 obstacles can be used to create a modern agility course comprising a mixture of jumps, tunnels and contact equipment.
During a competition the handler (usually the owner) must guide their dog through the course using only their body language and vocal cues. You are not permitted to touch your dog or the obstacles or use any encouragement such as treats or toys during the trials.
The aim is to complete the course in the quickest time and to avoid making too many mistakes. Penalties can be awarded if the dog completes the course in the wrong order, refuses obstacles, misses contacts or knocks over jumps. Therefore, accuracy is just as important as speed in agility.
Benefits of agility
Probably the most important benefit of agility is the strong bond it can fortify between you and your dog. Working as a team builds trust and confidence which are not just essential on the agility field, but are also important skills to have in general life too. Plus, it is a fun and exciting activity for you, your dog and spectators alike!
The other obvious benefit is to the physical fitness of you and your dog. Agility can help strengthen muscles and joints, improve coordination and increase endurance. It will also give you both a great cardiovascular workout!
There are of course many training and behavioural benefits too, which may be helpful both inside and outside the ring. Agility can help dogs with:
Expressing normal behaviour
Agility training can harness a dog’s natural desire to run and chase. This can help dogs with strong hunting instincts by giving them a safer and more positive outlet for these behaviours.
Socialisation and habituation
It allows a dog to experience and become accustomed to different environments by exposing them to novel surfaces, small spaces and other stimuli. As well as improving social interactions with new dogs and unfamiliar people.
Focus and impulse control
There are likely to be large numbers of dogs participating in training and competitions and there will be a lot of different noises (e.g. dogs barking) and new smells to take in. Your dog will learn to filter out these distractions and listen to your instructions.
Agility is performed entirely off-lead, therefore your dog’s ability to work without a lead will be improved as they learn not to run off and to follow your instructions and cues instead.
Agility teaches dogs to be adaptable and to problem solve. Again, this is another transferable skill that can be utilised in everyday life and when facing new challenges or tasks.
This sport requires both physical and mental energy. Teaching your dog new skills and tasks is enriching and can improve their overall mental wellbeing. It can also help prevent unwanted behaviours such as those associated with stress, anxiety and boredom (e.g. destructive behaviours).
With so many benefits it’s hard to believe more people are not participating in the sport. So, what are you waiting for?
Who can take part?
Simple… anyone! Dog agility is such an inclusive sport. It is open to people of all ages and abilities. From children to seniors, able-bodied to disabled people. Whether you want to compete at a high level or just for fun or fitness, everyone is welcome!
Best dog breeds for agility
If you’ve ever watched an agility show, perhaps Crufts on TV or at a summer fair you will have undoubtedly seen that most of the dogs taking part are Border Collies and other sheepdog/shepherd type breeds like Australian Shepherds and Shelties.
However, the only real criteria are for the dog to be at least 12 months old (to start training and 18 months old to enter competitions) and be fit and healthy! Any breed can be an agility dog, from teeny tiny teacup Chihuahuas to the gentle giant Newfoundland and to prove it, let me tell you the story of Lobo.
In 2020, Lobo, a Siberian Husky became an internet star for his unique interpretation of an agility course which was posted online. The video shows him zooming around the course ‘doing his own thing’ and having a blast! Although he didn’t win any prizes that day, he did win hearts. Check out the video and see for yourself, I guarantee it will bring a smile to your face!
If you are looking for a ‘serious’ agility partner, though, breed isn’t everything and doesn’t automatically equate to success. In fact, many mixed breeds excel at agility! Instead look for desirable traits such as intelligence, trainability, focus, drive/motivation and emotional stability. The dog you choose needs to want to participate in training, show they can pay attention amidst distractions, and they need the ability to understand instructions. The final consideration would be to select a dog with good body conformation, most importantly making sure that they are able to breathe properly and have a normal gait (limb movement). This will ensure that the dog can enjoy agility safely.
How to get started
There are many regulated organisations and independent training groups across the globe offering everything from just-for-fun to competitive agility training. The links below will help you get started on your agility adventure!