This article has been written by Karen Boardman, who currently assists Alex at Puppy School and Puppy University classes on Fridays.
Dog sports are a great way to have fun with your dog. There are many to choose from, including but not limited to: agility, flyball, canicross, heelwork to music, obedience, and rally. There is even now triathlon for dogs. One of the great things about dog sports is that regardless of your dog’s breed, size or age, and regardless of the owner’s age or fitness, there is something for absolutely everyone.
Numerically, agility is the most popular dog sport, and my personal favourite. Agility involves dogs completing a set course of 15-20 obstacles and, like with horses doing show jumping, the fastest round without any faults wins. The obstacles include jumps, tunnels, weave poles, and the contact equipment (A-frame, dog walk, see-saw). Faults are incurred for instances such as knocking jumps, leaping off the contact equipment too soon, or going the wrong way around the course. Handlers get chance to walk around the course at the start without their dog to see which way to go. Training on agility equipment generally does not start until a dog is at least 12 months old (older for bigger dogs) as it is very important not to damage their growing joints, but training agility foundation skills can start at any age. Training your dog to play with you, practicing waits, and having a good recall are all great skills for agility.
Why do agility? Agility is a good activity for dogs because it works their brains and their bodies. It gives them an outlet to use up their mental and physical energy so that when they are at home they are more likely to rest and recharge, rather than entertaining themselves with activities that we don’t approve of such as chewing slippers or barking at neighbours in the garden. Doing a sport such as agility is also a good way to get better at training. Every skill or trick you teach your dog improves your communication and relationship with them. So if you train your dog how to do something fun like go through a tunnel, then when you want to train something challenging such as walking on a loose lead past a cat on the street, your training skills will be better.
My agility dogs I have competed in agility for over 10 years and I am self-confessed agility addict. I run Frost, a Westie, at the top championship level and we have even qualified and competed at Crufts in front a full arena of 6000 people. I also compete with my young dog Flint, a Miniature Schnauzer, and we are working our way up the grades at the moment. Flint’s agility highlight so far has been coming 3rd in the novice stakes at the British Agility Championships and winning a rosette as big as himself! I am particularly passionate about encouraging owners of small dogs to get involved in agility because the dogs are often capable of so much more than people expect, which makes it great fun for both the dog and the owner. Some of the very best agility dogs have been tiny poodles.
Competing in agility If you choose to compete at agility competitions there are different classes depending on the dog’s height, the dog’s previous experience, and the handler’s previous experience. The courses start off simplest at grade 1, and gradually get more complicated up to grade 7. There are agility competitions all across the country almost every weekend of the year, outdoors in the summer and indoors in the winter. There are even week long agility shows, which are great social occasions to go away with friends and visit new parts of the country.
How to start agility foundation training When training our dogs everything we do should be fun. If your dog is having fun then they will be confident. And if your dog is confident, they will be fast! With that in mind, if you think you might be interested in doing agility with your dog then one foundation skill you can start on straight away is getting your dog confident at putting his or her feet on different obstacles. This will help your dog when they start to learn the contact equipment as they will think “putting my paws on things gets me my treat/toy!”.
Step 1. Choose a non-slip obstacle than won’t move when your dog stand on it (an old telephone directory wrapped in duct tape works well), and a handful of their favourite treats or favourite toy.
Step 2. Place the obstacle on the floor. If your dog looks at the obstacle praise them and give them a reward (a treat or a brief play with their toy).
Step 3. If your dog moves towards the obstacle – praise and reward!
Step 4. If your dog puts a paw on the obstacle – praise and reward! I like to wait for my dog to choose to go on the obstacle without me luring him, as then he is really thinking about what he is doing. However, you can also lure your dog with a treat in the direction of the obstacle to help if necessary.
Step 5. Give your dog multiple treats while they are on the obstacle, and then throw a treat away so that they come off the obstacle and you can start again. You know your dog has figured out what to do when after he has eaten the treat that you have thrown away he comes straight back to put his paws on the object again. If he does this – praise and reward!
There are many variations you can do – different objects, front feet on, back feet on, all four feet on. You can take the skill on the road as well – front feet on a log makes for a great posing photo!
If you see me (Karen) at training class and you are interested in agility feel free to ask me any questions. I currently train my dogs with Jen Lewis at Freymor Dogs and Jess Clarehugh at Jess Clarehuh agility – both can be found on Facebook.