Agility is the latest dog activity to gain recognition by both the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club.
It's no accident that the obstacles in a dog agility course are reminiscent of jumps and barriers on a horse-jumping course -- the dog sport was born in England to provide entertainment during breaking in horse-jumping competitions. Agility scores reflect speed and accuracy; the judges add fault points to the score for each obstacle that is not taken cleanly.
Agility is fun. Dogs enjoy the freedom and speed and challenge. Owners enjoy the increased bond with the dog as they work out the challenges inherent in mastery of each obstacle.
"The main thing I like about agility is the bond it creates with your dog," said competitor and judge Tammi Skillman of Morrow, Ohio. "I've learned so much about dogs by being involved in agility."
The dog must be in perfect sync with the owner on the agility course for there is no leash and collar for control. Since the order of obstacles on each course is different and the pathway between the obstacles twists and turns, dogs must learn a whole new vocabulary so they don't run up A-frame when they should be headed for the weave poles.
Conditioning is critical for strenuous agility competition. Puppies can be started in training with regular walks at four months of age. As they age, the walks should get longer so that they cover a couple of miles a couple of times a week. Obstacle training can begin in a variety of ways. An eight-inch board raised a few inches off the floor is a good beginning for the balance beam, known as the dog walk on the agility course. A ramp can be a board braced firmly on an incline, it's upper end about a foot off the ground. A beginner's "jump" can be anything form a broomstick propped an inch or two off the ground up to an eight-inch board that puppies can step over to get the idea that obstacles can be overcome.
Naturally, there are precautions. Young dogs should not jump; landing on immature forelegs and shoulders can cause injuries. Dogs must be taught not to rush the obstacles, as they can injure themselves by falling from the A-frame or the dog walk if they throw caution to the winds. The climbing obstacles on an agility course have yellow contact areas painted across the bottom; dogs must touch these contact areas on the way up and down the ramps. Ramps also have cross-laths to provide traction as the dogs scrabble up the incline.
Dogs who compete in agility must be under control when not on a leash. Thus basic obedience and a desire to follow instructions are a must.
Dogs gain confidence in their abilities as they learn to climb, jump, or crawl through agility obstacles. The learning may be tough for the dog afraid of heights or reluctant to enter dark spaces, but determined owners can coax them through the uncertainty. There's no pressure with agility -- it's pure joy. Dogs can compete for years as long as they stay in shape.
Almost any dog can do agility. Giant breeds and those with a wide wheelbase may have trouble with some obstacles, but if the dog is game, it can be done. (An Irish Wolfhound competed in the agility trial at one Louisville, Kentucky, spring show and a Newfoundland wowed the crowd in a demonstration at a Columbus pet expo.) The most popular agility breeds are the medium-to-large dogs that are quick on their feet -- Border Collies (of course), Pulis, Shetland Sheepdogs, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Australian Shepherds, etc. -- but almost any dog, including mixed breeds, can learn, enjoy, and earn agility titles.
The US Dog Agility Association offers the following books for all levels of the sport:
Agility is Fun
Volumes I and II
by Ruth Hobday
Volume I includes instructions on building equipment.
(Agility books are also available from Amazon.com.)
USDAA also offers seminars in agility instruction, a set of plans for obstacles, and other aids for getting started in the sport. Write or callUSDAA,
The American Kennel Club, a relative latecomer to agility competition, has embraced the sport with gusto. AKC clubs throughout the country conduct agility classes and host trials and the registry itself holds a national invitational tournament each year. Information and schedules are available at (919) 854-0176 or the AKC website.
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