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Dog Agility

This article byy Karin Larsen Bridge of Get S.M.A.R.T. Dogs , Sydney first appeared in Dogs Life Magazine Sept/Oct 2003 and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

AGILITY

You've probably seen it somewhere, at a Royal Show, a demonstration or perhaps even on TV - agility- the fastest growing dog sport in Australia. It's hard to tell whether the dogs or owners are having more fun as they negotiate a course of colourful jumps, tunnels and other obstacles against the clock.

Agility was conceived in England as a way of entertaining equestrian show jumping crowds between events so it's had spectator appeal right from the start. Sometimes described as show jumping for dogs, an agility course will include not only jumps, but scramble boards, dog walks, tunnels, weave poles, pause tables and see-saws. The aim of agility is to complete a designated course without a fault in the fastest amount of time. There are lots of variations to how agility is played but be warned, however you play it agility is addictive.

The sport for every dog

Just about any healthy dog over eighteen months of age can benefit from some degree of agility training. While the herding breeds such as border collies and kelpies might commonly steal the winners limelight (closely challenged by the mini poodle) literally hundreds of different breeds and cross breeds successfully compete in agility around the world every day.

A good agility club will put the safety of your dog above all other considerations when teaching and training. Short legged dogs, dogs with long backs or large heavy breeds may need to be restricted to low heights for jumping and may or may not choose to compete depending on the height rules of the various agility associations (see below). However even if you have no desire to enter agility competitions there are still a lot of reasons why some basic agility training is a good idea.

Benefits of Agility Training

  1. Its fun! Dogs and owners who have fun together stay together isn't that why you got a dog in the first place?
  2. Its good exercise for dogs and people.
  3. Its a good way for dogs to let off steam.
  4. Its a good way for owners to get rid of stress.
  5. It provides much needed mental stimulation for the backyard dog mental stimulation is more tiring than physical work alone
  6. resulting in a pleasantly pooped pooch.
  7. It builds physical and mental confidence in shy dogs.
  8. Working off leash following your commands improves the general control you have of your dog.
  9. It improves dog/owner relationships as a result of working together as a team.
  10. Its a great way to meet other people with a common interest.

One person who should know the benefits of agility training is Dr. Le Hammer who is in the unique position of being an agility trainer, competitor, judge and practicing veterinarian. Le and partner Keith Edwards run Canine Fun Sports in Sydney, one of the first groups to start teaching agility for fun and competition. "If you want to have fun with your dog and build a strong bond with your companion, agility is a great sport to be involved in. Agility is both challenging and fun and can be rewarding whether you are a beginner or competing at the highest level. The dogs love it ,you can tell by the way they get excited on their way to their familiar training grounds. It keeps the active dog both physically and mentally stimulated. That means fewer holes dug in the backyard and less laundry pulled off the clothes line! We have had students from 8 years old to 80 years young and they all have had a good time. Agility keeps you and your dog just a little healthier both mentally and physically!"

Getting Started

Agility is an equipment heavy sport so it is important to train with a club in order to be exposed to and learn about the many different obstacles you might encounter in a course. There are many good clubs around Australia teaching agility, some specialize while others are obedience clubs which have branched out to encompass this new and popular sport. Contact your States Australian National Kennel Control member listed below.

Look for a club or school that uses reward based training methods to build a happy and confident attitude toward agility in your dog. Choke chains should be avoided as they could get caught on agility equipment and cause your dog serious injury. Private trainers and/or training groups also exist so ask around your local dog park or veterinary practice to discover if there is one in your area. If you are on the web, Liz Barker of the Four Footed Furry Farm Agility School in the Southern Highlands of NSW hosts one of the best agility sites in Australia with loads of information, contacts and links - visit her at: www.barkerdogs.com

Training at home

Agility is about more than just running fast over obstacles. A good deal of control is also required. Obstacles must be negotiated in a prescribed order and direction. For reasons of safety, dogs must not jump off the ends of the scramble, dog walk or see-saw but touch the coloured contact zones failure to do so incurs a fault. At the pause table the dog must wait for five seconds before continuing the course a very challenging task for dogs who love to run and jump.

Many of these skills can be taught at home with no or minimal equipment. Some exercises you might consider are:

  • Stay -your dog will be required to hold a stay at the start line and on the pause table. A quick response to stay also provides you with a good deal of off lead control should you wish to stop your dog mid-course.
  • Come - is not only essential for general off leash control but in agility this command is often used to turn the dog toward you in order to negotiate the next obstacle.
  • Out -is taught to teach your dog to move away from you in order to negotiate the next obstacle.
  • Go - can be taught to mean keep running straight unless you are told otherwise. This is very useful if there is a series of obstacles in a straight line. To teach, simply say go then toss a ball directly in front of your dog repeat and your dog will anticipate a straight run after the word go.
  • Right and Left - can be taught in a similar fashion. Say right then immediately throw a ball to your dogs right. Repeat. Concentrate on one direction at a time until it is learned then start working on the other direction.
  • Follow my hand - teach your dog to follow your hand as this will become your invisible leash. Practice figures of eights with your dog following making sure you can make tight turns and change directions without losing your dog.
  • Heel and Side - teach your dog to work equally well on your left side or your right choose a different command for each side so your dog doesn't get confused. Start by sitting your dog then walk a few steps ahead of him and call him to your left side using your chosen word heel. When he has learnt one side teach the other, leave your dog in a sit again, say side and call him to your right side. There will be times when it is an advantage for your dog to be either on your right or left in order to have the fastest or safest approach to the next obstacle.

If you want to invest in some agility equipment of your own, the lightest and most essential piece of equipment would have to be the weave poles. Weaving is an intricate skill which can be mastered with a little time and patience. In fact many dogs become quite addicted to the weave poles, barking madly as they race through them. Because of the level of concentration and physical exertion needed, weaves are best practiced little and often -which is why it is great to have a set in your own backyard. Pre-made weave poles can be purchased however any poles such as tomato stakes set 600 mm apart, will do.

To practice the coloured contact zones such as on the dog walk, scramble and see-saw, you only need to set up a single plank of wood approximately 300mm wide and a couple of metres long that can be safely rested at one end. Colour the bottom 600mm of the board to identify your contact zone. There is no need to make the board steep, or for the dog to run fast - the skill lies in teaching your dog to always touch and/or stop with at lest one paw in the coloured section.

Light jumps can be made using a wide variety of materials from a simple broom across two bricks to the more sophisticated PVC piping designs. Even just two jumps set up in your backyard will allow you to practice many skills such as sending your dog away from you, calling him off the next jump, turning tightly right or left, calling your dog to you or holding a stay at the start line. It will also help your dog to develop the muscles he will need to use when jumping and turning.

Lightweight versions of nearly all the agility equipment are available. How much you buy depends on the size of your yard and the level of your commitment. Most agiliteers however would have little equipment of their own and instead regularly attend training days at their local club. Agility Associations

There are three flavours of agility currently operating in Australia each with their own set of rules and regulations.

  1. The Australian National Kennel Control (www.ankc.aust.com)

Is the oldest and best known canine association which is also responsible for pure bred dog showing and other canine activities. It is available in all States and Territories and has more training clubs and locations than any of the other Associations as well as staging the most number of competitions. If you wish to compete in an ANKC event, you must be a member of your States affiliated association and your dog must also be registered with them.

There are three jump heights small, medium and large and three levels of expertise, Novice, Open and Masters. Dogs who achieve three clear rounds in Novice competition qualify for an Agility Dog title. Those who achieve five clear rounds in Open competition achieve an Agility Dog Excellent title and those who achieve seven clear rounds in Masters Competition achieve their Agility Dog Masters title. These titles are nationally recognized and are permanently added to the end of your dog's name on his registration papers.

The original charter of the ANCK was to promote pure bred dogs, and for this reason some States may restrict the participation of cross bred dogs in any activities. In Queensland cross bred dogs are not allowed to compete in any ANKC events *while in NSW cross bred dogs may compete but must be de-sexed prior to registering for membership. Contact your State Member Body to check the rules in your State. (This outdated legislation has subsequently been rescinded and cross bred dogs can now compete in Qld)

  1. Agility Dog Association of Australia (www.adaa.com.au)

As the name would suggest this Association was formed specifically to develop and implement the sport of agility and follows closely international agility rules and regulations. It is based in Queensland with competitions currently restricted to Queensland and NSW. Cross bred dogs are welcome to participate in ADAA agility competitions. There are four height options :Toy, Mini, Midi and Maxi and four standards of competition Elementary, Starters, Intermediate and Open. ADAA also run competitions based on a variety of agility games such as Gamblers, Snooker and Strategic Pairs .

  1. Australian Dog Agility Council (www.adacagility.com)

ADAC is the new kid on the block and follows closely the rules and regulations of the North American Dog Agility Council which is the most popular flavour of agility in the United States. AD AC really tries to make agility accessible to every dog by providing five different height options plus a breed specific exemption list for breeds who may have trouble with designated jump heights such as Dachshunds, Bulldogs and Basset hounds. There are also special classes for Veterans (both dogs over seven years of age and people over 60 years of age), Junior Handlers and Disabled Handlers. ADAC also offer lots of agility games which develop agility skills such as Tunnelers which consists of a course made up only of tunnels and Touch n Go a course designed to test contact skills. Cross bred dogs are welcome to compete in ADAC competitions. Presently ADAC is active in Victoria, the ACT and NSW.

The Agility Challenge

The challenge in agility lies not in how high or even how fast your dog can jump but in how well you and your dog work together as a team. The dog relies on you to guide him around a course smoothly and safely with a minimum of fuss. Sometimes you'll go clear and sometimes you won't but sometimes, just sometimes you and your dog will move around a course in perfect symmetry - an exhilarating dance you wish could go on for ever and in those few, breathtaking seconds another agility addict is born!

Karin Larsen Bridge 2005 Get S.M.A.R.T Dogs, Sydney www.getsmartdogs.com.au