Agility: The In’s and Out’s
Often, the question running through my mind during an Agility round isn’t “Can my dog keep up with me during the run?” rather it goes somewhat along the lines of “How in the world did they get so far ahead of me?!”
This thought is then followed by a furious sprint after your companion as you try to direct them through the course. I’ve watched the National Agility competitions for years with family and friends, dog lovers and non-dog trainers alike and I never cease to be amused by the initial amazement that floods their faces as they watch the first dogs go sailing through the course, paws neatly tucking under as they bound over wing jumps, tire jumps, you name it. The look of joyful anticipation that graces each dogs face (especially the herding breeds!) always makes me smile. The quivering energy of waiting for the handler to release them from a wait or stay has forever made the herding breeds my favorite to watch in both practice and competition. No matter how you look at it, Agility is an amazing sport to be both a spectator and a participant.
But enough on that. Let’s get down to the meat of this post: What is Agility and why should you try it with your dog?
Agility is, in short, a sport in which you, the handler, directs your dog through an obstacle course. The aim of each run is to finish with the best possible score in both time and points. And to have a blast as well, of course! During competition, you and your partner will run the course off-leash and with no food, toys, or other forms of bait. As a result, you, as the handler are given a very limited number of resources to work with. You may rely on vocal commands (here, over, jump, tunnel, etc), hand signals and footwork; as well as cues that you give off with your own body. This last one is always a little harder to learn, but once you’ve mastered it, your runs will improve drastically.
Now, what in the world are ‘body cues?’ It’s actually simpler to explain than it is to learn, and depending on your dog’s size, can be a challenge to master. Body cues are the signals that you give to your dog based on the direction your shoulders or torso are facing, the way in which you might dip one shoulder to indicate a turn, the lowering of your hand to indicate a pause or slower pace, etc. Your dog can, and will, pick up on each of these minute cues, I promise!
I remember that when first starting out in Agility with Disney, I would always be confused as to why he would pull to one direction when running, or why he would skip around a jump (this was before I knew about the handiness of these cues!). Finally, Noel Ritter, a trainer I have worked with for years explained what was going on. If your shoulders aren’t angled to face a jump straight on, your dog is more likely to pull to one side, or even duck around the obstacle entirely. The same applied with any other obstacle in the Agility ring. It’s amazing how the smallest details can change the end result of a run, isn’t it?
Why should you take up Agility? “Why? Why not?” is my answer! Agility is a blast, no matter your age or the dogs, and is adaptable to whatever fitness level you and your furry pal are at. Agility is a great way to get both you and your dog up and moving. Not only that, but it is a fantastic way to deepen your bond with one another! Agility is such a team sport that if you two aren’t working together, neither of you will perform your best. And when that happens, you both feel it. It’s never “Oh, my dog just had a bad day”or“I just wasn’t feeling it today.” I have yet to hear someone who competes or trains at a competition level say that. What I do hear them say is this, “We just didn’t do our best,” or “We could have done better. We’ll work harder next time.” And they say that, knowing that it’s a partnership between both of them. You’re both accountable for how well the day goes, and when you get into a solid partnership, it’s amazing what starts to happen, it really is. So get out there and get moving with your pup! You’ll both have a blast and become that much closer because of it.
So, now that I’ve done my advertising to encourage you all to take up this fantastic sport, let’s get down to some business. What can you expect from the course itself? The courses will vary from competition to competition, depending on the layout that is usually determined by the judge prior to set up. The ring itself may or may not be within a fenced area (meaning the dog can’t just duck under the boundary). The majority of the ones that I’ve seen and been in have been self-contained with some form of fencing that prevented the dogs from escaping the ring when the desire strikes them. The course is laid out in such a fashion that the intent is so the dog must rely on its handler for guidance. While some courses may have each obstacle numbered, I’ve rarely had the privilege to show in such a ring. Most of the one’s that I’ve shown in are unnumbered, forcing the handler to memorize the course during the walk through and determine the best course of action for their run.
Your walk through is incredibly important to how well your run will go. During this period before competition, you will be able to walk through the course at your own pace to determine how you want to position yourself throughout the run, and figure out where to do the proper cross behinds and cross in fronts to maximize your chance of a great time and score. Once your run begins, it is up to you to guide your companion through the course!
You might be wondering, how do they score such a sport? Each pair’s run is scored based on time and the number of faults they accrue. Faults are categorized into two main groups, course and time. Course faults are tallied by the number of bars that are knocked down or clipped, or when there is a refusal. Time faults are calculated based of the number of seconds that a pair exceeds the standard course time. This standard is determined based on the level of the competition, the difficulty of the course, conditions and more.
Onto the obstacles themselves! We’ll start with one of my favorites, the jumps. In AKC, there are roughly five different types of jumps.
1. The Jump or Hurdle
- This jump is extremely straightforward. It may have two regular upright poles that are equipped with adjustable cups where the horizontal pole will rest, or it will look like a wing jump. The wing jumps tend to have metal cups at various heights that the horizontal pole(s) can be placed in. Also, a word of caution to the future handlers out there- Wing jumps in particular are very easy to run into! Take it from the person who has managed it countless times! (Photo credit to: petsquared.com)
2. The Spread Jump (also known as the double and triple)
- The Spread Jump presents a bit more of a challenge, in that the chance of knocking a pole increases. As pictured, there are two uprights to the base that support multiple bars spread between them. In the Double version of this jump, the bars may lie parallel to one another or be placed in ascending height. For the Triple, these bars will always be places in ascending height. Height adjustments will be based according to your dog’s height class (based on your dog’s height at the withers). Photo Credit: caninetrainingsupplies.com
3. The Broad Jump
- The Broad jump consists of a grouping of multiple raised platforms (usually between 3 and 5 depending on the dog). This jump covers a wider area than the previous two listed but the same rules apply- the dog must clear the grouping without touching. On a side note, I’ve also managed to run into these. Don’t know how…but I’ve managed it. Photo Credit: caninetrainingsupply.com
4. The Tire Jump
- Oh, the tire jump. This has always been my most loathed and favorite of the jumps. Favorite because it’s so much fun for the dogs, and loathed because it took forever for me to train my terrier to not simply duck beneath it and keep going…This jump is a suspended one with a round ‘tire’ is suspended from the frame. The dog must jump through the center of the tire and clear it without hitting it. Photo Courtesy of: caninetrainingsupply.com
5. The Panel Jump
- The Panel Jump is the final of the jumps. Similar to the first one, the hurdle, there are two uprights, but instead of poles, there are panels. These panels slide into place to allow for height adjustments and form a solid wall that the dog must clear.
Whew! Still with me? If I didn’t mention this before, you’re in for a long post! Now, onto the Contact based obstacles. The three that most are familiar with are: the A-frame, the Dogwalk, and the Teeter. So, without further ado…
1. The A-Frame.
- The A frame is composed of two wide ramps that are connected by a hinge at the top joint and a chain running between the two ramps on one or both sides to prevent height slippage (also giving it its name, the A frame). Typically, these ramps are rather broad and have small slats running horizontally on each ramp face, and coupled with a gripping surface (the one for our 4-H competitions I remember had this sandpapery texture to it) in order to aim the dog as it navigated up and down the sides. The contact zone is painted a bright color that is different than the color of the rest (ours was a green base with bright yellow contact zones), and the dog must make contact with this zone or face a fault. Photo Courtesy of: anaswersalive.com
2. The Dog Walk
- I’ve always loved watching the Border Collies run this one. Their handlers have to work so hard to keep them in check so that they don’t just go flying off the end of it and over the contact. But even with how stern the handlers sound, the Border’s always look like they’re having a blast, barking happily as they dart along the top. But anyways…The Dog Walk consists of 3 planks that are connected, forming a raised platform. Two end planks form the ramps up to and down from the central walk, with the walk being roughly 4 feet off the ground. Much like the A frame, small slats run horizontally on the up and down ramps to aid the dog’s traction. At the start and end of this obstacle there is a contact zone that the dog is required to touch. Photo Credit: dailykos.com
3. The Teeter
- The Teeter is such a fun obstacle, but has never quite made it into my favorites. Much like the Teeter totter of your youth, but for your dog! Once touching the contact zone on the side touching the ground, you should have your dog pause at the fulcrum, or balance point, until the side in the air has touched on the ground. Once there, you continue on, having your dog hit the contact on the dismount and off you go! Unlike the A frame and the Dog Walk, the Teeter does not have slats on it, although it is allowed by most organizations to have a grippy surface.
We’re almost to the end, ladies and gentlemen! To wrap up the various obstacles you’ll encounter while doing Agility with your furry friend, let’s talk about our final few!
- The Tunnel has always been one of my favorites, and Disney’s too. There’s just something about the way he would go barreling into that bright orange tunnel and come leaping out like it was a brand new day that never failed to make me grin. The tunnel is pretty much what you would expect from the name, a tunnel. Composed of vinyl and flexible wire, the tunnel can be stretched into a curve or a straight line. In order to prevent the tunnel from moving while in use, several pairs of sandbags are placed on either side to hold it in place. Another variation on the tunnel is the chute, or collapsed tunnel. This version as a round of cloth wrapped around the end of a tube/barrel and is closed until the dog runs through it. Photo: superstock.com
- Weave Poles…how I hated these. Still do actually. Do you know how hard it is to train a terrier to want to do these? Let alone by his own choice? So much bribery and so many treats went into teaching these, and he never would do more than a row of five before just running happily next to me on the other side…Weave poles are, despite my dislike, a great deal of fun for most dogs, herding breeds especially (although I do admit to loving how the little breeds bounce between them!). Designed as a series of anywhere from 5 to 12 upright poles, each weave is placed roughly 24 inches apart. In order to avoid a fault during these tricky poles, the dog must enter (always!) the weaves with the first pole to the left and proceed through without skipping any. Photo credit to: 123RF.com
The Pause Table (or Box):
- There are two variations to the Pause, a table or a box. With both of these, the dog must either sit or down for 5 seconds (usually) at the judges count before continuing on. For the table, the dog must perform the command for the counted time on a raised square platform. The height may range depending on the height class of the dog. For the box, you can think of this as a simplified table. A Pause Box is generally a marked off square on the ground where the dog will either sit or down for the allotted time period.
And there you have it, ladies and gents! Congratulations on sticking with me through this long and probably somewhat dry post! I hope that this might have interested at least a person or two into taking up Agility with their dog(s), and if so, I wish you the best of luck as you learn and hope you get as much enjoyment out of it as I do. I think I’ll try to cover one sport a week, so I can learn more about what’s out there as well as reminisce on what I’ve done! Many thanks to reading, and if there’s ever a breed or a dog sport you want me to talk up, feel free to drop me a line in the comments and I’ll make sure to cover it.