Agility training is a wonderful opportunity for dogs and owners to learn how to work together, get lots of exercise, and become more in synch with each other. Dogs that compete in agility events must be intelligent, athletic as well as very attentive to the handler. They must be able to block out distractions such as crowd noise, other dogs and even movement and activity on the sidelines. Agility training involves teaching a dog to go through a set of obstacles in a specific sequence within a set time frame. Agility competitions were first exhibited at the Cruft's International Dog Show in Birmingham, England in 1979 and continues to be one of the most popular events from a spectator and competitor point of view.
Agility training is a lot like a show jumping event for horses, but there is more to it than just jumping. Dogs must listen to their owners and follow as set pattern at top speeds, getting scored for completed obstacles and getting points deducted for missing, hesitating or incorrectly completing the routine. Dogs of all breeds including mixed breeds and purebreds can compete in most agility events, making this a true dog lovers sport. The dogs are obviously enthusiastic about competing and seem to enjoy just having their chance to run through the routine. The dogs in most events are broken down into different size categories to make setting the obstacle sizes fair for all the dogs in the particular category. Dogs are measured at the withers or shoulders to determine which competition group they will perform in.
The key to agility work is to have the dog be able to attend to the handler while still beating the clock and not making any mistakes. Dogs can compete in different levels of competition from simple beginner courses to very complex championship courses. The dogs are off-leash and the handlers are not allowed to physically touch either the dog or the obstacles during the competition run. Many handlers use whistles, hand signals and verbal commands to direct their dog through the agility course. Each course will have its own SCT or standard course time that the dog must complete the course in. The dog with the best possible time under the SCT and the lowest number of faults for mistakes on the course is the winner of the event.
The basic components of an agility course will include:
A-frame- a triangle or capital A shaped board structure that the dog must run up, cross over and run down the other side. There are cross pieces fixed to the platform to prevent the dog from slipping on the down or up sides.
Dog Walk - very similar to the more commonly known catwalk, this involves the dog walking up and incline, across a suspension section, then down an incline on the other side.
See Saw - just like a teeter-totter on the playground, the dog must walk up the one side, balance over the center to bring the other side down and then walk off the lowered side.
Pipe tunnel - also called an open tunnel. This will be large enough for the dog to run through and will be solid. Typically it is curved so the dog does not have a straight and full line of sight to the opening at the other end.[-/]
Pause table - a fairly high, flat table that the dog must jump up onto and then immediately lie down for five seconds without getting up before command.
Weave poles - a set of poles that the dog must weave though in a multiple S-shaped pattern. There may be either six or twelve poles in the obstacle and the dog must go through each one individually to get full points.
Collapse tunnel - a solid open tube followed by a soft cloth extension. The dog must run into the solid end of the tube and then run full speed down the collapsed cloth end and out the other side.
Tire or hoop jump - dogs must jump through the hoop or tire that will be suspended at various appropriate heights off the ground.
Depending on the level of competition as well as the specific organization managing the agility competition the elements may vary both in their frequency on the course as well as how they are laid out on the course. More advanced level courses may combine various obstacles. Once such combination is a crossover, which is actually two dog walks set up in a plus shape when viewed from above. The dog must follow the owner's commands to know which side they are to exit on when they reach the central platform.
All of the contact obstacles or the ones that the dog has to touch are clearly marked with a yellow area on the entrance and exit side. The dogs must place at least one paw in the yellow area when entering or exiting the obstacle. All of the obstacles are carefully constructed and must meet safety standards before they are allowed in regulated events and competitions.
Many owners start working with simple obstacles with their dogs in their own backyard. Starting small and then gradually increasing the complexity while staying focused on the dog's safety is key. Many trainers will also specialize in agility training and have all the obstacles and courses set up to help the dogs and owners practice without having to buy all their own equipment.
This really is a wonderful sport for any type or breed of dog. One of the great things about agility events is that dogs don't have to be registered or purebred, they just have to understand how to complete the obstacles. Kids as well as adults can complete with their dogs in these events, making it a great way for the whole family to get involved.
If you are interested in this fast growing sport try attending a few agility competitions in your area and talking to owners about the events and the training requirements. Most people that compete with their dogs are happy to talk about what it takes and make recommendations and suggestions for training options.
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