As pet obesity levels rise, more and more pet lovers are looking for ways to stay active with their dogs. The sport of agility not only helps your dog remain active, but it also strengthens the human-animal bond between the two of you — all while having fun together.
“Agility is one sport that helps increase that bond you have with your dog,” says Diane Silver, an agility trainer, blogger at To Dog With Love, and, with her dog Rocco, an agility competitor. “It’s good for your dog in terms of physical exercise and mental exercise, plus you’re working together as a team. There’s focus involved, and your dog learns to follow your cues. Agility can help any dog become your best teammate!”
Safety Comes First
Even if your plans don’t call for competing with your dog but simply exercising and running a homemade agility course in your backyard, Silver recommends taking a class from a knowledgeable agility instructor.
“Because you want to make sure you’re doing things safely for your dog,” she says. “At the places I teach, we require health papers from your vet and a clearance that they are healthy to train in agility. We always advise people that, if they are concerned at all, to ask their vet to make sure their dog is healthy and sound enough to do agility.”
While agility courses can be modified for older dogs or overweight dogs, lowering jumps and taking care not to stress any joints, puppies also require special consideration when it comes to agility work.
“The thinking is they don’t really want dogs starting agility too young — definitely no younger than 12 months — but, for larger dogs, maybe as late as 18 months since the larger dogs grow more slowly,” the Atlanta-based trainer says.
“You want to wait until the growth plates are closed, and the dog is fully developed. Activities like running through tunnels are fine since that’s just running. You could have jumps set up with the bars on the ground so they’re learning to go through the stanchions. Rocco was in a foundation agility class when he was 6 months old, but we didn’t do any equipment until he was a year old.”
Ready For The Basics
Once your dog is ready for agility, the work begins with foundation training.
“The obstacles are really fun but to get from obstacle to obstacle you have to practice the handling, sometimes with the dog on your right side, sometimes on your left side,” Silver says. “When you watch agility on TV, the handlers are so experienced that they make it look easy, and you might not even notice the handling techniques they are using. We work a lot on handling skills so that it’s very clear to your dog which direction to go. It also helps keep you from tripping over each other!”
Once you have the handling basics down, you can introduce your dog to some of the agility obstacles. Silver explains that the easiest are the jumps and tunnels, while the teeter and weave poles present the biggest challenge to most dogs.
“Every dog is different, and every dog learns differently,” Silver says. “Some dogs learn equipment really easily and quickly, but other dogs need a little more time. Just like children, every dog is going to excel at different things and every dog will learn at his own rate.”
Silver has seen the difference in learning styles with her own dogs. Years ago, Silver was introduced to the sport of agility when she signed up her Havanese, Cosmo, for a class.
“I lived in a condo, and I didn’t have a place where I could just let him run,” she says. “He needed that mental and physical outlet so he could be more relaxed at home. He also was nervous about some things, and so I started agility to help build his confidence. When dogs are accomplishing something and working together with you, it can help build confidence. He really liked it, and we had so much fun.”
With Silver’s present dog, another Havanese, named Rocco, Silver took what she had learned with Cosmo and built upon that experience.
“I knew if I had another dog who did agility, I’d do it a little differently and do more foundation work,” she says. “Rocco was much more confident from the start. We did more groundwork and when Rocco started competing, he had a great time and we qualified right away.”
Once you and your dog have the basics of agility down, the skills can definitely be applied to other aspects of your life together.
“Agility training has helped teach Rocco how to work together with me as a team, and also to settle down and relax when it’s not his turn to run,” Silver says. “Those are great skills to have whether you’re at home or out and about with your dog.”
When training for agility, Silver recommends using soft treats that can be broken into extra small bits that won’t pack on too many calories. When high-value treats aren’t necessary, such as for backyard training, part of Rocco’s kibble dinner is often used as a motivating treat.
Most of all, though, Silver works to make sure that she and Rocco enjoy their team-building exercises.
“We put a little play in our day, every day, and keep it fun,” she says. “The end result is to have fun with your dog. Just like any sport, we make sure we don’t over-train, and we make sure we cross train. Rocco loves to hike, do tricks, he’s taken a rally class, and we play all sorts of games. Agility is about you and your dog playing together.”