Agility is available to all breeds, including mixed-breed. Unless the event itself is an American Kennel Club-sponsored competition, your puppy doesn’t have to be purebred. A rescued puppy can be as good a candidate for agility as a purebred one.
As in other sports, training for agility can begin when your puppy is as young as 8 weeks. As soon as the puppy shows some awareness and control over his environment, and can see how his actions are impacted by his environment, he can begin.
If you are acquiring a puppy with the hope of doing agility, there are several things you can look for. The ratio of the leg length, body length and a balanced view from the front and the side, can be indicators of how good a puppy might become at agility. Dogs who are lighter in weight, lighter boned, longer than they are tall, muscular, and have long noses are generally better at agility. Short-nosed breeds, like Bulldogs, may have trouble breathing, while dwarf breeds, like Dachshunds, may get too much stress on their backs during activities. Special care must be taken in training heavy-boned breeds, such as Rottweilers, in order to avoid impact injuries when landing jumps.
Look for a puppy who is focused and alert, energetic, inquisitive and assertive, as those puppies can handle the pressures and attentions they will encounter in the ring. Puppies who show problem-solving skills, like stepping over a small obstacle, are good candidates.
On the human end, learn to recognize these traits in a puppy. As Kim Seiter, a New Jersey-based agility trainer, explains: “A puppy is like a sponge from 6 weeks to 3 months of age. Training a puppy at that age is like teaching a baby a new language. You want to be aware that the puppy is learning, and introduce him to new things to the degree that he can tolerate. Then, reinforce the desirable behavior before taking it a step further.”
To prepare your potential superstar for agility training, follow the medical advice mentioned earlier. In addition, Seiter advises taking your puppy to a veterinarian chiropractor to confirm sound joint health. She also recommends using harnesses to walk your dog, or gentle leaders. The neck is very important in agility, and undue stress on the neck can affect your puppy’s performance.
The first day of class, the puppy is introduced to clicker training, which gives the trainer or handler the ability to reinforce good behavior — then come the obstacles.
When training your puppy for agility, Seiter recommends that you start with the difficult stuff first. Dogs who compete in agility have to learn a lot of different tricks. There are circular obstacles like tunnels, tires and closed chutes; contact obstacles like the A-frame, planks, a see-saw and table; weave poles; and jumping obstacles, including single, double, and triple jumps, and tire, broad and winged jumps. “Letting your puppy problem-solve the more difficult skills will help him build confidence as he is learning,” Seiter says. “With easier obstacles at the end of the training, agility is more fun for the dog.”
Small-breed puppies mature more quickly, mentally and physically, and are ready for agility at a little younger age than larger dogs. Jumps should never be set higher than the puppy’s shoulders, to minimize impact on landing.
Expect agility training to take several months, with your dog not being ready for competition until he is approaching emotional maturity, which happens at around 3 years of age, in Seiter’s opinion.
Agility competitions take place all over the Unites States, but you may have to travel farther for them, depending on what part of the country you live in.