Many people have asked me how they can get started in agility. I hope this page gives you some help.
Why Do Agility?
Agility is a fun game that you and your dog can do together. It is a TEAM sport - you are the guide and cheerleader for your dog as he performs a series of obstacles. It's good exercise for both of you, but more importantly, it's a terrific way to bond with your dog. It is also marvelous for building your dog's confidence and social skills.
Who Controls Agility?
There are several organizations that sanction agility competitions. The three biggest here in the northwest are NADAC, USDAA, and AKC. The rules and requirements differ slightly in each, but the basic game is the same. Many people participate in two or all three, and earn titles in each. Others run just for fun - you don't have to enter competitions to benefit from agility.
Who Can Play?
Any healthy dog can do agility. All breeds from Chihuahuas to Great Danes compete successfully. Mixed breeds and purebreds alike can play in most venues.
Some dogs will naturally do better than others in the sport, or will have certain advantages. The equipment is scaled for medium-sized dogs, and dogs who enjoy work and have a degree of independence (often the herding breeds) tend to do well. There are no absolutes, though, and dogs of all sizes, shapes, and levels of drive can play and succeed. What is most important is that you and your dog enjoy the experience.
What is a "Healthy" Dog?
Blind dogs may not compete (although they may be otherwise healthy), but deaf dogs are allowed in most venues. Dogs with only three legs may be allowed to participate in certain games in NADAC, but otherwise are not usually allowed.
While there are no specific rules against overweight dogs competing, it is nevertheless important to ensure that your dog is not carrying extra pounds. A normal weight for a sedentary dog is quite different than the ideal weight for a canine athlete. You can't tell by the numbers on the scale. Put your hands on the dog. You should be able to feel the ribs without having to push. The hip bones should be equally easy to locate. There should be an obvious "waist line" that is narrower than the ribs when viewed from above. Their tummy should not hang down loosely - it should be tight and tucked up.
If your dog is carrying a few too many pounds, start by cutting back on the treats, or substitute low calorie foods for treats or part of their dinner. My dogs love apples, frozen green beans, carrots, and pumpkin - all are nutritious and tasty. Of course, exercise is also important to help get the weight off, but build it up gradually and don't ask a significantly overweight dog to jump.
What About Puppies?
In most venues a dog must be 18 months old before being allowed in competition. Even if you don't compete, however, this age limit is still important. A puppy's growth plates do not close until at least 12 months of age in small dogs, and later in larger breeds. The only way to know for sure that the plates are closed is to take an X-ray. Until they are closed, jumping can cause invisible injuries that may not show up immediately, but can cause lifelong problems.
This doesn't mean that you can't do agility training until then. There are many things you can do with even young puppies to prepare them for the game of agility.
Before beginning agility, your dog should have basic obedience training. They must have a reliable recall and a good stay. They need good social skills - they may not be aggressive towards other dogs or people. They should respect the handler as a leader.
Puppies should be exposed to other dogs, people, and situations at an early age. Even young dogs can be taught to sit and stay, although they probably won't hold it for very long. I am a firm believer in positive training methods. The Clicker Method is one popular and effective approach to positive training.
Beginning Agility Training
Your first agility lessons can be in either a class or private instruction. Both have their advantages. A class gives your dog an opportunity to practice his socialization skills and also helps him learn to deal with distractions. Private lessons allow for more individualized training. I generally recommend that students do both.
Beginning classes will usually focus on teaching your dog to respond to your directional commands. You will probably get an introduction to the equipment, allowing your dog to try walking on a narrow ramp, go through tunnels, and go over short jumps.
Puppies should take a class specifically for them. They should work with scaled-down equipment, no jumps, and lessons tailored to their abilities and attention spans.
As You Progress
As you move into the intermediate classes, your dog will learn to do the obstacles independently and you will begin to tie them together into sequences. You'll learn how to "handle", or give the dog proper direction. You'll graduate to full-size and full-height equipment.
You'll find that different instructors may give you conflicting information. This is actually a good thing. What is right for one dog may be wrong for another. The best instructors can recognize this and adjust their training methods accordingly. It is always up to you, though, to listen to many points of view and choose and use what is best for you and your dog. I encourage students to try several different instructors. Don't be afraid to try new things, but also feel free to pass on something that you genuinely feel is not right for the two of you.
We are currently not offering lessons at Mega-Dogs, although some of the local instructors use our arena to hold their classes.
The Links page includes links to several local instructors and clubs. Expect to pay around $10 per session for classes, and $40 or $50 per hour for private instruction.
Once you have completed at least a beginners class and know how to use the equipment safely, you are welcome to come to Mega-Dogs to practice your new skills. We hope to see you at a trial soon !