Dog Agility Training

Some dog owners like to train their dogs for agility competitions which involves running a hurdle course made up of jumps, tunnels, poles and so on. The objective is to run the course with as few failures as possible in the quickest time. To undertake this kind of advanced training your dog should already by obedient to primary commands. Throughout the event the handler is not allowed to touch the dog to get it through the course, it requires a bond between animal and human and obedience from the dog to physical and voice expressions. While any breed can be given agility training some are more suited to it than others.

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Dogs that best suit

The USDAA says there are over 150 dog breeds that take part in agility courses, some of whom are mixed. There are a few that stand out as being known for their agility and obedience. These include;

Cocker Spaniels

Golden Retrievers

Australian Shepherds

Jack Russell Terrier

Papillons

Border Collies

Welsh Corgis

Labrador Retrievers

Belgian Tervurens

Shetland Sheepdogs

Dogs with energy, intelligence and strength do best. Larger breeds like Great Danes and Mastiffs struggle as they do not have the strength. Short-nosed breeds like some Terriers, Boxers and Bulldogs struggle because dogs taking part need to be able to do heavy deep breathing. Also those with hind legs that are short may struggle with clearing leaps. Older dogs over 8 to 9 years old are too old and dogs under 10 months are not allowed.

Why undertake agility training for dogs

When you start you will quickly discover it gives them more confidence and energy, it is a great way to get in physical and mental exercise for them and when done correctly they enjoy it. He will be able to problem solve, get physically stronger and more agile, it will re-enforce the bond between you and strengthen his obedience training. As well as also being more reliable your dog will be in better health.

Getting started

While dogs cannot take part in agility competitions before one year, you can start training them before that. First of all you need them to master basic obedience commands such as 'sit', 'lie down', 'stay' and 'come' and be able to walk on a leash. He also needs to be acclimatized to different dogs, people and places. You also need to get your puppy to a certain level of fitness. Once you have those basics you can start to introduce the different equipment to him using one per session at first and keeping it small and low. Over time the tunnels can be made longer, the jumps higher and so on. For support in getting started you can also contact your local canine agility training club and ask for advice, and there are trainers who specialize in agility training.

Contact Obstacles and tips for each one

There are several contact hurdles in agility courses which are when your dog has to take on an obstacle where on one or both sides he has to touch it. Sometimes it is with at least one paw sometimes more paws are specified. Here is a closer look at each contact obstacle and some tips on training your dog to complete it. For more information on other jumps on agility training see our separate article titled 'Agility Training – A Closer look at Dog Jumps'.

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Bar Jump

Lower the bar of an adjustable jump to the ground or just an inch or so higher. Hold your dog's leash and walk him over the jump. If he wants to sniff the jump first let him, so that he gets used to it. If he is reluctant guide him using a treat. Each time he gets to the other side give praise and reward him. Over time slowly raise the bar, making sure he is confident with the last height before you move on. Do not raise it too high or by too much. Regulation height can wait. Also if you are training a young puppy you do not want them jumping high as their joints are still vulnerable to injury.

Tunnel

If you have a tunnel that can you scrunch up so that it is smaller this is a good way to get your dog started. Put him on a long leash and make him sit at one end. Go to the other and call him to you guiding him through the tunnel with the leash if necessary. You can have a treat in your hand that you place on the ground for him to get on your side of the tunnel but do not put it inside the tunnel as you don't want him stopping inside. When he comes through praise and reward him and repeat. After he is confident with this stage move on by having him enter the tunnel while you 'run' by it clapping and talking to encourage him. You can also stretch out the tunnel a bit at a time and then make it curve one way, then the other.

Weave Poles

When you see well trained dogs do the weave poles with ease it looks like a simple obstacle, however training them to get that good does not happen overnight. You need to have a set at home to be able to practice, do it often but for short sessions and try to keep it positive. There are a few methods used to train your dog on the weaves, but whichever works for you it is important not to rush them. You may have great days and not so great days. The most basic method is to put your poles in and guide your dog in and out of them using treats as lures. Other methods include;

Wire Method – Clip wires on the poles to make a path to channel your dog through. Wires should be at eye level at first, or a level that stops then from going under or over. Slowly you raise them out of the dog's sight line until you can take them off completely.

Chute Method – Similar to the wire method but this uses chicken wire mesh gates.

Channel Method – Uses a special set of weave poles so that at first your dog is just running down a channel created with no weaving, then as you bring the poles together more the weaving starts.

Slanted-Pole Method – Similar to the Channel Method where the poles can be slanted but are fixed to a straight base.

Which ever you choose start with 6 poles and then slowly add more when those are mastered. Remember the dog has to enter on the right of the first pole. He needs to do this consistently so perhaps spend just some training time on that alone and give a treat each time he gets it. If he misses a weave do not reward him, be friendly say 'try again', and take him back to the start. When he gets it right rewards, praise and give high valued treats.

Tire Jump

The training for this jump is similar to how you did the bar jump. But this is a more narrow opening and your dog may not be confident that he can get through. Start slow and low. Have the tire touching the ground and have your dog come through it. When he is confident about that you can raise it a little. If your dog tries to go under do not reward him and take it back to a height he mastered. Once he masters full height do not let him go back to lower heights as at this point he has memorized what he needs to do to get through at full height. Anything lower will cause him to fail and he may hurt himself and lose confidence again.

Closed Tunnel

When your dog has mastered the open tunnel both in the straight and curved position you can move on to teach the closed tunnel. Take the fabric tunnel and roll it up until it is just 3 or 4 feet. Have your dog stay on one side or a friend hold him while you go on the other and call your dog through. He should be able to do this easily. Then you can slowly lower the chute so that it gets narrower in there for your dog. Eventually the chute should touch your dog's back. Then you need to progress so that rather than waiting at the end for him you can send him in and run alongside. Now you can add length to the chute remembering to talk in a happy tone to your dog as he runs through as it is dark and hearing you reassures him. Be sure to also practice in the rain as it feels different for him then and he needs to be prepared for it.

Pause Table

Important to being successful at this obstacle is to have your dog like being on it! That way he will pause and not jump off. You need him to sit and stay on for five seconds and since your dog up to then has been trying to move fast this pause can be a bit annoying. Have the table lowered as much as possible and holding his leash run your dog up to the table. When you reach it say 'table' and when he jumps up on it give him a treat. He will pause to eat it and then give him a few more seconds of praise and love on it. Repeat several times.

Then move on to telling him to 'sit' there before giving him his treat. Do not release him straight away, count out 5 seconds then say 'okay' or 'let's go' to release him and lead him off. Do not give him a treat when he jumps off. Then move on to getting him to 'lie down' on the table. Different agility courses have different rules, some require one and some the other. You also need to practice moving away from him so that he obeys you from more of a distance.

There is another similar obstacle called a Pause Box, this is similar to the table but it is made of a pipe in the ground and your dog has to go inside it and sit or lay down without having his paws in the boundary. This where the 'tuck' command is needed.

See-saw

Also called the Teeter totter this is a difficult obstacle. Lower the plank when starting out and slowly raise it as he masters each level. In this you need to teach your dog he has to slow down so the plank does not drop too fast on him making him fall off. Have him on a leash and hold him close then guide his nose to the plank with a treat. When in the middle of the see saw it may be a good idea to have someone else there to ensure the plank does not drop too quickly. Make your dog edge along inch by inch and get him to wait as the plank moves down slowly. As your dog gets more confident you can have your dog control the drop not you or a friend though someone should make sure it does not bang. Eventually you will get to where the board can hit harder. Make sure your dog stops and waits at the top to control the pivot.

Keep in mind on this obstacle there are contact zones, places your dog has to have contact with. At first when he is going slowly that is not a problem but as he gains in speed and confidence he may start to miss some. Do not let that become a habit as it is hard to break. Use honers like mesh, wire hoops, or cones to teach your dog to target these areas. You can use target training here or use the 'easy' command.

Dog walk

For the dog walk you need him on his leash and under a tight hold at first. Have another person on the other side to stop him from falling off and make your dog feel safer. Lower the height if possible so you can gradually increase it as he masters them. Use your hand and a treat to keep him focused and encourage him to walk across. When at the bottom make sure he does not jump too early, missing the contact zone. Use a treat to reward him when he touches it.

A-frame

To train a puppy on this you need to be able to lower it or make the incline less sharp then increase as he gets more confident. Dogs will come at this one fairly fast so your main concern is making sure he stays safe on it and that he reaches the contact zones. Some have a contact zone on both sides and some on just the downward side.

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