The fur is flying, the noise is at a decibel I've never experienced before and the desire to win is so thick you can feel it. This is agility competition for dogs and Fiona, my soon to be athlete, and I are on the sidelines of an agility competition taking notes. Dogs of every breed, size and shape are jumping hurdles, running up A-frames, scampering across elevated walkways and diving through tunnels. So as not to get lost on the course, each dog is in constant eye contact with their owner who gives directions through hand signals and one-word prompts.
I've dabbled in agility with a previous dog, but this time I want to go to the show. My 10-month old sheltie is only a spectator now, but the look in her eyes tells me she's ready to become a contender. I've learned from the pros that the road ahead will be filled with training and hard work (for me and for Fiona), but the time spent developing our speed and skills will be rewarded by a canine-human bond rarely obtained in any other activity.
Before you and your dog hit the ring, here are 10 training tips to get you started.
1. Know Your Dog
Agility is a fast-paced sport with lots of running and jumping so make sure your wannabe athlete is structurally sound to participate in a sport that can be hard on joints. Mary E. Galloway DVM MS of RyLadd Shetland Sheepdogs, is a behaviorist and breeder of multiple agility champions. She emphasizes the importance of evaluating your dog for any structural impairments that could be exacerbated by the sport of agility. She also says it's important to understand the temperament of your dog. Does she like to run? Does he get along with other dogs? Is she a dog that looks to you for guidance or would she rather find her own path in the world? If after answering these questions, you're still not sure, find a beginner agility class or group and give it a go. Your dog will let you know what she thinks.
2. Know Yourself
Are you a born athlete, would you like to be more athletic or do you just want a unique bonding experience with your dog? Just like your dog you need to be aware and honest about your likes, dislikes and abilities as well as any of physical difficulties. Agility can be a high-paced running sport for handlers as well as dogs, but if running is not something you can or want to do, find a group or teacher who can instruct you in the art of agility distance control. This means your dog does the running and you basically stay put while still being the navigator.
3. Start Early
As soon as a pup starts exploring his or her world, preparation for agility can begin. Tiny bones and muscles will still be strengthening so never let your puppy attempt high jumps or climb on standard agility equipment. Instead have your developing athlete get use to walking on different types of surfaces – rugs, sidewalks, wood planking. As the puppy gets a little older and stronger, have him or her "jump" over a bar lying on the ground. A standard agility A-fame can be position to form a very shallow angle, which is safer for a developing puppy.
If you dog doesn't like being around dogs and/or people agility may not be the sport for you. Agility is a team sport between dog and owner, but competitions take place in the company of sometimes hundreds of dogs and their handlers. Your dog must be comfortable with meeting and greeting strangers of the human and canine variety. Since competitions are off lead, an agility dog must also be under control at all times and respond to basic obedience commands; such sit, stay, come and down.
5. Learn the Basics
Agility is definitely a team sport and both you and your dog need to perfect a set of skills whether competing for a title or just having fun. Dogs are taught what they need to do when they are confronted with an agility obstacle while handlers must learn how to communicate with their companion during the run. There are also rules to learn. Agility organizations, such as AKC, USDAA, NADAC and UKC go by different sets of standards so get to know the specifics for the group you decide to join.
6. Get to Know the Experts
In the last 10-years or so, agility has become more popular. Agility training classes are becoming more readily available and some competitors even hold private lessons. It's a good idea to find a group or a private teacher if you want to be a serious agility contender. These experts, who usually have trained a long list of champion agility dogs, can teach you, the handler, the finesse and subtlety of guiding your dog through a course while your dog will learn how to approach each piece of equipment and the rules of the game.
7. Finding the your dog's motivator
Some dogs are motivated by food, some can't get enough of tennis balls and for others a tug toy is nirvana. Discover the motivator that will encourage your dog through the course. Fiona started with food, but this kind of motivator can get pretty messy while running a course so we are slowing changing the motivator to a tennis ball. In the process I've discovered that Fiona loves to fetch -- something I hadn't known before.
Galloway cautions, however, these temptations are only used during training. In competition dogs are encouraged to run the course without the carrot on a stick and just enjoy the run. Of course, at the end of the course when your star has been the best competitor of the games, no matter how well he or she has done, treats and toys can flow freely.
8. Get you moves down
Depending on how coordinated you are and if you know your right hand from your left, you can choose to learn all the moves with a group or a private teacher. On a scale of one to ten with ten being the most coordinated, I fall somewhere between 1 and 2. I chose to begin my learning privately to limit distractions as I figured out which way to turn and what hand to use. Once the skills begin to stick, I felt like Fiona and I were dancing.
9. Setting your goals
Are you and your dog a sometime agility participant, a committed competitor going for the brass ring or are you somewhere in-between? Wherever you see your agility interest taking you set a goal. Setting achievable goals will help keep you and your dog motivated. And who knows? The bar may move higher each time you reach a new benchmark.
10. Have fun
Agility is a great work out for you and your dog and an incredible opportunity to bond as you both work together to learn new skills and become a competitive team. Agility is also fun so remember it's not who wins the competition; it's how big the smiles are when the last obstacle is cleared -- that goes for human and canine.