by Heather Smith

Beginner's Guide to Dog Agility

Dog agility is a competitive sport that requires dogs to run through what's basically a timed obstacle course. Agility is a great sport because you get what you want out of it: You can aspire to be a top competitor, or simply enjoy it as a fun activity for you and your dog.

How can you tell your dog will ace agility?

Any breed can learn to do agility, but some are more inclined than others. Herding dogs tend to take best to the sport, because they work away from -- but closely with -- humans. So your cattle dogs, Border Collies, Shelties, Retrievers and Schnauzers are likely to excel at dog agility. In my experience, large-breed dogs might lack energy or drive, and terriers and other dogs with short noses might have difficulty breathing. Dogs with short legs, such as Dachshunds, might have a hard time clearing the jumps. And some dogs might prefer to sit in your lap; they're probably not prime prospects for dog agility.

Although it might take time for your dog to gain confidence, you can usually tell if he has the drive for agility. If you use food or toys (whatever motivates your dog), most dogs will at least make an effort to try it out.

Basic dog agility requirements

Dogs are only eligible to compete in U.S. Dog Agility Association events once they reach 18 months, because their growth plates need to be closed and their muscles and body mature enough to handle agility work. Dogs grow at different rates, so take your dog's breed and size into account. If you're not sure whether your dog is ready, ask your veterinarian.

Your dog should also be fit. You'd want to be in shape before running a marathon, and your dog needs the same preparation before starting agility work. This isn't the way to make your dog lose weight: An overweight dog might sustain an injury trying to climb an A-frame.

Lastly, ensure that your dog has basic manners and solid obedience. He doesn't need to be trained in formal, in-the-ring type of obedience, but every dog needs to know how to sit, lie down, stay and come. This also helps form the basis of your working relationship. You're going to ask your dog to do some things that are unnatural to her, and she has to be able to trust you.

Agility work at home

A typical obstacle course requires dogs to jump hurdles, mount ramps, traverse tunnels, negotiate a see-saw, and maneuver through a line of poles. You'll need to train your dog in each segment. Check out your local bookstore or search online for dog agility resources -- you'll find plenty of DVDs, books, seminars and YouTube videos that offer clear instructions on how to train your dog to perform each type of obstacle.

Dog agility equipment can be expensive and difficult for the average person to build, but you can get creative. I bought my Miniature Schnauzer a play tunnel from a kids' store because it was the right size. You can also improvise equipment with stuff you have around your home. For example, line a few chairs in two parallel lines and drape a sheet over them to create a tunnel through which your dogs can run. Or make two stacks of bricks and place a broom handle or pole across the top to create a jump. (Just be sure to keep the height low.)

The keys to successful dog agility training are patience and positive reinforcement along with consistency and clear direction in what you're asking your dog to do. All dogs learn at a different rate. Patience is a virtue in anything, and it's important in agility too.

If you want to take a dog agility class, find groups and training schools on the USDAA's website.

Heather Smith is the public relations and communications director for the U.S. Dog Agility Association Inc. She has been involved in agility since it started in the United States in 1985.

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