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An Introduction to Agility

Originally appeared in the October 1998 ESAA Newsletter

For the next several months, my mission is to convince you to try a new form of dog sport called dog agility. English Setters are athletes, and thus, are well suited for the sport. This month I will introduce you to the sport and then in future columns describe some training techniques I have found to be successful.

What in the world is dog agility? Agility somewhat resembles equine show jumping where the dog takes the place of the horse, and the handler replaces the rider. To the uneducated eye, it probably looks like the rider must have fallen off and is now frantically trying to catch his steed! Actually, the dog is running on an obstacle course which is composed of barriers to jump, tunnels to run through, weave poles to slalom, a catwalk to traverse, an A-frame to scale, a see-saw to tip, etc. The handler's job is to help the dog perform all of the obstacles correctly and safely in the sequence that has been prescribed by the judge. Each course has a pre-determined time (the standard course time or SCT) in which the obstacles must be performed. There are no standard course patterns. Each course provides a new and exciting experience. The winner is the fastest dog who completes the course with the least number of course faults (points deducted for incorrectly performing an obstacle or running obstacles out of sequence.) In agility, the dog runs the course off-lead. In fact, in most agility organizations, the dogs run "naked" -- without lead or collar.

You may be wondering what ever possessed humans to devise such a diabolical sport? Agility began about 20 years ago and is currently experiencing the greatest participation growth of all dog sports throughout the world. Don't know much about history???? Well, here's how it all got started. In 1977, John Varley, a member of the show committee for the famous Crufts International Dog Show, was charged with finding something to entertain spectators during the down time between events in the main arena. Since Varley had experience with show horse jumping, he thought some sort of dog jumping competition would have spectator appeal. Although he knew how to present his "agility", he needed someone experienced with dog training to bring his idea to fruition. Thus, he approached Peter Meanwell from Lincoln, England who supplied the practical knowledge needed to stage the first agility demo at Crufts in February 1978. The spectators loved watching the dogs run, jump, dive and climb. The activity was so popular that within a short time agility competitions began to spring up around England. In 1979, the Kennel Club (UK) introduced a set of agility regulations to standardize the equipment used ensuring safety for the canine participants. After observing agility English-style, Kenneth Tatsch returned to Texas and founded the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) in 1986. USDAA agility was and still is very similar to the British version. Charles Kramer began the National Club for Dog Agility (NCDA) in 1987 which was a considerably different type of event. NCDA agility was later taken over by the United Kennel Club (UKC). USDAA, in conjunction with Pedigree, organized the Pedigree Grand Prix of Dog Agility, the first agility competition attracting the top competitors in the nation in 1988 and for many years sponsored the U.S. national team that competed in world events. Agility as a sport has exploded in the U.S. and Canada during the last 8-10 years. There are currently six organizations that sanction agility trials open to English Setters in North America -- USDAA, the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), the Agility Association of Canada (AAC), the AKC, and UKC. USDAA and NADAC trials are held in both the U.S. and Canada. Each organization puts its own spin on agility so the rules and regulations vary from organization to organization (except for NADAC and ASCA whose rules are the same) offering the exhibitor a range of agility experiences. As in obedience, there are typically three titling levels offered by an organization requiring novice, intermediate or advanced skills. Many of the organizations offer competition in different agility games as well as the standard courses.

Before going further, I must warn you that getting involved in agility can be hazardous to your health -- it is addictive!! When I first saw agility, I thought it looked like fun, but I was not going to get involved in another dog sport. After all, I already did conformation, obedience, tracking and dabbled in herding and field work. That was before I agreed to obedience train a Golden Retriever with a confidence problem. Since one of the claims of agility enthusiasts is that it builds confidence, I enrolled in an 8 week beginning agility class just to improve the dog's confidence -- I was never going to compete. How does the saying go? .... Never say never? Ten weeks later, we travelled 200 miles to enter our first USDAA competition, and within 6 months I was competing in California, Oregon, Washington and Canada. In the last six years, I have trained and competed with three different breeds including an English Setter and have earned titles in all of the organizations listed above except the UKC. Last year, my dog had the good fortune to finish second overall in the 20" Open level at the North American Dog Agility Championships and was the 20" Open Jumpers Champion. I have also won my local agility club's Agiliholic award for the person who is most addicted to the sport as evidenced by the distances travelled to competitions!

The challenge of agility is to balance speed with control in correctly negotiating the obstacles that make up the course. The courses of the different organizations will place differing amounts of emphasis on speed versus control. NADAC and USDAA require a larger speed component while AKC and UKC are more obedience/control oriented. For example at the novice level, dogs must run 2.25-2.75 yards per second on the course in NADAC, 2 yps in AKC and 1.75-2.25 yps in UKC to qualify. At the most advanced level, setter-sized dogs must cover the course at 3.25-3.75 yps in NADAC, 3 yps in AKC and 1.7-2.0 yps in UKC. In AKC and UKC but not USDAA or NADAC, dogs are faulted for refusals (stopping while approaching an obstacle or running beyond an obstacle entrance even if the dog does complete the obstacle in the correct sequence) even at the novice level. Each organization splits a skill level into jump heights. Dogs compete in a jump category determined by the height of the dog at the withers. English Setters jump 24" in all organizations except AAC where they jump 26" (USDAA RULE CHANGE for 1999 has English Setter size dogs jumping 26" ). AKC differs from all other organizations in the fact that weave poles are not used in novice which allows dogs of lower skill level to compete. AKC agility trials are only open to AKC registerable dogs. In the other agility organizations, anything canine can compete. The minimum age for canine competitors is 6 months for UKC, 12 months for AKC and 18 months for the other organizations. I personally think that agility is too physically demanding for dogs less than 18 months of age to compete. That's not to say that you can't begin training with a puppy, just that dogs should not be jumping full height until they are physically mature. Just like one has favorite flavors of ice cream, I have favorite flavors of agility. I like NADAC best followed by USDAA, with AKC being a distant third.

Do you need an obedience trial champion to begin training agility? Actually, having a great deal of obedience competition experience may not be advantageous. In agility, dogs must be able to work equally well on the handler's right and left -- a concept that often poses some initial, but not insurmountable, difficulties with obedience competition dogs. Dogs should be able to sit, down, come promptly when called off-lead, and be able to walk in a controlled manner off-lead before begining agility training. Competition heeling and recalls are not necessary. Dogs which will at least play retrieve, and those that understand targeting may also have an advantage. Initial agility training involves teaching the dog to safely perform the various obstacles. In our classes, we introduce the dogs to low versions of the dog walk, A-frame, table, and jumps. As a dog gains experience, we slowly raise the obstacles up to their full competition heights. A dog needs to become physically and mentally confident in his ability to negotiate the equipment safely. We try to get leashes and hands off the dogs as quickly as possible. In the early stages, we employ spotters whose roles are analogous to those used in teaching gymnastics to children. Agility is a sport in which the dog must take responsibility for his actions. Reliance on leashes can result in learned helplessness where the dog does not learn what his responsibilities are and does not develop physical coordination or learn how to maintain balance. In addition, leashes can get hung up on the equipment resulting in injury. The faster the handler develops verbal control, the faster the dog will progress. Upon completion of the basic obstacle training, the next phase of training involves developing the working 'vocabulary' of both verbal and body signals needed to direct the dog off-leash around a course. Dogs learn to respond to verbal commands or body language even when running at full speed at some distance from their handlers. In the sport of agility, you can choose just how competitive you wish to be. Do not expect to earn an agility title on the strength of an 8 week beginners class. The sport has evolved too much for that unless you have an agility prodigy. I now expect to spend a year training my dogs before entering competition. I love speed, am interested in competing at the highest levels of the sport, and am willing to spend the time to build the foundation necessary to make my dog a top competitor.

While a handler may have to employ different handling techniques to successfully complete courses in the different organizations, the same basic techniques can be used to train the skills needed by a dog to safely and successfully negotiate the agility obstacles regardless of the agility flavor you choose. In my upcoming columns, I will describe the methods I use to train jumping, the contact obstacles, the weave poles and how to develop power-steering on a course.

Direct suggestions, comments, and questions about this page to Arlene Courtney,
Last Modified December 24, 1998