Introduction to Dog Agility Training

Boone in agility
action shots above were taken by photographer Jacques Beauvais

My friend Brenda (also our dog sitter) and her Golden Retriever, Boone (pictured all over this post), were involved in dog agility competitions from the time Boone was one year old till he was 10, at which time he retired. I was intrigued and fascinated when she posted a picture of him with all his medals. I wanted to know more.

This post will summarize what dog agility training and competition are all about. Brenda graciously provided photos and videos for great visuals and explains further down the different types and levels of competitions because I was very confused!

What is dog agility training?

Dog agility training is a sport involving a team of two: a handler and a dog. The handler directs their dog through a series of obstacles (typically 14-20) on a big field. Tunnels, weave poles, tire jumps, and seesaws are common. Competitions are scored by how precisely and fast a dog finishes the course.

The handler can’t touch the dog. Using only cues, he or she will help the dog navigate the course in the right order, which could change often.

It is impressive and fun to watch. I got tired just watching Brenda and Boone below!

Is agility training good for dogs?

Agility training is a great physical and mental exercise for a dog. It will keep the dog in shape. Running through a course involving going over, under, and around obstacles will challenge its mind.

At the same time, it’s a great exercise for the owner as he or she needs to run alongside the dog.

Is agility right for your dog?

Agility would be right for your dog if it enjoys physical activity. The dog needs to love running through the course and just have fun doing it.

You would need to assess his temperament to be sure. Is your dog very energetic? Does he enjoy running? Does he get along with other dogs? Has he been trained to follow basic commands such as sit, lie down, come, and stay? If you answered yes to all of these, then agility could be a great fit.

But you also have to ask yourself if it’s right for you. Remember it’s a sport you participate in as well. Will you enjoy learning the process and training on a regular basis?

Brenda says:

We took weekly classes throughout the summer and winter.

We practiced daily and competed most weekends during the summer and monthly during the winter. We had to run in good weather and bad.

Competitions and classes run no matter the weather.

Boone and I have run in the pouring rain, extreme heat, and cold!

Do dogs like agility training

Most energetic dogs will love agility training as they can spend all this energy on something fun.

Brenda says: Boone loved it!

Can any dog do agility?

All breeds, including mixed breeds, can participate in agility – from the smallest to the largest of dogs.

If your dog responds to commands, such as stay, sit, down, and has a good recall, you and your dog would be ready to do agility training and compete in ‘trials’.

At what age should you start agility training?

Dogs can start agility training once they are between the ages of one and two. Puppies younger than that may injure themselves if they jump. They are not fully developed.

But there are special classes for them. Keep on reading.

Pre-agility puppy training

A puppy can start a ‘pre-agility’ training when he’s 4 months old.

There is no jumping or running. The main goal is to make sure the puppies get used to being around the equipment and learn a few tricks, such as shadow handling and hand targeting. Sessions are kept short.

Puppies need to have had their first shots in order to enroll in a class.

Brenda says: It was a very cute agility class FULL of puppies! We did target work and the jump poles were on the ground.

Is my dog too old for agility?

A dog’s age can certainly be a factor to consider before starting agility but the same goes for his weight and overall health and fitness. Safety always comes first.

Consulting with your vet would be recommended to assess his ability to do agility and not harm himself.

Brenda says: yes I stopped because I could see Boone was starting to have a hard time. We still did agility for fun but no more classes or competitions.

Is dog agility training hard?

Dog agility training for beginners can be hard work. It is a fast-paced sport that requires coordination and training. There could be some risks of injuries to handlers, although the dog is doing the majority of the work.

Why do dogs bark during agility?

The majority of the time, barking during agility is due to excitement or frustration.

Some dogs just bark through the entire run just for the joy of it! They love the game and are excited. Pretty sure this is why Boone is barking in the videos.

But the barking could also be the result of frustration because the owner is too slow in giving direction. It’s up to the handler to keep up with a driven dog.

How big is a dog agility course?

 A competition-sized course is usually around 10,000 square feet. The different kennel associations have their own minimum size requirements though.

The AKC in the USA requires competition-sized rings as follows:

Novice5,000 sq. ft.
Open6,500 sq. ft.
Masters8,000 sq. ft
Ideal12,000 sq. ft.

The United States Dog Agility Association is known for its challenging courses. Some Snooker or Steeplechase courses could be 19,600 sq. ft. in total!

ASCA is the Australian Shepherd Club of America. Their minimum ring size is 8,000 sq. ft. but ideally would be 12,000 or more.

The North American Dog Agility Council requires an absolute minimum of 8,000 sq. ft. but 10,000 sq. ft. or more is preferable. The courses can be as spacious as 15,000 or even 20,000 sq. ft.

The Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) requirements are:

Indoors

Novice6,000 sq. ft. (558 sq. m.)
Intermediate8,000 sq. ft. (744 sq. m.)
Excellent8,000 sq. ft. (744 sq. m.)

Outdoors

Novice8,000 sq. ft. (744 sq. m.)
Intermediate10,000 sq. ft. (930 sq. m.)
Excellent10,000 sq. ft. (930 sq. m.)

Dog agility training equipment

These following obstacles are the basic agility equipment you will find through the course:

  • Jumps – a bar between two poles. The dog must jump over the bar without knocking it down.
  • Tire jumps – rings suspended in the air. The height of the tire is based on the height of the dog, and he must jump cleanly through the opening.
  • Open tunnels – long canvas tubes, similar to those for kids. They can be either straight or curved, and the dog must enter at one end and exit at the other.
  • Weave poles – a series of six to 12 poles spaced out along a straight line. The dog must enter to the right of the first pole and weave through the others without missing a pole.
  • Seesaws – just like those found at the playground. The dog must run up the side that is lowered to the ground then ride the seesaw down the other side as it lowers to the ground.
  • Dog walks – an up ramp at one end, a flat elevated middle section, and a down ramp at the other end.
  • A-frames – two broad ramps attached together into a peak. The dog must run up one side and down the other side to the contact zone.

Dog agility training at home

If you would like to try your hand at agility training at home first, you can make your own obstacles. But eventually getting into an agility class is much better.

Here are some ideas to create homemade versions of agility equipment. Finally, you can make simplified versions by adapting things you already have lying around like tomato stakes for weave poles or a blanket over two chairs for a tunnel.

Jumping

You can buy a cheap hula hoop or a pool noodle to use as a ring. You need something soft and collapsible to prevent harm to your dog. Make sure you hold the circle at a height based on your dog’s height.

Weaving

Tomato stakes, small orange cones, or those candy cane poles they sell for Christmas would work. Whatever you choose, it has to be lightweight but secure enough that they don’t fall over. Also, make sure they are not too close together or too far apart.

Tunnel

You could use a child’s play tunnel or a cardboard box with both ends removed or even a blanket thrown over two chairs.

How much does agility training cost

The cost of dog agility training will vary depending on your location and for each level class. It will probably cost more in a big city as opposed to a small town. Do a Google search “dog agility training near me” and contact or even better, go visit the school and see some classes in action.

There will also be competition fees involved if you go that route. Again those will vary depending on the level, who is offering the event, and the location. 

COMPETITION

What is a dog agility competition?

Some people do agility training just for fun, while others enjoy competing in agility trials. During the trials, the teams compete to complete the obstacle course the fastest and with the fewest mistakes.

Can any dog compete in agility?

All breeds and mixed breeds, any size dogs are eligible to compete in agility. Of course, as long as they have been trained in agility first.

Dog agility competitions in a nutshell

I asked my friend Brenda to explain a bit how competition levels and categories work. Her experience is with Canadian Associations as we live near Montreal, Quebec, Canada but it should be similar in the US. You’ll find links at the end of the post to different associations in Canada and the US.

Gambler Event

This is a gambler run. Boone and I struggled so much with these competitions. The first part of the run you try to gather as many points as you can. Each obstacle is worth points, some more than others. As you can see in this video Boone got a few zero’s because he jumped off the end of the dog walk and A-Frame. The dog must touch the painted end of the obstacle. Boone was giving me a hard time and jumped off the end of both!

When the buzzer sounds you have to complete the end sequence made by the judge without crossing the line and within the time limit. Boone would always just bark at me in a competition. It was the first Master Gambler we successfully completed in three years of trying!! – Brenda

Steeplechase Event

In this event, you can have a fault (knocked bar or missed contact) as long as you have a fast run. This fault (5 points off) is added to your time of the run.  If you are still within the time limit you have a qualifying run.  

In this video, Boone knocked down the bar after the weave poles but we still qualified because we were under time even with the fault.  Steeplechase was my favourite event. – Brenda


Brenda says:

These are the groups that I know of.  I only competed in two:  

AAC – Agility Association of Canada.  Any dog can compete in these trials whether purebred or mutt.  All you need is an AAC number which you apply for through the association.

CKC – Canadian Kennel Club.  This used to be only for purebred dogs only but a few years ago started having mixed breeds as well.  They had to apply for a CCN (canine companion number).  A purebred dog already has a registration number from CKC.

UKI (UK Agility International) – American Kennel ClubUSDAA (United States Dog Agility Association).  Some of my instructors and friends started competing in these associations but I know nothing about them!

Levels in AAC: Starters – Intermediate – Masters


In each group, you have different courses:

Standard which has all the equipment in each run.

Jumpers which are jumps and tunnels.  

Gamblers which you have one section of the run that you gather points and then the buzzer goes and you have to complete the distance sequence within the time limit. (See the video below to see Boone in action)

Snooker has four red jumps (or specifically marked jumps).  You must jump a red jump then do an obstacle.  Three of these have to be completed then you do the closing sequence.  You need a certain number of points and complete it within the time limit. (I found this one super confusing at first!) 

You have to get three perfect runs to move onto the next level.  You don’t have to get all to move on for example if you get three perfect jumpers you can move into intermediate level in jumpers but still be in starters for standard.  

But to get your Agility Trial Championship you must get all the levels in each category.  After that, you can keep going into bronze, silver, and gold levels right up to Lifetime Achievement Awards.

There are also Team competitions, Steeplechase and Challenge.  These are awarded by Silver, Bronze, and Gold but you need more qualifying scores for each award. (See the video below to see Boone in action)

There are also different categories for Regular, Veterans (seven years or older, or if your dog has been in specials or 12 months they can go into this category at five years), and Specials (dogs jump a lower height level).

Levels in CKC: Novice – Intermediate – Excellent – Master Excellent


CKC is similar to AAC, you need three qualifying scores to move up.  The rules are a bit different and there are a few different obstacles mainly the types of jumps and the contacts on the seesaw, dog walk, and A-frame are longer.

There are also different categories for Regular, Veteran, and Selected (lower jump level and more time).

An impressive list of titles Boone holds:

AAC titles (Agility Association of Canada)

  • SGDC – Starter Game Dog of Canada
  • ADC – Agility Dog of Canada
  • AGDC – Advanced Game Dog of Canada
  • AADC – Advanced Agility Dog of Canada
  • MADC – Master Agility Dog of Canada
  • MJDC – Master Jumper Dog of Canada
  • MSDC – Master Snooker Dog of Canada
  • MSCDC – Master Steeplechase Dog of Canada
  • MTRDC – Master Team Relay Dog of Canada (for this title you run with a partner and their dog) MGDC – Master Gambler Dog of Canada (this one was very hard for us!  The dog has to do part of the run at a distance from you and Boone would always just stand there and bark at me!  It took us years to get it!  And you need this title along with all the others before it to get your Agility Trial Champion title and you need this title to get any of the titles that follow it)
  • ATChC – Agility Trial Champion 
  • EXST Bronze – Bronze Expert Standard (you need 10 perfect Master standard runs )
  • EXST Silver – Silver Expert Standard (you need 25 perfect Master standard runs)
  • EXSC Bronze – Bronze Expert Steeplechase (you need 25 perfect Master Steeplechase runs)
  • ExJ Bronze – Bronze Expert Jumpers (you need 10 perfect Jumpers runs)
  • VBA – Bronze Versatility Award (you need 3 Expert Titles) 


CKC Agility Titles (Canadian Kennel Club)

AGN – Agility Novice AGIS – Agility Intermediate Selected AGXS – Agility Excellent Selected AGNJS – Agility Novice Jumper Selected AGNIJS – Agility Intermediate Jumper Selected

CKC Obedience Titles

CD – Companion Dog

Other fun sports to do with your dog


Flyball for dogs

According to Wikipedia, Flyball is a dog sport in which teams of dogs race against each other from the start to the finish line, over a line of hurdles, to a box that releases a tennis ball to be caught when the dog presses the spring-loaded pad, then back to their handlers while carrying the ball.

Scent detection

This is the best sport for any dog size, breed, or mutt. It’s great for a nervous dog, a slow or old dog. The handler trains the dog to execute a search pattern and target odors. You can train a dog anywhere and you don’t need a lot of equipment.

Tracking

In the tracking sport, the dog is in charge. He wears a harness attached to a 30-foot leash and pulls the handler down the trail to follow the scent of the tracklayer over various kinds of terrain.

Disc dog

Disc dog (commonly called Frisbee dog) is a dog competition, where a dog and its owner compete in events in different categories: Toss and Fetch, Freestyle and Long Distance.

Skijoring

This is a sport where a cross-country skier wears a harness at the waist which is attached to one to or three dogs. The skier pushes and the dogs pull. Verbal commands are used and there are competitions.

OTHER ANIMALS DOING AGILITY

Cats also do agility training and participate in competitions as well. The cat runs the course guided by its handler through obstacles such as bar jumps and hoop jumps, tunnel, cat walk, weave jumps, and jumps over mirror.

You can have fun training other small animals such as a mouse, a hamster, a rat, a gerbil, a guinea pig, a ferret, a rabbit, and even a chicken.

Useful links

AKC (American Kennel Club)

United States Dog Agility Association

ASCA is the Australian Shepherd Club of America

North American Dog Agility Council

CKC (Canadian Kennel Club)

AAC (Agility Association of Canada