Agility is, in essence, a timed obstacle course for dogs. The handler (the person) directs the dog through a series of obstacles using voice commands, hand signals, and other cues such as body language, position, and acceleration/deceleration. You may not use a leash, toys, treats, or any other training device when “in the ring” – you run “naked”. There are several variations on the basic game, and slightly different rules between the various organizations that sanction the events. In the following paragraphs, I’ll give you a glimpse into the wacky world of Agility.
What dogs can do agility? Which ones are good at it? Any breed, or mix of breeds, can be trained to do agility. Active, energetic dogs are much better at it. And intelligent, strong, focused dogs are really good at it. The most numerous breed of dog at agility shows is usually the Border Collie – it is ideally suited to this sport. If you are familiar with the AKC groups, you’ll find that the Working, Herding, and Sporting groups are well represented at agility shows. Labs and Retrievers are popular, in the big dog groups. In the mid to smaller sized dogs, you find Shelties, Cockers and Springers. In the small dog groups, you find mini Poodles, Pomeranians, and Jack Russells. But I have seen almost every common breed at shows – Great Danes and Wolfhounds, Bassetts and Beagles, Dobermans and Miniature Pinschers, Whippets and Greyhounds. It is not about the breed – it is all about the dog. I have an Australian Cattle Dog – they are very well suited to the sport, much like the Border Collie. They have intelligence, strength, and drive – excellent traits for agility, but they are also stubborn, dominant, and can be aggressive – very bad traits when around a lot of other dogs. Finally, mixed breeds are very well represented at the organizations that allow them to compete. The intentional mixed breeds (designer breeds, they’re called), such as the Labradoodle, are seen, as well as a whole lot of shelter rescue dogs. And there are some folks that are creating new “designer” breeds just to try and get good agility dogs – mixing Border Collies with smaller breeds to get strong, small, fast dogs. It is, after all, all about the dog(s).
Agility obstacles fall into to 4 categories: jumps, tunnels, ramps, and everything else (poles and table). I’ll describe them all, with some pictures, so you can get the feel for what they are.
You would think that “jumps” are pretty obvious, but there are several kinds: standard jumps, wing jumps, spread jumps, and long jumps. Standard jumps are the obvious jump – two upright poles with one or more horizontal poles (bars) spread between them. The dog must jump over the bar, and between the upright posts to successfully complete the obstacle. Wing jumps are like standard jumps, but they have “wings” sticking out to the outside of the upright posts , which forces the handler to be a little further away when running by it. Spread jumps have depth as well as height – there is a second (and sometimes a third) bar on additional uprights behind the first one – the dog must clear all the bars in one jump. Long jumps (or broad jumps) are a set of panels (at a minimal height) laid on the ground – the dog must jump across them all without landing on them. There is also a special jump, called the tire – it is exactly what is sounds like. It is just like the old tire swing – a suspended circle which the dog must jump through. And finally, there is the panel jump, which is a variation of the standard/wing jump. The space between the upright poles is filled with panels, so the dog cannot see what is on the other side as it approaches. With only a few exceptions, jumps, in their many variations, make up the bulk of the obstacles in any given course.
There are two types of tunnels – a standard open tube tunnel (measuring 24 inches in diameter), and a “closed” tunnel, also called a chute. The standard tunnel is flexible – it can be bent into any shape, such as a “U” or an “S” curve, or can be left in a straight line (in what is known to most of us handlers as a particle accelerator – many dogs come out of a straight tunnel faster than they went in). Most dogs LOVE tunnels – some will, if you let your guard down, “choose” to go do a tunnel over any other obstacle; we have a name for these dogs – tunnel sucking dogs. The chute is a tunnel with a fixed barrel at the start, and then a fabric tube of between 8 to 15 feet attached to it. This fabric will “close” – i.e. lie flat on the ground. The dog cannot see all the way through it – in fact, they will actually have to push their way through to the end. This is normally a training challenge for young dogs. And sometimes, when there is a good breeze blowing in the right direction, a closed tunnel can be an open tunnel! The other thing about the chute/closed tunnel is that it is the only obstacle that requires someone reset it after each dog has performed it. The fabric can become twisted or tangled, and if not straightened, can cause the next dog to get trapped. (A breeze in the wrong direction can do that, too.) So there is always someone assigned to “straighten” the chute after each dog in a competition. While there might be several standard tunnels in a course, there is never more than one chute.
There are 3 pieces of ramp obstacles, or contact equipment: the dog walk, the A-frame, and the see-saw. The dog walk is 12 inches wide, 36 feet long, and is comprised of a 12 foot ramp up, a 12 foot level plank (at a height of 4 feet), and a 12 foot ramp down. (Some dogs can do this obstacle in under 3 seconds – think about that – you couldn’t do that!) The A-Frame is just what is sounds like – it is two 3 foot wide by 9 foot long ramps hinged together at the top. The height of the peak varies by different rules, but is between 5 feet and 6 feet 3 inches off the ground, making this a rather steep obtacle. And the see-saw is also just what it sounds like – a 12 inch wide, 12 foot long plank which rests on a pivot near the middle. The dog must run up it, force it to tip down on the other side, and wait for it to touch the ground before leaving the plank – this is also a real training challenge. All three ramp obstacles have what are called contact zones on the start of the ascending ramp and the finish of the descending ramp (hence they are called contact obstacles). These zones must be colored to stand out from the rest of the obstacle, and the dog is suppose to make contact with them on the way up and down. The “up” contact is not required in all venues, but the “down” contact is – this is designed as a safety rule, and as a way to ensure that all dogs do the whole obstacle – not jumping off at the top or part way down. There is never more than one of each of these in a course, and depending on the particular game, they may not be there at all.
And for the record, here is an example of how a dog is not suppose to perform a contact obstacle (the video plays at a faster than normal rate, but you get the idea):
Weave Poles and Table
Ah, the weave poles. This is a slalom obstacle – a group of upright poles (usually 6 or 12) that the dog must weave through. The dog must always start performing the obstacle by having the first pole on their left, and then proceed to weave, or slalom, their way through them. This is an incredibly hard obstacle to train, and can be one of the toughest obstacle in the course.
The final obstacle is the Pause Table. It is a 3 foot by 3 foot table that the dog must jump up on and pause for 5 seconds. Depending on the particular rules of the competition, they may have to either sit or lay down. The height of the table is adjusted for the height of the dogs, from 8 inches to 24 inches. Training the dog to do this obstacle isn’t real tough, but it seems that getting correct execution in a competition can be a challenge. My dog Beta barks at me the whole time she is on the table – she does not want to stop – she wants to go, go go!