Has your dog got bundles of energy and drive? Need a new challenge to really engage your pup’s brain and body? Then agility might be the perfect sport for you to try.
Agility training is a popular dog sport, based on you and your pooch navigating a series of obstacles successfully together. Focused on speed, strength and rock-solid communication, your dog must follow your directions to correctly complete the set course.
But don’t feel intimidated. There are no limits on what kind of owner or what kind of dog can excel at agility. A strong bond, some basic obedience training and an appetite for fun is all you need to get started. It’s a fantastic way to increase your dog’s confidence, activity level, and attention.
Plus, you don’t have to go to a show to enjoy the rush of agility (though you might want to, once your skills are honed!) You can compete against your own best time right in your backyard.
And to help set you up, we’ve got a beginner’s guide to the top 7 agility exercises to work on.
Let’s get started with number 1…
1. Weave Poles
This trick requires your dog to weave through markers set a few paces apart in the ground. Think slalom skiing!
You can buy specially made poles online, or make your own from PVC piping - or anything else you have around the house.
To begin to teach your dog to weave, start by luring them through wide set poles. Gradually decrease the space between the poles and move your lure further away. This could take a few weeks to months for your dog to nail, so be patient and keep consistent.
As a bonus, work on your dog’s flexibility to help them excel at this obstacle. Tricks like a bow, or figure of eight can really help loosen up those muscles.
2. Dog Walk
The dog walk is similar to a balance beam in gymnastics. Your dog must tread carefully and pay attention to the slim ramps.
There are some great new and used dog walks online. If you’re feeling crafty you can create your own from an old picnic bench, or spare pieces of plywood across 2 sturdy blocks. Just be sure there’s plenty of grip for your dog and nothing is too slippery.
Start with these obstacles as low to the ground as possible, to make them inviting. Let your dog have a sniff and examine the beam, and praise any movement they make to step onto it.
Next, try a little run-up, and see if your dog is happy to be led over it. Allow them to take their time, if this is a new way of learning to use their paws. Alternatively, you can place your dog on the central area, and praise them for coming down. This way they can begin to build confidence.
This is where your dog can show off their strength and precision by leaping over obstacles.
You can purchase adjustable jumps online, or make your own from strips of plywood and sturdy blocks. Bamboo garden canes and a washing basket with holes make a great homemade option too.
It’s a good idea to check with your vet before training jumps, to be sure a young pup is fully mature or that your older dog can handle the possible impact on their joints.
Start small and approach the jump quickly on leash. In most cases, your dog should pop over. Give lots of treats and praise if they do. As your dog gains confidence and prowess, you can begin to raise that bar!
If your dog is confused or unsure, try setting up jumps in the hallway and encourage them to come to you from the other side. This might help them to understand what you’re asking them to do.
Tunnel is exactly that...your dog running through a tunnel on command!
Your best bet for this is to invest in a specialized dog tunnel. Or choose a collapsible children’s tunnel if you want it, to serve a double purpose of entertaining your kids too!
Start off with the shortest version of your tunnel you can, so your dog can see you through the other side. Have an assistant helper hold them at one end, and encourage them through from the other side. If your dog is a little nervous, try placing some treats in the center for them to find.
As your dog becomes a pro, you can start to add different lengths and curves into your tunnel work.
5. Pause table
Similar to the dog walk, the pause table instead focuses on control. Your dog needs to take the ramp at speed, then be able to halt and sit or lie at your command on the top section, before exiting the other side.
Look for a table that's sturdy and low to the ground. Perhaps an old coffee table with some homemade ramps.
Start on a leash, and stay close to your dog as they take the obstacle. With increased contact this way, work on asking them to stay just for a brief few seconds to start with, before continuing. Gradually increase the amount of time you have your pooch stay, and the distance between you.
The next step is to practice this with lots of distractions, so you know your dog is really listening!
6. Tire jump
An impressive looking trick, the tire jump can be a tricky one for some pups to conquer.
You can use a hula hoop to begin to teach this concept. Then build up to working with something heavy like an old bike or car tire, which can be hung from a sturdy tree. Just be sure that the hole is wide enough for your dog!
Start on the ground, simply holding the hoop, and ask your dog to walk through it. Once they have mastered this, begin to hold it off the ground and see if they can hop through.
Gradually build their strength, stamina and confidence over time, working towards leaping through a tire. Don’t be afraid of taking backward steps if you need to, as it will be worth it in the long run!
The teeterboard is one of the most complex parts of an agility course, that requires your dog to really use their skills to balance and adjust to a see-saw motion.
It’s probably easiest to buy a purpose-built teeterboard. If you are handy with DIY however, you could try following a tutorial like this one.
The movement of a teeter can be tricky for some dogs to get a handle of, so introduce it slowly. Using a friend to help, start by coaxing your pooch onto the board, gently holding them by their harness for support. Have your friend crouch at the other end holding a treat, to encourage them forward. With your support, your dog should start to get a hang of the motion, and slowly you can begin to let go and watch them navigate it with ease!
Top tips for agility success:
Be sure to attach a clear command to each exercise, so you can begin to phase out treats and just use hands and voice signals.
Once your dog has mastered the basics, you can start to “sequence”. This means joining different tricks together to form a course.
Practice with distractions to help mimic a dog show.
Remember to use lots of encouragement and praise when your dog is successful, this will help them to enjoy learning these incredible new skills.
If you want to show off your agility work, you can find training programs and competition details on the AKCA, USDAA or NADAC websites.
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