Agility Training

Rising from its modest beginnings as a demonstration at the 1978 Crufts show, dog agility has since become the fastest growing dog sport. The basic idea of agility is for a handler to lead his dog through an obstacle course in the fastest time with the fewest faults. Unlike conformation shows, which score dogs based on how closely they epitomize a breed standard, agility competitions are all about having fun, regardless of your dog's ancestry.

How do I compete in an agility training competition?

Agility shows are sanctioned by three major organizations: the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), and the American Kennel Club (AKC), which allows only purebred dogs to compete. A brief summary of the rules for each organization is provided below.

In general, keep in mind that both the dog and the handler must be in excellent physical shape to compete. The dog will be running at full speed through much of the course, and the handler must be able to keep up. It is not unheard of for handlers to blow out their knees when turning a sharp corner with their dogs on an agility course. Both the handler and the dog should work out, doing not only the maneuvers required to get over, under, or through the obstacles, but also cardiovascular exercise to get the heart and lungs ready for the stamina you both will need.

What types of obstacles are included?

Contact obstacles include things like a see-saw or an A-frame. The dog is expected to step on the yellow portion at the beginning and end of the obstacle to avoid earning a fault.

Tunnels are either rigid, such as those made strictly out of PVC pipe, or they are collapsed tunnels that start with a rigid piece then progress to a fabric portion that is closed. The dog must run through the rigid portion, then burrow through the fabric portion.

Hurdles and jumps are pretty much the same as they are in horse racing, set to different heights depending on the size of the dog and the class in which he is competing. Some courses also offer a tire jump, in which the dog must "thread the needle" through the hole in the tire.

Agility dog jumping through a hoop
Hoops, poles, and tunnels are some of the fun obstacles your dog will encounter.

Weave poles are similar to a really closely placed slalom ski course. Each sanctioning body has different standards for the space between the poles, but they are fairly close together in all instances. The dog must weave left and right between each successive pole to get full points for this obstacle.

Finally, some events include a pause table. The dog, after running full out for the first several obstacles must jump up on the pause table and be still while the judge counts out a certain number of seconds. The dog must then leap from the table and go back to full speed competition.

NADAC Rules

If you and your dog want to compete in a NADAC event, your dog will need to be at least 18 months old. However, you should start training him as soon as his growth plates close to have him ready. Check with your vet to see when growth plates are likely to be closed in your particular breed of dog. While the handler doesn't have to be a member of NADAC to compete in NADAC-sanctioned shows, there are some financial benefits of becoming a NADAC associate, such as reduced entry fees and free exhibitor information.

NADAC competitions have a junior handler's division for handlers under the age of 17 and a veteran's division for dogs over the age of 7. Disabled handlers may also compete in the veteran's division. All others compete in the standard class. Within each of these classes are two categories: proficient and skilled. Proficient competitors are those who can jump the designated jump height for their division and size, and can complete a run with no course faults or time faults in order to earn certificate-qualifying points. Skilled competitors can compete at a jump height one level lower than that required for a proficient competitor. In addition, dogs may earn 5 qualifying points towards a certification for a skilled level run completed with 5 or fewer faults.

Little dog clearing a hurdle
Jump heights are determined by the dog's size.

Jump heights are determined by the height of the dog at the tallest point on his back (the withers) and by the division in which he is entered. For example, a dog that is between 14 and 18 inches tall at the withers and competing in the standard division must jump 16 inches. Dogs under 11 inches in the veterans division must jump 4 inches.

Dogs are initially entered at the Novice level. After earning a novice title, the dog advances to the open level, then goes on to the elite level after earning an open title. The obstacles used in NADAC trials include a dog walk, weave poles, an A-frame, an open tunnel, hoops, winged and non-winged jumps, gates, and a tire jump.

NADAC's exhibitor's handbook lists the following as the group's mission statement: "NADAC supports agility as a competitive sport, while striving to protect and advance the interests of dog agility by encouraging sportsmanlike competition and responsible dog ownership. We set forth and govern the guidelines that support the concept of fun, while maintaining a competitive and safe agility arena.

NADAC encourages and trains judges to set courses that are fast and flowing. Courses are traditionally fun and fast due to the flow and distance between obstacles. Our goal is to maintain an environment that tests dog and handler teams with appropriate challenges, while combining speed, accuracy, distance, and teamwork."

Dog weaving through poles
Weave poles are a common Agility obstacle.

USDAA Rules

At USDAA-sanctioned events, dogs are most commonly run in the Standard Class. Standard courses include three contact obstacles, two types of tunnels, weave poles, a table, a tire jump, and various other hurdles and jumps. The judge designs the sequence of the course and sets a Standard Course Time. Dogs who exceed the Standard Course Time are penalized. The final score is determined by adding the time penalties to any course penalties, and the dog with the fewest number of faults is the winner.

Any class that uses different rules than those above is called a Nonstandard Class. For example, Gamblers is a class where handlers may choose the order in which they want to run the course and can have their dogs repeat certain obstacles in order to earn more points. Judges may specify certain combinations of obstacles that offer bonus points for those who complete the challenge successfully.

Another nonstandard class is called Jumpers, which excludes contact obstacles such as the A-frame, the dog walk, and the See-Saw, leaving only the jumps, tunnels, and hurdles, and sometimes the weave poles for the dog to work through.

Relay courses allow two or more dog and handler teams to compete together, much as a relay race is run. When one team finishes a segment of the course, the handler gives a baton to the next team's handler for the next segment. Alternatively, each team member may run the entire course, combining their scores to get a total.

Snooker class is based on the billiards game of the same name. The handler must lead the dog through the course in an order based on the colors of the obstacles. Points are assigned by the judge according to the difficulty of the maneuver required to get over, under, or through the obstacle.

An official list of all possible USDAA competition classes can be found here.

AKC Rules

The biggest difference for AKC-sanctioned events is that all dogs must be purebreds. They don't have to be show-quality purebreds in terms of appearance, but they must carry a certifiable pedigree in order to be allowed to compete. The AKC offers All-Breed agility trials as well as trials limited to a particular breed or a particular group such as hounds, toys, terriers, etc. Dogs must be at least 15 months of age and may be unaltered, spayed, or neutered.

The actual events are very similar to those run by the NADAC. The judge sets up the course and assigns a Standard Course Time. Dogs who do not complete the course within the specified time are penalized. Dogs may also receive faults for things like failing to step on the yellow portion of a contact obstacle, jumping off the pause table too soon, refusing an obstacle or taking it out of sequence, or displacing a bar from a jump obstacle.

A standard event includes contact obstacles, jumps, weave poles, hurdles, tunnels, chutes, and a pause table. A jumper event eliminates the obstacles and pause table. A fifteen and send time (FAST) event has fifteen obstacles, plus a bonus distance element where the dog is "sent" running.

The novice category generally contains 13 - 15 obstacles, while the open category has 16 - 18 and the excellent category carries 18 - 20 maneuvers. These categories vary not only by the number of obstacles, but also by the way in which time faults are given. In the novice class, each second over the standard course time is equivalent to 1 fault point. In the open category, each second equates to 2 fault points, while in the excellent category, each second's slowness earns 3 fault points. Starting with a perfect score of 100, time fault points and performance fault points are deducted to arrive at a final score.

The AKC also has jump heights which are used to determine the class in which a dog will compete.

Agility dog running along a plank

Where can I learn more?

This article barely scratches the surface of what is involved in agility training. If you want to learn more, the AKC e-book is an excellent place to find out about the sport as conducted at AKC-sanctioned events.

In addition, there is an fabulous general web site maintained by the folks at Agility Ability that provides valuable information to anyone interested in the sport. The site provides links to the three major sanctioning organizations as well as downloadable entry forms, event calendars, and rules. Two pages you might find particularly helpful are the list of local agility clubs and the maps of courses which can help you set up a training course in your own backyard.

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