Dog Agility Training for Beginners

This article is directed at dog lovers who would like to know more about dog agility. Dog agility training for beginners discusses what it is and how you and your dog can get started in dog agility. I will discuss the equipment used and how you can start training your dog at your home using homemade agility equipment.

What is Dog Agility?

dog running agility course - dog agility training for beginners

Dog agility is a competitive sport in which teams consist of 1 dog and 1 handler. The goal of this sport is to direct your dog through an obstacle course within a time limit. An agility obstacle course will usually have somewhere between 15 and 20 obstacles. The obstacles include seesaws, jumps, weave poles, and tunnels. There is also a pause table on which your dog must stop for a certain amount of time. At the competitions, the handlers guide their dogs as fast as possible around the course. The course is uniquely designed for each day of each competition. The dogs are relying only on the cues and body language used by the handlers to direct them through the course.

It is a competitive sport but you don’t have to compete unless you decide you want to. The first step on the way to dog agility is training with your dog.

Is Your Dog or Puppy Ready for Agility Training?

If your dog is a puppy, you can start some training but nothing that includes jumping. Puppies should not do any jumping until they have reached their full size. This age varies according to the breed (or mix of breeds) of the puppy, but your veterinarian is the only one that can really tell you if your puppy is ready for a full agility course.

This is due to the fact that puppies have soft bones so it is dangerous for them to do many of the activities required of a dog on a full agility course.

The areas of new bones on a puppy that are still growing and very fragile are called growth plates. The only way to know for certain that your puppy’s growth plates are solid is with an x-ray scan. Most dogs have reached their full maturity at around 12 to 18 months. However, I would wait until your pup is 2 years of age just to be safe. But to really be certain you will need to get your puppy an x-ray scan.

Beginning Your Agility Training

Before starting your dog on the obstacles, it will be to your advantage if you take your dog through obedience training first. You can begin getting your puppy ready for agility by starting him off with obedience training. As obedience training doesn’t involve jumping and vigorous exercise, you can begin getting your puppy familiar with these basic commands as early as 8 weeks. Puppies have a very short attention span so any lessons should be made enjoyable and short. Five minutes at a time is enough for a young puppy. These are the 7 essential commands your canine buddy must master before he starts agility training.

Group of dogs with owners at obedience class
  • Sit.
  • Look At Me.
  • Stay.
  • Come.
  • Leave It.
  • Down or Lay Down.
  • Your Dog’s Name.

Being certain of your dog’s understanding of these commands will be essential before starting your dog in agility training.

Pre-Agility (or Flatwork) Training

One purpose of Flatwork is to train your dog to get set up for the next obstacle in the course. On a typical agility course, your dog will spend more time running on the flat parts of the course than performing the obstacles. Your dog needs to be very much in communication with you as agility work is all performed off-leash.

Before you start your dog on any obstacle training, focus on the flatwork, which is preparing your dog for the obstacles, knowing which obstacle you want him to go to next, and responding instantly to your commands. Remember, first focus on your relationship with your dog, then focus on the flatwork, and finally, you must learn to understand all of your dog’s feedback.

Another very important purpose of flatwork training is to develop cues that are understood by your dog so he knows exactly what he is expected to do. Don’t use any verbal cues until your dog understands the behavior you are teaching him.

Starting Agility Training

One good way to learn about agility training is to find a local class that teaches it. This way you can learn from an experienced trainer how to train your dog for agility.

Some of these courses can be expensive, depending upon your income. There are online alternatives such as websites, YouTube videos, and online classes that would be much less expensive. There are also websites and articles that will explain how to build a homemade obstacle course that you can use to train your dog in your own yard.

When first starting out you may not know whether you are interested in agility competition. You can always seek out more formal training once you know you want to compete. However, until then there is nothing wrong with starting off on your own, as long as you know your dog is healthy enough for agility. Take your dog to your vet to be certain he is ready.

Starting Agility Obstacle Training at Home

Once you feel that you and your dog are communicating and that your dog has a firm grasp on flatwork, start getting your dog used to obstacles.

One example of this training is to get your dog to run around something such as a trash barrel first starting going in one direction and then the other direction. To accomplish this, place your dog at a starting point as close as you can to the barrel. Then get him to run around the barrel staying close to it. When he does at least part of the way, reward him. Keep encouraging him to repeat this behavior until he understands it, then have him go in the opposite direction.

This behavior will help him get used to obstacles on the course and not be afraid of them. He will need to get used to making sharp turns to save time. When your dog or puppy has a complete understanding of this behavior try adding another trash barrel a few feet apart from the first one and teach your dog to go around the first barrel then go to the next one and go around it in the opposite direction performing a figure 8.

Jumps are a Good Place to Start with Obstacles

Before starting your dog on any jumps, take him to the vet and ask your vet if your dog is healthy enough for agility training without any limitations. Be sure your vet provides you with all the information about and limitations of your dog’s participation in agility.

Once you have completed obedience training and the flatwork you can start your dog with a simple homemade jump. You can create a simple jump with 2 stacks of books and a broomstick placed across the top of the books. Start with the broomstick placed low and gradually move it up until it reaches the maximum height for your dog. The maximum height for each dog depends upon the dog’s height at the shoulder.

Dog performing jump at Agility Trials
An agility jump

Put your dog in a sitting position in front of the jump. When you are just starting agility training, it is good to start your dog on the obstacles while you hold on to his leash. Have a treat or toy ready to throw over the jump. Throw the treat over to the other side of the jump.

Your dog might need no encouragement to go over the jump to get the treat. However, be sure not to let your dog get the treat by going beside the jump instead of over it. Walk your dog over the jump so he knows what you want him to do and praise him when he picks up the treat. Be sure not to encourage him to look at you during his jump as he should be looking ahead of himself so he is in the best position to jump. Once you are sure that your dog understands this behavior, add a word such as ‘jump’ to associate with the activity as a cue.

Continue to raise the height of the bar until it reaches the maximum height for your dog.

Creating a Homemade Agility Tunnel and Training your Dog to go Through it

One great and simple idea for creating a homemade agility tunnel is to use collapsible laundry baskets. These work really great because they come with built-in rings so they will keep their shape. Cut off the bottom of the hamper so your dog can see through it.

Collapsible laundry baskets work great for starting dogs on the tunnel. They can also be squeezed up until they are even smaller. Many dogs are afraid to go in the tunnel when it is at its full length.

dog agility weave poles
Border Collie performing the weave poles in dog agility

To learn the behavior, you can start with your dog on a leash if he is likely to run somewhere else away from the training. Start him out just outside one end of the tunnel and throw a treat through the tunnel. Make sure your dog goes through the tunnel to get the treat and if the tunnel is short enough you should be able to be right there to praise him when he exits the tunnel to retrieve the treat.

Keep repeating this exercise, gradually releasing the rings into the hamper. Repeat this until your dog can get through the tunnel at its full length. When you are certain your dog knows the expected behavior, start naming the behavior. This way your dog will know that when you say ‘tunnel’ you want him to go through the tunnel.

A laundry hamper is not much of a challenge for your dog even at its full length. Agility tunnels should be at least 10 feet long. You can sew a few laundry hampers together to get to the desired length.

Please see this website for more ideas on how to build your own agility course from items you already have or that can be gotten very cheaply.

Final Thoughts

Dog agility is a wonderful way to give your dog both the mental and the physical stimulation that he requires. Any dog breed, including mixed breeds, are able to compete in this fun sport.

Another really fun sport for you and your dog to try is treibball. This sport is great fun and provides your dog with plenty of mental and physical stimulation.

I hope you got some incentive to give dog agility a try. You don’t have to compete in this sport you can just try it for fun. There are benefits for both you and your dog in dog agility. This is a great exercise for both of you. If you would like to get your dog started at home in your backyard, here are some suggestions for inexpensive dog agility training starter kits.

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