Agility is fun, fast and addictive!

caption: Sarah Walters enjoys developing a working relationship with her Belgian Sheepdog, Aiden. For her, running with her dog is what matters most, rather than winning a ribbon. (Photo by Wendy Dudley)

Sarah Walters enjoys developing a working relationship with her Belgian Sheepdog, Aiden. For her, running with her dog is what matters most, rather than winning a ribbon. (Photo by Wendy Dudley)

By Wendy Dudley

Anyone who has taken in a SuperDogs show knows how ramped-up dogs can get when tackling jumps, tunnels, boardwalks, weave poles and other gymnastic obstacles. The wagging tails and lolling tongues tell the story of how happy Fido is to vent such kinetic energy.

Fun? You bet! But the agility road demands patience and practice. To switch directions on command and to execute obstacles from a distance can take years to master. So why are so many addicted to this sport?

“I love running with my dog and working together as a team. Plus we are always learning. Learning about each other, and how to read one another,” said Sarah Walters, who signed up for agility classes 20 years ago. “Agility is so technical — just the slightest turn of my shoulders can affect where my dog goes. I really have to know my dog and what works best for him to negotiate a tricky course.” Walters currently competes with Aiden, her Belgian Shepherd. “It’s fun for the dog, fun for the owner, helps build the dog/owner relationship, and the dog’s confidence.”

Indeed, there is more to agility than learning the equipment. Handlers use different strategies, knowing when to use front, rear and blind crosses. They also learn to signal through body position and line of motion. Dogs must master staying at the start line, and making contact with the bottoms of the ramp, teeter, and walkway. These are the building blocks of running a course accurately and safely, said agility instructor Kim Boyes of HyperHounds training facility in DeWinton, AB. She has been competing in agility for 12 years. Strider, her Sheltie, is an agility champion, having won the AAC Nationals in 2010.

“Don’t overlook the foundation skills. Everyone wants to jump on the equipment right away. It’s fun and it’s sexy. But agility is way easier to teach, and you will be far more successful, if you have taught the ground work first — things like stays, and two (paws)-on and two-off positions on a plank.”

Before signing up for a class, do your homework, advised instructor Shannen Jorgensen, a member of the first Canadian team to ever compete in the World Championships in 2003. She has won medals in Europe with her Papillon, Target, who was the 2008 National Champion. In 2011, she was named to the Canadian Worlds team, competing with Wish, her Papillon, and Legend, her Sheltie. “Screen potential candidates. If the dog starts with negative experiences, it’s not going to be fun. Do some research, shop around and watch some classes.”

Agility is a demanding sport, requiring fitness to avoid injury. “I make sure Aiden doesn’t get overweight, so I watch his diet. He gets to run around on our land daily and that is great conditioning  — running through the bush, up hills, and over logs. He loves to play fetch. We also practice agility about twice a week,” Walters said.

Walking, jogging and swimming, as well as core exercises done on a ball (the Internet has examples) will help keep Fido fit, added Boyes. Dogs also need to be properly warmed up and cooled down, with a couple of recovery months each year. “Every dog needs a half-hour exercise a day, not just access to a backyard. Agility is a fun supplement. It’s not supposed to be the dog’s only exercise a couple times a week,” said Carla Simon, an agility judge and instructor. She’s competed with her Brittany Spaniels since 1988.

So can the big breeds, such as Newfoundlands, play this sport? Most definitely. They may have more difficulty squeezing through the tunnels or centring themselves on the narrow dog walk, but there are plenty of competing giant breeds. “Agility does not discriminate. I have had a dog come for lessons who is 165 pounds and a tiny 2.5-pound dog,” said Jorgensen.

The larger dogs may have shorter agility careers because of the impact on their joints, but they can definitely do agility, added Simon. “I’ve been beaten by Bernese Mountain dogs that I’ve watched turn around on top of the (narrow) walkway. Deaf dogs and three-legged dogs also can compete.” And owners don’t have to be sprinters to keep up, Jorgensen added. “I have taught mentally challenged individuals and a gentleman in a wheelchair. It’s just takes the desire to want to try.”

It’s equally important to recognize when your dog is not enjoying itself, whether it’s due to injury or lack of enthusiasm. If your dog is wagging its tail and has a relaxed facial expression, or is pulling on its leash at the start line, then you can be sure it’s eager to go. “Shy or nervous dogs might not enjoy agility at first,” said Boyes. “They’re worried about the equipment, reluctant to approach or get on it. They may even pull away from it. If you take it slowly, these dogs can learn to love it.”

Keeping it fun is the key to developing a willing canine partner, Simon said. “You have to have the right attitude. If the sessions are too long, or if you demand, get angry and treat your dog like a robot, it will be reluctant to perform.” A dog may express displeasure by avoiding obstacles, leaving the ring, running off, urinating, or refusing treats. Watch for calming signals, such as the dog licking its lips, which will indicate anxiety, said Simon. Also, if your dog is slow, it may be nervous about making a mistake and being corrected.

Rewarding your dog is crucial, said Jorgensen. “Dogs are social creatures and want to know when they do a great job, whether it’s praise or treats or toys. People get excited once dogs start to show progress, therefore asking too much without a reward. I always explain to people that although I love my job, I still get a pay cheque to do it. Dogs need their pay cheque too.”

A common error among beginners is to blame the dog for mistakes, when it’s usually a miscue from the handler, said Boyes. “Agility is a sport where you will rarely be perfect. Don’t get hung up on every little error or you and your dog will learn to hate the sport.”

It isn’t necessary to compete. Some agility fans never enter a trial, preferring to stick to fun matches. “I used to think the end goal of taking classes was competing,” said Walters. “Until a friend of mine who didn’t compete said that she just enjoyed the classes, the time spent with her dog. That made me see things differently and I realized the best part of agility is the hours I spend with my dog, just practicing. Not necessarily getting a ribbon, a Q (qualifying run), or going to a trial. Just having fun in classes.”

Always remember that it’s just a game, albeit an addictive one.  “Dogs are not born to do agility. It’s a choice we make for them,” said Jorgensen. “I have a lot of students who come out to classes to try agility as something to do once a week with their dog. Once that working relationship starts to build and the successes are rolling in, they are hooked!”