dog agility torontoDoes your dog play sports? I’m not talking about chasing after a tennis ball, jumping for a Frisbee or even joining a school’s basketball team. I’m talking about real hardcore canine sports. I’m talking about dog agility.

“Agility developed in England as kind of a time filler for dog shows … they wanted something to just entertain the crowds,” explains Claire Duder DVM, a Regional Director for the Agility Association of Canada (AAC). This was in the late 1970’s and its popularity has been growing ever since.

What is dog agility?

A dog must complete a series of obstacles in a specific order as quickly as possible, which is not as easy as it might sound. The obstacles include various jumps and tunnels as well as a series of poles that the dogs must weave through.

“Weave poles are probably the most exciting obstacle to watch because the movement is just so hypnotic and frantic,” Duder says. Other obstacles are the teeter-totter and the A-frame (two boards attached at the top which the dog must climb up and then down the other side). These have specific areas called contact zones that the dog must touch in order for the obstacle to be completed successfully.

Agility isn’t some fancy exclusive club with a well-to-do registration process and secret paw-shake. Pretty much any pooch with an inclination for agility can participate. “For the AAC we allow all dogs to compete, regardless of pedigree,” Duder clarifies. From itty-bitty chihuahuas to massive mastiffs, it’s open to any breed. But don’t worry, the classes are determined by height to even out the playing field. The AAC also doesn’t have any age limits, so as long as your dog is still healthy and sound, sign them up!

How to get started with dog agility

However, don’t you throw your dog on the teeter-totter just yet, as balancing on such a contraption doesn’t always come naturally. Remember as well that dog agility isn’t a cute dog party trick — it’s a very focused activity that requires careful training. Check out some classes first to help your pooch overcome the learning curve.

“No matter what your aspirations, either here in the backyard or here at the world stage, you need to know how to do agility properly,” Duder advises, recommending that beginners attend several classes to start off with. “If your dog isn’t healthy or trained to jump properly, it can be hard on their systems to do that sort of thing repetitively.” So classes help keep your dog safe.

So you’ve gone to a few classes…no, get that dog off the teeter-totter again. It is important to always go back to the basics before tackling the obstacles, which means working on your dogs’ fundamental obedience.

“Probably the biggest mistake I see people new to the sport make is they don’t appreciate the importance of fundamental training,” Duder explains. “We need to have a dog that has an understanding of following with me, of coming to my side, of going where I tell them to.” Training, such as basic recall, helps keep your dog safe on the course. According to Duder, dogs must also learn how to respond to signals from the handler and how to pay attention to commands under distracting circumstances. “They also have to be able to run really really fast while doing all of this,” says Duder. “It’s definitely a multi-faceted skill.”

To succeed, you need an excellent handler-dog relationship which will only deepen as you progress through the agility course. “You need to have a dog that really trusts you and pays attention to you and is eager to be with you and do what you ask,” Duder asserts. For that reason reason Duder fondly regards her dogs as partners on the course, rather than furry lumps on the sofa.

The benefits of dog agility

Another benefit to dog agility is (like any sport) exercise! “As a veterinarian, I would probably say the number one health hazard of a dog is obesity. So a benefit to agility is improved fitness and improved weight management. Agility is a wonderful way to use a dog’s energy in a positive way, give them a structure, give them something exciting to do,” Duder urges. Plus the dog isn’t the only one doing all the running so it’ll keep you in shape too.

Dog agility can be just a fun weekend hobby, but the dogs have their time to shine too if they so desire. “There are trials across Canada, from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland,” Duder states. As well, the AAC holds national championships and there’s even the world championships in Europe if your pup is feeling really ambitious.

Above all, agility is a good time for everyone. “Our first job is to make sure the dog is having fun because all of agility is totally off-leash so you can’t force a dog to do agility,” Duder expresses. “Let’s face it, we may be the ones driving to trials and paying the bills but they’re the ones doing all of the work so we have to make it fun.”

So whether you want to take part in dog agility just for a barking good time, or if you wish to get competitive about it, there is an opportunity for your dog to become the next sports superstar!


{CREDITS: Written by Allison Vorstenbosch | Photography by Patrick Hendry}