In an ongoing series on dog sports, Behavior and Training Director, Dawn Kovell, sheds light and enthusiasm on Agility! Also available, Flyball, Teaching your Dog to Swim and Dock Diving.

As a dog trainer and behavior consultant for the Behavior and Training Department at Marin Humane I tell our clients that one of the first steps toward preventing and solving behavior problems is to ensure that the dog’s emotional cup is full. I know this to be true, I really do! Recently, one of my sports dogs injured his ankle, had to have surgery and has been in a cast for three weeks. They call it a splint, but it is a cast up to his rear thigh. He must be kept quiet and is limited to a one third of a block daily walk mainly to attend to his personal business.

Needless to say, this medical situation has dramatically changed all our routines. Velo, the injured dog, has additional needs while the other two dogs have had their activity dramatically reduced. As a result, I am not sufficiently meeting anyone’s needs! It took all of a week before unexpected behavior problems started to manifest themselves in all three dogs. Now I really know how important it is to meet your dogs’ needs!

One fun way to mentally stimulate your dog’s brain and physically satiate your dog is to learn a dog sport. Agility is one of the fastest growing dog sports in the United States. And, say what you will about Covid’s effects, the demand for dog training opportunities has dramatically increased over the past two years. The sport is visually quite appealing. People drive by a lovely outdoor field with brightly colored jumps and obstacles and observe dogs and their people running around playing with toys in the sun. The sight brings a smile and sometimes even halts traffic as people pull over to watch the idyllic scene.

Agility is an obstacle course for dogs whose handlers tell them which obstacles to take via visual and verbal cues. Perhaps this brings a dreamy vision of sitting in a lawn chair shouting verbal encouragement while your dog exercises himself into a state of happy exhaustion. Sorry, did I mention agility is most definitely a team sport where dog and handler learn how to communicate as they run the course together? In fact, the onus is on the human half of the equation to provide timely information while the dog easily executes the physical aspects of the course.

Is agility the right sport for you and your dog? Maybe. Agility training classes are generally in a group format, particularly at the novice levels. Therefore, it’s important that your dog be comfortable around other dogs. Your dog should enjoy learning new things for food or toy rewards and be at an appropriate weight. He should also have basic obedience skills including a “Sit” with duration and distractions and off-leash engagement abilities.

As for the humans, perhaps the “running the course with your dog” bit was slightly alarming. While it does require a minimal level of physical fitness, don’t count yourself out if you aren’t a peak athlete. If one is motivated and enjoys training, you can teach your dog distance and verbal skills so your speed or lack thereof, isn’t a limiting factor. If agility competition may be in your future, in addition to style of agility (running with your dog versus using verbal cues and distance handling) you may wish to investigate the various sanctioning organizations. Depending on your geographic area, there may be five or six different options. Each option holds their own competitions with slightly different jump heights, obstacles and course types. Organizations skew these variables to make their venue more or less challenging depending on their mission objectives.  In the North Bay, the American Kennel Club (AKC) tends to have the most trialing options. The AKC features less stringent obstacles, smaller courses and is considered an “in-between” skill level organization. On the flip side, the smaller courses are less appealing to the larger dogs and the ambitious handlers. Those folks tend to gravitate toward the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) whose spacious courses emphasize speed and distance.

Agility training requires a time and financial commitment. While you can practice in your yard or at the park, it’s best to have a skilled trainer and a local facility. Agility meets your dog’s needs by stimulating his brain to learn an additional communication system while strengthening his body. Refreshed in body and spirit!

While it is exceptionally nice to have a tired dog who doesn’t have the time and energy to develop behavior issues, the really interesting payoff is an elevation in the relationship you have with your furry buddy. It is an amazing and life changing experience to have an active, constantly evolving relationship with another species based upon mutual communication and respect. Agility, and other advanced training, helps turn your relationship into a partnership. Pretty cool stuff!