Agility Info

Introduction For Beginners

Agility is at all times meant to be a fun, fast, rewarding sport. Although it may seem easy, a lot of hard work is needed in order to be able to successfully run a full course. Before competing, months and months of work is required.

As humans, we are often impatient to see instant results, and people sometimes get frustrated when starting agility training with their dogs. It seems to be a common misunderstanding that one can just show up in class and start running full courses. Wrong.

The dog must learn each obstacle individually, and this takes time. How much time, depends on the dog and the handler. Some dogs are quick and eager learners while others need more time and coaxing. Once the dog has learned the obstacles, it is possible to start practicing shorter sequences, which with time can be made longer. Even competing pairs rarely practice full courses because there is little to be gained from this. Most training is focused towards being able to run a full course without faults and at a maximum speed; therefore, a full course is the goal of all training, not a training method.

TRAINING PRACTICES

It is important to be prepared for each training session. Make sure that your dog is walked and has done his business before the class; however, as accidents may happen, always have poop bags with you. As agility is a fast sport that requires rapid movements, it is also important to warm up before the class. While stretches and massages are something that both dog and handler can learn and enjoy, walking and gentle running is usually enough.

There are times when you should not bring your dog to training. If your dog is in any way sick or injured, he/she should obviously get a break from training so as not to make him/her worse and also to avoid the risk of contamination. It is very important to keep your dog appropriately wormed and vaccinated. No bitch in heat should ever be brought to training as this will cause a lot of stress to the owners of other dogs!

It is important to bring a collar and lead for your dog. The ideal collar is a flat, adjustable collar. Choke chains can be very dangerous if they get caught in something or if the dog happens to fall off any of the equipment. Harnesses are acceptable but not ideal as they may restrict the dog’s movement and it is also harder to control your dog towards the desired direction.

You need to bring something to motivate your dog. Most dogs work well with treats. If this is the case with your dog, bring small, tasty, smelly treats that will help to keep your dog focused. Also remember that if you use treats to reward your dog, a hungry dog will be keener to work for you, so it is a good idea to only feed your dog lightly in the morning and to leave the second meal until after the class. If your dog is only fed once a day, it is again better to leave the meal until after the training session.

Some dogs are not that keen on food, and some dogs can get so stressed before or during the class that food does not appeal to them. In this case, you can use toys; balls, rope toys, squeaky toys etc.

If you practice clicker training, clickers also work extremely well in agility.

Motivating and rewarding your dog is vital in agility, especially at the start. Many dogs at first feel uncomfortable with some of the equipment, and they require lots of praise for a correct performance. Later many dogs get so excited about the sport itself that little reward is required.

When rewarding your dog, aim to do this when the dog is performing the required action or as soon after as possible. E.g. when your dog is in the air over a jump, you can throw a ball, or when your dog is on the dog walk, you can give a treat. The physical reward should be accompanied by verbal praise, such as an enthusiastic “good dog”.

If your dog does something unwanted, try not to get too upset. Most of the time, it is best to ignore what the dog has done. You also need to bear in mind that most faults and mistakes in agility are caused by the handler, so punishing your dog is pointless.

For yourself, make sure that you are comfortably dressed for the class. Runners and tracksuits normally work best, and make sure that you do not wear anything that flaps about. Pockets are handy so that you can have your dog’s treats and toys at hand at all times.

Finally, it is important to bring fresh water for your dog. You might find that this comes in handy for yourself too!



Handling

From the very start it is good to know some of the basic rules of handling. If you have trained your dog in obedience, you may have got used to always having your dog on your left. Now you’ll have to forget about that! Agility is very fast-paced, and the courses can be anything but straight-forward, so only being able to handle your dog from one side will be very inconvenient and will often require you to run a longer route than your dog. Let’s face it; most of us will never be able to run faster than our dogs. Most dogs will easily adapt to the side change, and if it seems to be a problem, you can teach your dog to heel on your right just like he does on your left, only with a different command.

Most of your handling depends on your body language. We constantly give cues to our dogs, even when we do not mean to. Although your hands and arms do most of the work, the rest of your body also directs your dog.

Your hands and arms should always point at the next obstacle well in advance. Do not swing your arm back and forth, just point. The basic rule is to always use the arm that is closest to your dog; your left arm if your dog is on the left, and your right arm if your dog is on your right. However, as with most rules, there are exceptions to this, which you will learn about as you get more experienced and start training more advanced sequences.

You also need to be aware of where your body is pointing to. Dogs, being smart animals, know that we rarely move backwards and that we normally go whichever direction our face and feet are pointing to. Therefore, you should aim to be running straight ahead, bearing in mind that the sight of your back will beckon your dog to you, whereas your chest will slow him down or even stop him.


COMPETITIONS AND RULES

Depending on the type of show you have entered, the competitors are divided into different grades based on their previous experience and winnings. As you progress, you will be able to enter the higher classes, and eventually your dog can go on to become an Agility Champion. Most shows also have open classes that are open to all dogs and handlers regardless of what grade they compete on. Dogs are also divided by size and must be measured prior to competing. The classes are as follows:

· Large dogs – 43.1cm or over at the withers

· Medium dogs – 35.1-43cm at the withers

· Small dogs – 35cm or under at the withers

An official competition is run in a ring with a minimum size of 32 x 32m. The course consists of 10-20 obstacles, and the judge sets a standard course time within which the course should be completed. Any time spent completing the course that exceeds this standard course time will be penalized and counted as time faults. E.g. if the course time is 50 seconds and the dog takes 51.32 seconds to complete the course, the dog gets 1.32 time faults. If the dog runs the course in less than the standard course time, this may be shown as a negative number (e.g. -2.13), but these seconds will not be deducted from the faults gained from the course.

In a competition all handlers are permitted to walk the course before the class begins. This time can be used to memorizes the course and also to decide what your actions will be at any given time on the course. It is important to plan your route, your handling and commands in advance. If you walk the course properly, you have a great advantage once you actually get to run the course with your dog.

It is possible to get eliminated in a competition, and unfortunately it will happen to the best of dogs and handlers. There are several causes for elimination; below is a list of the most common reasons:

  • Three refusals on the course
  • Dog out of control
  • Taking the wrong course
  • Fouling the ring
  • Exceeding the maximum course time (usually twice the standard course time)
  • Handler carrying an object in their hand or on their person during the run
  • Violence towards the dog
  • Inappropriate behavior towards the judge

Faults

It is also possible to get faults from each of the obstacles. Besides standard faults, it is also possible to get refusals. A refusal occurs if the dog e.g. runs past the obstacle that he was meant to perform, starts performing the obstacle and turns back, runs under the obstacle or stops in front of the obstacle. A third refusal on the course disqualifies the run.

Jumps/ Hurdles

Faults:

  • The dog jumps over the bar between the side wings without knocking it down.
  • Part of the obstacle falls or is knocked down by the dog = faults
  • The dog runs past the hurdle, stops in front of it, runs under it or jumps over a wing = refusal
  • The dog or handler knock the hurdle down so that it cannot be performed correctly = disqualification

Heights

55-65cm for large dogs, 35-45 for medium dogs and 25-35cm for small dogs

Variations:

      • set of 2-3 hurdles about 3.5m apart – this is judged as one obstacle, therefore if the dog refuses one of the jumps, the whole set must be repeated.
      • rising spread jump – two hurdles placed together to form a double spread, the maximum spread is 55cm for large dogs, 40cm for medium dogs and 30cm for small dogs

Hoop/tyre

The dog jumps through the tyre.

Faults:

      • the dog runs past the obstacle, stops in front of it or jumps between the hoop and the frame => refusal
      • the dog or handler knocks the obstacle down so that it cannot be performed correctly => disqualification

Heights:

Aperture center from the ground 80cm for large dogs, 55cm for medium dogs and 49cm for small dogs

Long Jump

The dog jumps across the entire length of the obstacle in one go without touching it.

Faults:

      • the dog steps on the long jump or between the pieces, a piece of the obstacle falls or moves => 5 faults
      • the dog runs past the obstacle, stops in front of it, jumps to the side of the obstacle or walks over it => refusal
      • the dog or handler knocks the obstacle down so that it cannot be performed correctly => disqualification

Lengths:

3-5 units spread to 120-150cm for large dogs, 3-4 units spread to 70-90cm for medium dogs and 2-3 units spread to 40-50cm for small dogs

Touch point equipment/Contact equipment

Dog walk

The dog climbs up touching the contact point with at least one paw, walks across the plank and descends touching the contact point with at least one paw.

Faults:

      • the dog misses the contact point => 5 faults
      • the dog leaves the dog walk before all four paws have touched the descending part, runs past the obstacle or stops in front of it => refusal
      • the handler physically helps the dog => disqualification

A-frame

The dog climbs up touching the contact point with at least one paw, crosses the tip and descends again touching the contact point with at least one paw.

Faults:

      • the dog misses the contact point => 5 faults
      • the dog leaves the A-frame before all four paws have touched the descending part, runs past the obstacle or stops in front of it => refusal
      • the handler physically helps the dog => disqualification

See-saw

The dog climbs up touching the contact point with at least one paw, stops to wait for the descending end to touch the ground and then walks off again touching the contact point with at least one paw.

Faults:

      • the dog misses a contact point or leaves the obstacle before the descending end has touched the ground => 5 faults
      • the dog leaves the see-saw before passing the pivot point, runs past the obstacle or stops in front of it => refusal
      • the handler physically helps the dog => disqualification

Other obstacles


Open tunnel

The dog runs through the tunnel as fast as possible.

Faults:

      • the dog runs past the obstacle, stops in front of it or goes in and turns around => refusal
      • the dog or handler knocks the obstacle down so it cannot be performed correctly or the dog jumps over the tunnel => disqualification

Weaving poles

The dog starts the obstacle leaving the first pole on his left side and then goes round each pole in a zigzag pattern.

Faults:

      • the dog misses a pole in the middle of the obstacle => 5 faults
      • the dog starts the poles the wrong way, runs past the obstacle or stops in front of it => refusal
      • it is not possible to be disqualified for faults or refusals gained only from the weave poles
      • the dog must be brought back to where he missed a pole to correct the mistake

Dog Agility-Handling Moves

BASIC HANDLING TECHNIQUES

This is a short introduction to the most common handling moves required and used on an agility course. Reading this will not make you an expert but will help you understand the terms and hopefully give you a better idea of the options you have when running a course.

SIDE CHANGES

There are three basic ways to change sides on a course which still allow you to carry on smoothly, without interrupting your dog or wasting precious seconds.

REAR CROSS

In a rear cross, the handler changes sides behind the dog after sending the dog ahead to perform an obstacle. Because changing sides behind the dog will strongly pull the dog back towards the handler, this cross is often used at sharp turns.

The rear cross works particularly well with faster, more independent dogs that have a tendency to get ahead of their handlers. However, with some practice slower and less confident dogs will learn to do it as well, but this takes more work in teaching the dog to move ahead of the handler, first without the side change. New and inexperienced dogs normally take some time to get used to the rear cross as well.

As refusals are a common consequence of an incorrectly executed rear cross, it is important to make sure that the dog is definitely going to perform the obstacle that it has been sent to do before attempting to cross behind it and to make sure that the movement continues – although the handler may have to slow down slightly by shortening their steps before the cross, particularly with a slower dog. It is also common to see the dog turn in the wrong direction after the obstacle, i.e. on the side that the handler was on before the cross. This means that the rear cross was incorrectly timed – the handler crossed too late. It is important to start the cross as soon as the handler knows that the dog is going to perform the obstacle.

FRONT CROSS

The front cross, as such, is the exact opposite of the rear cross. This is performed in front of the dog while it is doing an obstacle; however, the handler maintains eye contact with the dog at all times, which is why the front cross is often considered a “safe” option.

Before starting a front cross, the handler must ensure that they are ahead of the dog while it is performing an obstacle – this is why slow dog handlers often prefer this move to the rear cross. The handler will then turn to face the dog for a brief moment and take a few steps back, ending up with the dog on the opposite side from where they started on. Many handlers find this move confusing at the start, so it may take some practice to get it right. It can be useful to practice the front cross without any obstacles first or even without the dog!

A front cross allows a sharp, quick turn and effectively pulls the dog away from the previous direction. It is important for the handler to keep moving throughout the front cross; otherwise the dog may end up on the wrong side of the handler or confused about the direction it is meant to be going in. It is also important to keep track of the dog’s movements while doing the cross.

BLIND CROSS

Generally considered the riskiest of the three side changes, the blind cross is performed in front of the dog while it is carrying out an obstacle. However, unlike in the front cross, the handler will lose sight of the dog for a fraction of a second. To do a blind cross, the handler must be ahead of the dog and then quite simply cross the dog’s path in front of the dog by stepping to the side while the dog is behind the handler’s back. Again, this is slightly easier with a slower dog but is often done by handlers with fast dogs as well. The main benefits of this move are that it is fast to perform and requires no slowing down while clearly telling the dog which direction the handler is going in. However, the dog’s sight of the obstacle coming up will briefly be obstructed, and the handler needs to be careful of any traps that the dog might spot while behind the handler’s back.

HANDLING TECHNIQUES

Most handlers nowadays work ahead of the dog as this is considered the safer option, making it easier to avoid traps on the course and increasing the speed. It is not a case of having to run faster than the dog at all times – most handlers with extremely fast dogs are still ahead of their dogs through clever handling rather than sheer speed.

PULLING

Pulling means bringing the dog towards the handler, normally at a slight bend or past traps, often meaning that the handler runs on the inside of a curve while the dog takes the longer route. When pulling, it is important to keep the dog reasonably close and for the handler’s arm to be close to their body so as not to accidentally push the dog off the course or intended direction. Often in pulling, the handler is again slightly ahead of the dog.

PUSHING

Pushing means quite literally pushing the dog away from the handler without colliding with the dog or changing sides. This requires the handler to use their entire body as well as the opposite arm. Pushing is an effective tool when the handler wants the dog to keep some distance to them or to take an obstacle that is away from the handler. Again, the handler needs to be slightly ahead of the dog or right beside it in order for the push-out to work.

COUNTER-ROTATION

To start with, a counter-rotation looks much like a front cross. However, where in a front cross the handler’s aim is to change sides, in a counter-rotation the handler only wants to change the dog’s direction. It is often used in tight spots where pulling is necessary – a common example is a pull-through, also known as a threadle, as shown below.

Correct timing is vitally important in this movement or otherwise the movement will stop, the dog may end up performing the obstacle the handler was trying to avoid or the manoeuvre will end in a refusal. It is important that the handler keeps their eyes on the dog throughout this manoeuvre.

LAYERING

Layering is the term used when the handler directs the dog while there is an obstacle between them that is not to be performed. This can be necessary if e.g. crossing on the dog’s side of the obstacle would leave the handler little room to move.

This move works particularly well with independent dogs that can work away from their handler, but it is possible to teach a dog to be comfortable with this type of handling.

WRAP-AROUND

In a wrap-around, the handler brings the dog to an obstacle at an angle to assist the dog in its approach to a subsequent obstacle. The purpose of this manoeuvre is to either pull the dog away from a trap or to shorten a turn. It is important that the handler is ahead of the dog when starting the wrap-around. The wrap-around can also be done at the start line and is a great help to handlers who can leave their dogs behind the first obstacle.

ARM USAGE

It is at all times very important that the handler uses their arms correctly when guiding the dog through the course. While other body parts affect the dog’s understanding of the handler’s movements as well, it is important to understand that the use of arms drastically affects where the rest of the body is pointing.

LEFT ARM/RIGHT ARM

The rule of thumb is to use the arm that is closest to the dog, i.e. the right arm when the dog is on the handler’s right and the left arm when the dog is on the handler’s left. This allows the handler’s entire body to point towards the intended direction and give the dog clear signals.

OPPOSITE ARM

The opposite arm should only be used when the handler wants the dog to turn away from them – see push-out. When the handler uses the opposite arm, their whole body turns towards the dog, therefore automatically pushing the dog away from them. This is a dog’s natural instinct to avoid colliding with the handler.

BOTH ARMS

There are times when the handler may need to use both arms simultaneously. This often happens for a brief moment when changing sides, without the handler even noticing.

Another time when using both hands is very efficient is in tight spaces when the handler wants the dog close to them to avoid any miscommunication. In this case, the handler should bring their hands close together in front of them and keep the hands down. This movement beckons the dog to approach the handler, thus pulling it away from the trap.

NO ARMS

Using no arms at all can be handy when the dog is at a distance from the handler and the dog could misinterpret any hand signals. In this case, the handler either keeps their arm down and very close to their side or close to and across their body, away from the dog. With the arms out of play, the dog can only follow the handler’s running direction.

SUMMARY

There are many, many aspects that affect a dog’s performance on an agility course, and absolutely most of them, if not all, are down to the handler. The manoeuvres and tips given above are a great help when negotiating a course – and it is important to consider which ones to utilise when walking the course beforehand – but several more factors play a part in what actually happens on the course. Verbal commands, voice usage, direction of feet, shuffling or thumping of feet and position of the handler’s head are just some of the things that could determine where the dog ends up going … And it is all up to you, the handler, to get it right!

SOURCES

Finnish Agility Association’s (Suomen Agilityliitto, SAGI) training materials for agility coaches

Writing by Pamela Harju