Give Agility A Try!
Ever feel like doing more with your dog than tossing a ball or taking a walk? How about giving agility a try? Agility is not just for super charged Border Collies with athletically inclined people in high performance sportswear. If you are looking for something that you and your buddy can do together try being an agility team. As long as you are both physically able and well enough to move around an obstacle course and you both play nicely with others, you can get involved. It’s wonderful exercise for both of you and it definitely adds a new dimension to the bond you share.
Agility is a team sport – one dog and one person make a team - that involves running a course of obstacles such as jumps, weave poles, a seesaw, a low table that your dog will sit and stay on, tunnels and other equipment. A competition is called a trial and trials are sponsored by lots of different organizations such as the AKC, North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), Canine Performance Events (CPE) and others. Different organizations have different rules and requirements. When I started doing trials I found it easiest to stick with one organizations so I could learn the rules. There are different levels and different size dogs compete in different categories. For example when I was starting I entered the AKC trials in Novice which is their beginner. Since Desi is a Papillon he would normally be in the eight inch category. Dogs are measured by officials and in some organizations they might be measured at a trial or after they are measured you will get an official height card for your dog. There are time limits and ‘faults’ if you or your dog make a mistake during your run through the course.
Lots of people are agility enthusiasts and don’t enter trials. You don’t have to compete to have fun. There are indoor and outdoor facilities that offer all sorts of training in agility and other performance or dog sport activities. If you are lucky enough to live in a part of the country that enjoys great weather for a good part of the year you’ll probably enjoy the outdoor facilities. Running around in the fresh air with my little pal rates pretty highly on m y list of fun things to do! There are indoor facilities too, so you really can enjoy the sport all year round if you are close enough to an indoor dog gym or training center.
If agility is new to you look for a local non competitive class for beginners. It ‘s a good idea to go and check it out solo to see if it’s clean, if the equipment is kept in good order and if the people running the program have the experience necessary to guide you. Just because someone has all sorts of titles and championships does not mean they are a good teacher. Since you’ll want to focus on the fun and safety of course, see if you can observe a group class. You’ll get a good idea of how the facility and the groups operate and if you’ll feel comfortable there. Bigger isn’t always better, but some smaller programs combine too many different levels and size dogs for anyone to learn much or feel comfortable.
Some things to watch for:
- Is the instructor really tuned in to each team as they run the course?
- Does the instructor give each person helpful & positive corrections and tips?
- Is the facility clean and is the equipment in perfect condition as it should be fore safety?
- Are dogs or people allowed to be too aggressive or interfere with others’ participation – yes I’ve seen people screaming at their dogs when they don’t do something right – that’s unacceptable at a good facility.
- Is the group supportive of each team or does it feel very competitive?
- What are the requirements for dogs to participate? Since you’ll be sharing equipment and in close quarters it’s important that all the dogs are healthy.
Once you’ve chosen a class or a facility the instructor may ask to meet your dog to determine what class might be best to start. Some will offer you a complimentary trial class. If there isn’t a class suited to your dog and your experience level the instructor may offer you a private lesson. Private lessons are more expensive than group classes of course, but sometimes it’s a great way to start and learn some basics so you feel comfortable in a group.
You may just enjoy going to the classes and you may find that your dog begins to tune into you differently as you learn. In agility the dog is tuned in (hopefully) to the handler (the human component) and watches for signals so he knows what obstacle is next. In the beginning levels the courses are pretty straight forward. As you advance the courses become more longer and more complicated and the obstacles are positioned so there’s more opportunity for a mistake. In classes and trials you often hear a collective grown from the crowd when a team is near the end of a course and makes a mistake on the last obstacle. And when there’s a ‘clean run’ classmates and observers cheer. And the best is when the dog and person come together at the end of the course happy with their run together. The bond just keeps getting stronger!
When we adopted Desi he had been involved in agility but it never seemed he really loved it. His person was very experienced and Desi earned some titles but he didn’t seem to love it the way some dogs do. So we lucked out and were allowed to adopt him. At the time I couldn’t have cared less about agility but as much as Desi loved hanging out, I could see he needed activity to prevent boredom. He was loving life as he was the only dog in our family and he’d come form a home with a group of dogs. So I took him to some agility lessons for fun with no intention of competing. In fact some people were less than supportive saying Desi knew more than I did. I didn’t care, he did know more than I did about agility. I was in it for him.
After a few lessons whenever I went near hings we took to our agility lessons Desi got really excited. He started to really fly around the course and when we’d come home he was that kind of ‘happy tired’. So I entered a few trials not expecting much and Desi did very well. Some of the best memories I have with him are the days we’d spend outside in the cool fall weather (Desi hates the heat). I think it was fun for him because when we went to agility trials we were together the whole day. Before that he was one of many dogs waiting for his turn.
We gradually made our way up the levels to the Excellent Class and on Valentine’s Day 2010 he earned his Master of Agility Champion title. As proud as I am of him it truly isn’t about the title. It’s about what we experienced together. I will never forget the feeling when he flew into my arms at the end of that run and people who knew the illness he’d overcome (that’s another story) were cheering for him. Just before the final jump he was running fast and he looked toward me and I knew I didn’t have to do much directing to that last jump. Not the smartest time to back off, but I knew he was headed for the right jump and he did it without hesitation.
If it weren’t for Desi I would have spent those days probably catching up on some work. which wouldn’t have had any impact on my life or provided any meaningful memories. Desi has given me so many beautiful memories even without agility. But being part of a team and working together is something wonderful if you just let yourself enjoy the experience.
Play some agility with your dog. It isn’t about how fast you run and how many obstacles you conquer. It’s about the time you enjoy together and he memories you’ll keep forever.