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Dogged Determination

The dog days of summer are the perfect time to begin a new hobby with your canine partner.

Jennifer Zehnder
June 28, 2019

When Mary Green of Broken Arrow became involved in dog training and competition, the only choices were the conformation and obedience rings. And while she competed successfully in each, she craved something different. Her first exposure to dog agility came via an exhibition in Houston in the late-1980s.

“I was hooked,” Green admits. “I came home and researched how to make equipment.”

The fledgling sport of agility intrigued more than just Green that day. The American Kennel Club agility program launched in 1994 and at present boasts more than 1 million entries to the AKC Agility Program each year.

Today, Green is one of several owners at K9 Manners & More, where she and a team of trainers specialize in a variety of classes including obedience and agility.

A partnership between dog and handler, agility is a timed event in which a dog is directed through a series of obstacles, taken in the correct order. Because it is a speed and accuracy game, reliable communication between dog and handler is critical.

“As a professional dog trainer, I’m always interested in fun things for people to do with their dogs — whether they ever choose to compete or not,” she says. “As that partnership develops, there is much less chance of a dog being abandoned or rehomed.”

There are common obstacles to expect in the sport of agility — jumps (hurdles), tunnels, contact obstacles, and weave poles. (Photo: Sonja Hahn)
There are common obstacles to expect in the sport of agility — jumps (hurdles), tunnels, contact obstacles, and weave poles. (Photo: Sonja Hahn)

In addition to being great exercise for you and your canine, Green contends, agility opens you up to a greater community and sense of belonging and camaraderie with classmates and enthusiasts. And the best part — all dogs can play in agility. But for those who want to feed their competitive spirits, some groups and events can oblige.

Different organizations have different age requirements for competition. To compete in American Kennel Club agility events, dogs must be at least 15 months old. However, owners can start working with their puppies on foundation skills that don’t involve impact — like doing groundwork instead of jumping. For AKC, dogs need not be registered or even a recognized breed to compete, but they do need to be healthy.

“It’s always best to visit with your veterinarian to be sure your dog is sound to do a sport,” she suggests. “Agility is a high-arousal sport, so dogs that display aggression toward people or dogs need to be extremely well managed if they’re going to play. And while there aren’t particular obedience requirements, the most important skills to have are solid recalls and stays.” 

Communication is everything in a good agility team. There are verbal and physical cues that the handler uses to guide the dog throughout the course.

“When a team is in sync, it’s a beautiful thing,” she says. “Handlers should be very patient. Enjoy the journey and don’t get hung up on comparing yourself to your classmates. Agility should be fun for the handler and the dog.”

There are common obstacles to expect in the sport of agility — jumps (hurdles), tunnels, contact obstacles, and weave poles. Contact obstacles include A-frame, seesaw, and dogwalk. These obstacles have a zone — usually yellow — that the dog needs to touch with at least one part of a paw to not incur a penalty. This is a safety precaution so that dogs don’t launch off an obstacle in an unsafe manner.

A favorite obstacle for spectators and canines alike, the weave poles — six in the lower level and 12 in the upper levels — are intended for a dog to zigzag through like a slalom skier. Dogs have to enter with the first pole at their left shoulder and not skip any poles. The seesaw, or teeter-totter, is designed so that even the toy dogs can make it tip. The A-Frame, which dogs run up and over, is 5 to 5 ½ feet high at the apex. The ramps of the dogwalk are 12 feet long and 4 feet off the ground.

For newbies, Green recommends going to watch an agility trial or better yet, volunteer at one. And whatever you do, don’t rush the training process.

“Don’t get in a hurry to get the dog into competition. Spend time on foundation skills,” she cautions. “Avoid putting too much physical and mental stress on young dogs. And always be sure not to blame the dog for missing something when in actuality, it was a handler error.”

Think your pooch has what it takes to for agility? While there are breeds that excel in the sport — border collies, Shetland sheepdogs, Australian shepherds, papillons, golden retrievers, and many mixes — they might not be the easiest to live with, Green warns.

Her advice?

“Pick a dog that you love, one that is healthy — and go for it.”