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rec.pets.dogs: Canine Activities: Agility FAQ

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Archive-name: dogs-faq/activities/agility
Last-modified: 12 Dec 1995

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This article is Copyright (c) 1995 by the Author(s) listed below. 
It may be freely distributed on the Internet in its entirety without
alteration provided that this copyright notice is not removed.  
It may NOT reside at another website (use links, please) other
than the URL listed above without the permission of the Author(s).  
This article may not be sold for profit nor incorporated in other 
documents without he Author(s)'s permission and is provided "as is" 
without express or implied warranty.

                          CANINE ACTIVITIES: AGILITY

   J. L. Gauntt,
   Copyright 1995 by the Author.
Table of Contents

     * Basics of Agility
     * Breeds Involved
     * Ages
     * Training
     * Health Considerations
Basics of Agility

   Dog agility is a sport in which a handler is given a set amount of
   time in which to direct a dog off-leash through an obstacle course.
   Originally loosely modeled on equestrian stadium jumpers competitions,
   the sport has evolved its own additional obstacles, scoring systems
   and performance ideals. Agility made its debut as an entertainment for
   spectators at the Crufts Dog Show in 1979; it has since become the
   most rapidly growing dog sport in England, Western Europe and North
   America. Spectators continue today to get caught up watching the dog
   and handler's enthusiasm in their athletic race against the clock.
   In the United States, there are several national organizations for
   agility which sanction tests or trials held by local dog training
   clubs. Trials which are based on the original international rules and
   specifications call for the highest level of agility from the dogs
   both in terms of speed and the physical ability to perform the
   obstacles. There are also domestic varieties of the sport that call
   for less actual agility (by using lower jump heights and smaller
   obstacles) from the dog and focus more on the handling aspects of the
   There are several obstacles common to all the different organizations:
   Dog Walk
   Pipe Tunnel
   Collapsed Tunnel
   Pause Table
   Weave Poles
   Tire or Hoop Jump
   Various Types of Jumps
   The obstacles used in agility have been designed with both safety and
   spectator appeal in mind. All jumps have easily displaceable bars so
   that the dog should not experience injury should he misjudge and take
   down a jump bar. All obstacles that the dog must physically scale have
   'contact' zones painted on the equipment; the contact zones enforce
   safe training techniques since handlers know that dogs will be faulted
   unless one or more feet are in the contact zones when
   ascending/descending these contact obstacles. All contact equipment
   surfaces are roughened for good traction in both dry and wet weather.
   In competition, the obstacles are arranged in various course
   configurations, always unique from trial to trial, that offer levels
   of challenges appropriate to the class and experience level of the
   dogs competing. The handler must direct their dog around the course in
   the sequence that has been predetermined by the judge. At the entry
   levels of competitions, courses contain few complications and are more
   of a test to prove the dog can competently perform the equipment
   within a reasonable amount of time. As the dog and handler earn their
   way into successively higher levels, the courses increase in
   complexity and begin to require split second timing and coordination
   between the handler and dog in order to accomplish the course within
   the 'Standard Course Time' (SCT) established by the judge.
   The rules are fairly simple; handlers may give an unlimited number of
   commands or signals to their dogs, but may not touch either the
   equipment or the dog. Dogs are 'faulted' for actions such as taking
   down a jump bar, failing to put one or more feet in the safety or
   contact zone when ascending/descending contact equipment, taking
   obstacles out of sequence, and running past or stopping before the
   next obstacle to be performed. Time penalties are additionally
   assessed against dogs that exceed the SCT.
   Dogs compete only against dogs of similar height at the withers within
   a fixed number of jump height divisions. The number of height
   divisions and the ranges of dog heights assigned to a height division
   (and therefore the difficulty factor) differ considerably from
   organization to organization. Regardless of the organization, the dog
   with the lowest number of faults and the fastest time wins the class
   or height division.
   The largest national organizations are as follows:
   United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA)
          P.O. Box 850955, Richardson, TX 75085-0995
   American Kennel Club (AKC)
          5580 Centerview Dr., Suite 200, Raleigh, NC 27606-3390
   United Kennel Club (UKC)
          100 East Kilgore Rd, Kalamazoo, MI 49001-5598
   North American Dog Agility Council, Inc. (NADAC)
          HCR 2, Box 277, St. Maries, ID 83861
   Agility Association of Canada (AAC)
          638 Wonderland Road South, London, ONT N6K 1L8
Breeds Involved

   Agility trials are open to all dogs, both purebred and mixed breed
   (with the exception of those sanctioned by the AKC, which restricts
   trials to AKC-registered dogs only) . Dogs of medium build that come
   from breeds and/or lines of breeding that have retained their original
   working abilities tend to be the most successful in agility
   competitions. However, not only does no one breed dominate agility
   trials, outstanding individuals of nearly every breed are seen
   performing well both in local and national events.
   Because of the athletic requirements of the sport, dogs that are less
   agile by nature of conforming to the physical structure typical for
   their breed are only rarely seen or successful in the forms of the
   sport conforming to international rules (USDAA and AAC). These dogs
   can be successful however at the domestic forms requiring less actual
   physical agility (AKC, UKC and NADAC). This applies primarily to the
   larger, giant breeds and to some extent the short-legged, long backed

   Dogs must be at least 6 (UKC) or 12 (AKC) months of age to participate
   in trials held under domestic rule variations and at least eighteen
   months of age to compete in trials held under international rules
   (USDAA, AAC, and NADAC).
   Although agility training is best started with a young adult dog, some
   agility training can be appropriate for young puppies; this includes
   tunnel work, jumps lower than elbow height, and basic control
   training. Contact equipment work (i.e. A-frames, Dog Walks, and
   See-saws) should be delayed and/or kept very low until the puppy has
   developed the necessary physical coordination to negotiate a plank
   suspended above the ground.
   Serious jumping and weaving work should be put off entirely until the
   puppy is much older. Because of the long term negative impact of
   jumping and flexing on immature, growing bones, owners are advised to
   research their breed thoroughly and only begin intensive agility
   training of this type when the dog is past the age at which the
   'growth plates' are known to typically close for that breed. A very
   imprecise guideline for growth plate closure in mixed breed dogs would
   be 9 - 12 months for dogs under 50 pounds and 10-14 months for dogs
   over 50 pounds.
   Most dogs are able to participate and do well in agility until they
   reach 8-10 years of age. Owners should then gradually scale back their
   training and competing to obstacle heights and classes more
   appropriate to their 'veterans' if they wish to continue at that

   Some basic obedience training is necessary before commencing agility
   training. At a minimum, the dog must be able to sit, down, promptly
   come when called off-leash, hold a brief stay, maintain control around
   other dogs, and accept handling by strangers. Off-leash heelwork is a
   big plus but not required. In addition, a trainer/handler that has
   encouraged their dog from puppyhood to play fetch will have a distinct
   training advantage over someone who has not.
   Initial agility work begins by introducing the dogs to low and/or
   smaller versions of the obstacles. The height and/or length of the
   equipment is slowly extended over several training sessions to their
   full competition forms. Dogs at this stage of training require
   physical 'spotting' similar to gymnastics training while they develop
   the necessary skill and confidence on the obstacles. Leashes are
   usually quickly dispensed with as they may become entangled on the dog
   and/or equipment. Techniques or collars that apply physical
   corrections of any type should not be used; they are disruptive to
   maintaining balance & physical coordination (and may therefore lead to
   injury) and will slow down the dog's opportunity to become physically
   and mentally confident in his ability to negotiate the equipment
   safely. Physical handling and spotting techniques are often
   supplemented with food, praise, and fetch/tug type objects that both
   lure and reward the dog to perform the equipment.
   Once the basic obstacle work is learned, the dog enters the next phase
   of training. During this time, the handler works to gradually
   condition the dog to higher jumps and obstacle heights, and to develop
   a working 'command vocabulary' of both verbal and body signals
   necessary to direct the dog off-leash around an agility course. A
   well- trained agility dog learns to respond instantly to commands
   directing him to perform specific obstacles (when obstacles are placed
   immediately adjacent to one another) as well as commands causing him
   to run faster/slower, turn left/right and veer away from/closer to his
   handler. At the highest levels of agility competition, it is possible
   to see dogs that are able to perform these commands and maneuvers
   instantly and accurately even when working at full speed several yards
   away from their (much slower) handlers.
Health Considerations

   Not every dog should be doing agility and may become injured or
   aggravate a pre-existing condition if the owner does not perform some
   pre-screening before entering the phase of intensive training. The
   pre-screening should at a minimum consist of hip, elbow, and eye
   Veterinarians should be informed what is planned for the dog and the
   dog should be radiographed for both hip & elbow dysplasia. The owner
   should reconsider their plans for agility if the dog is rated anything
   less than 'Fair'. Unobstructed vision is also critical.
   Because agility is a fairly new type of dog competition, it is not
   unusual for a veterinarian to be unaware of the requirements for
   agility. In this case, it is very helpful for the owner to have
   available a short video (2-3 minutes long) of a dog performing the
   equipment; this will give the veterinarian an idea of the physical
   requirements necessary for the sport. Both the owner and veterinarian
   should be particularly sensitive to the dog's weight. What is a good
   healthy weight for a pet dog with normal activity expectations may be
   too heavy for agility training and competition. Poor performance or
   injuries, which can include muscle strains and other soft tissue
   injuries, are nearly always due to the 'weekend athlete syndrome' --
   i.e. the dog is overweight and/or not conditioned properly.
   On-going conditioning separate from the equipment training is vital to
   keeping the dog's agility performance high and injury-free. Weight
   bearing exercise is the most appropriate; for example walks
   interspersed with short sprints condition both the dog and the
   handler. Long distance, low to the ground games of ball and/or frisbee
   are particularly helpful for building the dog's cardiovascular and/or
   muscular capacity. Swimming can also be beneficial for improving
   cardiovascular & muscular capacity.
   The agility obstacles that require the most conditioning (particularly
   for international style agility) are the jumps. In order for a dog to
   be able to safely engage in the amount of jumping required for both
   agility training and competition, the dog must not only possess the
   proper cardiovascular and muscular structure, he must possess the
   necessary skeletal structure as well. Skeletal conditioning is
   performed slowly over time by spending at least 6-9 months of training
   at low jump heights; this minimizes impact to the bones and yet
   induces the rather slowly growing bones to thicken and develop the
   strength needed at the correct points to withstand the impact of
   landing after jumping. These months of low jump training are a good
   time for a handler to work on developing the dog's command vocabulary.
   Once this conditioning period is accomplished, the jumps can then be
   systematically raised in training until the dog's full jump height is
   reached and actual competition can be considered.
   Some on-going physical maintenance of the dog is necessary as well in
   order to prevent injury whether in training or competition. In
   particular, nails must be kept trimmed back at all times so that they
   do not catch on the equipment or impede the dog's traction. Some
   sacrifice in dog appearance must be accepted in those breeds which
   have a lot of hair over or about the eyes; this hair must be kept
   trimmed or tied back so as not to interfere with the dog's vision.
    Agility FAQ
    J. L. Gauntt

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