You might think you need a bunch of expensive equipment to reap the many benefits of dog agility, but you don’t.
If you are interested in agility, it is probably because you think your dog will have fun doing it. To that, I say, there is no better reason to do agility than to have fun, but there are plenty of other benefits to be had. Training a dog to do the specialized skills required in agility creates an incredible, unique bond between dog and handler, not to mention the fact that dogs need and thrive on exercise as much as we do for mental and physical fitness. You can explore many aspects of agility training in the “real world.” It’s fun, easy, and free, and you will get a taste of the type of training required to really pursue the sport.
Yesterday, when I announced at breakfast that I was going out to do some agility training, my family was surprised. I was visiting my mom, and she does not have an agility field with equipment, but she does have a field with a bunch of fruit trees in it. With those six trees, I was able to practice sending my dog out to an “obstacle” as well as directing him to stay out and find another “obstacle.” My dog was able to practice wrapping tightly around a lemon tree, as well as driving hard back to me for a reward, skills I need when I compete. I was able to work on his commands to turn toward me and away from me. I practiced with him working on both sides of my body. I was actually able to handle a “course” using only trees in the real world.
Here is list of real world agility skills you can train, the “equipment” you can use, and the benefits for your dog.
Dog on Your Right: You are the “equipment” in this case!
This skill can be hard for dogs that are used to always walking or heeling on their owner’s left side. Teaching your dog to be comfortable heeling, jogging, and even sprinting with you on both sides of your body is a great place for you to start your “real world” agility training. Then you can graduate to fruit trees.
Send Away and Come Back to Me: You can use trees, cones, barrels, trash cans, and stools—anything tall and round—to send your dog around.
Your dog is learning to work away from you as he drives to the obstacle, and that builds his confidence. This skill also strengthens your recall behavior. Every time the dog drives back to you, you throw him a party (lots of happy praise) and give him a cookie. This gets the dog using his side muscles as he drives around the obstacle, and it promotes balance and speed.
Balance Skills: Having good balance is a plus for any dog, but agility dogs need their balance to be the best it can be.
Enhance your dog’s natural-balance skills by using logs, benches, and telephone poles (on its side, of course) to walk on. Choose obstacle that are close to or on the ground. Be patient as you train, and let your dog find his balance on his own. Let him take his time, and it is OK if he jumps off and on until he gets comfortable; even that action is a good work out. If using a bench, check the space between the slats—you don’t want your dog’s toe to get caught. Progress to the dog turning around on the obstacle and walking it in both directions. Twelve inches or wider is best. Don’t make things too hard for your dog; you want him to enjoy success. Check logs for anything sharp or protruding. You can also use stools (low) and stumps for your dog to balance on.
Jumping: Have fun teaching your dog to jump over logs and branches.
Brooms laid across paint cans were my first jumps—be creative. If you are making jumps, be sure the dog can knock the bar (or broom stick) off if he doesn’t clear it. If you are using logs and benches, don’t worry if your dog uses his rear feet to help himself over. Again, he is still using his body in a dynamic way so the benefits are still there. For safety reasons, don’t ever jump your dog if the footing is concrete (it is as hard on their joints as it would be on yours). Jump an appropriate height for your dog; higher is not better. A rule of thumb is don’t jump anything higher than your dog’s withers (top of the shoulder where the neck connects to the back).
If this type of training appeals to you, so will the “real” sport of dog agility. Be warned: It is addicting for both dogs and their people, too.
Caution: Safety when training should always come first. Dogs should be in good shape, not too fat, and not too old or too young. The idea is to benefit their bodies, not harm them. Do not train your dog on uneven or slippery ground; he needs solid footing with both cushion and traction (grass is perfect). Don’t train when it is too dark for your dog see well.
Sandy Rogers is 27-year veteran of the sport of dog agility. She has handled her dogs to National and World Championships. She has been seen on TV competing at the Incredible Dog Challenge and at the Westminster Agility Championships. She writes for several dog magazines and has three instructional videos on the sport of dog agility. Sandy owns and operates Ace Dog Sports in San Francisco.
Main article photo by: Jonas Löwgren-Creative Commons