How would you like to spend some quality time with your dog, improve your communication skills with him, get in shape and have fun all at the same time?
Consider agility, a competitive sport in which dog and human combine athletic skills to conquer obstacle races. This increasingly popular team activity is open to all dogs regardless of pedigree. Both dog and owner enjoy mutual physical benefits and a boost in confidence while performing together as a team.
“Dog agility is like obedience with more freedom. The only difference is that agility is fun,” says Arthur Weiss, founder of Long Island Agility, the first club of its kind opened in New York fourteen years ago. The club has grown from a registration of only six people at its opening to more than 40 people who arrive each week to work out with their dogs. Classes are geared to the ability level of dog and owner. The group meets every Sunday on an outdoor field in a schoolyard in Huntington, NY, weather permitting. Rain or snow would cause dangerous slippery conditions for the rigorous athletics involved.
In 1977, coordinators of the Crufts Dog Show, an event created in 1891, needed to fill a gap in the schedule between activities in the main arena. Judges decided that the best way to amuse audiences would be with active competition including jumps and obstacle courses. The idea was adapted from Hunters Jumpers, the well-known horse agility competition, and thus dog agility was born. Now an international dog sport, dog agility has enjoyed enormous popularity throughout Europe, Australia, South America, Canada and United States.
For a growing number of enthusiasts, agility sure beats that boring walk around the block. Agility’s popularity has propelled it from the arena to cable TV. Zig & Zag, a game show featuring agility sport competitions in 11 different events between teams of handlers and dogs, airs daily on Animal Planet Cable Network. “Until recently I thought I was an active dog owner,” says Zig & Zag hostess Forbes Riley. “My two dogs and I frequently wrestle on the living room floor, take daily walks around the neighborhood and once a week we frequent the off-leash dog park near my house.” Once she became hostess of the show, Riley realized what real activity is. She now attends an agility class once a week with her two rescued dogs, Peeve, a two-year-old Pit-bull/Dalmatian mix, and Sofi, a pure black Cocker Spaniel. She also practices agility in her backyard and wherever she goes, she often challenges her dogs with obstacles to keep them in shape.
Owners as well as their dogs need to be in shape for this team sport. As in any sport, proper gear is necessary for peak performance. Humans intent on keeping up with their companions can wind up injured in the fast footwork required; therefore good athletic footgear is a necessity. As with humans, animals must be of sound body. For the animal’s safety, it should be seen by a vet or an animal chiropractor before starting; back injuries are very difficult to detect.
Dr. Patti Schaefer, an holistic canine sports medicine practitioner at Canisport Veterinary Therapeutic Services in Olympia, WA, encourages clients to have their dogs examined before training. “We discuss good conditioning programs, diet, acupuncture and chiropractics to keep dogs in top condition,” she explains. Dr. Schaefer also practices Agility with her two Portuguese Water Dogs; Pirate, age 11, still competes, and Joy Spring, at ten- months old, just started training.
For a dog to be able to perform the jumps required, he must have proper cardiovascular strength, muscular conditioning and skeletal structure. “Over training or making the dog jump too high before he’s ready increases the potential to injury,” Dr. Schaefer says.
Conditioning is developed slowly; for example, spending six to nine months training at low jump heights will minimize impact on the bones. This is also the best time to teach the dog his command vocabulary. Owners are advised to clip a dog’s nails so they don’t catch on the equipment and to trim long hair around the eyes for optimum vision.
When to start the agility training? No time like the present. First, call your nearest agility organization and sign up for the next class. Then, practice while walking your dog; ask him to do small tasks such as jump on the park bench or weave around light poles. These could be your first steps toward an agility championship!
It is not necessary to buy all the equipment for this exercise. Just about anything can become a challenging obstacle. You may use park benches as a contact obstacle or streetlight poles as weave poles. Get an old, round garbage can with the bottom cut out and attach a sheet and you have a close tunnel or get a plastic tunnel for children at your nearest toy store. Just be creative and you might find excellent obstacles in your basement or garage.