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Dog Agility - The Ultimate of Dog Sports

Do you have a dog bursting with energy and long walks never seem to be long enough?
If your furry companion is a working breed or simply displays a natural aptitude for climbing furniture or fences around your property, you may want to explore a dog sport like agility to focus your dog’s energy in a more constructive way!

Agility is essentially a team sport where you are in charge of the strategy and your dog is responsible for the athleticism. Tanya McAndrew who will soon represent Australia at the World Agility Open Championships describes it “as a dance between you and your dog within which you navigate a course of obstacles in a set time period. It requires grace and speed and you need to have a strong partnership with your dog”.

Border Collie Akuna & Tanya McAndrew at the 2015 World Agility Championships - Photo: Natalie Kirkwood

Within Australia there are two associations that govern dog agility - the ANKC (Australian National Kennel Club) and the ADAA (Agility Dog Association of Australia). The ANKC also provide for a number of other dog sports such as Tracking, Obedience and Endurance, whereas the ADAA focuses purely on Agility. Both associations have clubs all over Australia. 

Is Agility right for my dog?

There are dogs who are said to be better suited to dog agility: these include working breeds such as Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, Koolies, Kelpies and Shelties. However any physically fit dog can practice this sport and it can be done well by any breed from Chihuahuas and Poodles through to Greyhounds

Sam Bois from Jahzzy Agility explains that "the jump heights are based on the dog's height at the shoulder to create a level playing field. In some competitions, the smaller dogs are also given more time to finish the course."

Sheltie Georgia (Handler: Jenny Fahey) from the Northern Suburbs Dog Training Club
Even if you have no intention of ever competing, the benefits are many: two of the biggest being the intense mental and physical workout agility provides. Dogs also quickly learn social skills working around other dogs.

Bolstered confidence is another major plus. As your dog masters particular jumps and moves and their focusing ability and athletic skills are honed, a more self-assured and nimble animal emerges. You will soon notice their confidence permeating other areas of their life as well!

Agility training also strengthens the bond between dog and human. As you work and play together, you’ll learn to read one another on a unique and deeply satisfying level, communicating well beyond basic cues such as “sit”, “stay”, and “down”.

And perhaps the biggest reward? Agility training is just plain fun for both the dog and the handler and can become quite addictive.

Mini Schnauzer Tessa (Handler: Gila Levy) from the Northern Suburbs Dog Training Club

Some Health Advice

A spokesperson from Pine Rivers Agility Dogs Sports recommends that "before starting agility training you should schedule a check-up with your vet to make sure your dog is physically able to participate. Some breeds are prone to hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia; vision problems should be carefully evaluated as should those dogs that are carrying too much weight.

It’s important to remember that your puppy’s bones and joints are still forming and growing–sometimes up to 18 months of age–and high-impact sports during this period can cause problems down the road. Your dog’s mental health should be considered as well.  Whilst agility training usually builds confidence, you want to make sure that a shy or nervous dog is up to the task of performing.”

Sam Bois adds that "in order to minimise injury, the club will recommend that the dogs start by learning to use their bodies properly or what is called flatwork, which is all done on the ground without the use of agility equipment".

The Agility Course

Your dog learns to leap over hurdles, powers through tunnels, zips through a slalom of upright poles (Weave Poles) and scales ramps of various sizes.

Typically an agility course contains between 18 and 22 obstacles - all designed with safety and spectator appeal in mind. These include tunnels, A-Frame, the Seesaw, various kinds of jumps, Weave Poles and a Dog Walk. 
Tri Border Collie Gem in the Weave Poles - Photo Credit: G.Thiry

There are four different kinds of jumps - standard upright, tyre jump, spread jump and the broad jump as well two different styles of tunnels - the standard tunnel and a chute tunnel.

The aim is to find the balance between the control of the dog and the speed of the performance. The handler uses only verbal commands, hand signals and body language to control the dog; the use of treats or toys is banned, and handling the dog during a competition run causes dog and handler to be disqualified.

Scoring is based on faults, similar to equestrian show jumping. A fault is given if your dog refuses to take an obstacle or if a bar is knocked off a jump. 
A dog that completes all the obstacles correctly within the set time will earn what is called a Clear Round. Dogs earn titles when they achieve a set number of clear rounds.
Border Collie Remy (Owner: Sue Moon) - Photo Credit: Tony Redwood
Safety of the dogs is paramount in agility. The bars on the jumps are easily displaced if hit and the surfaces on the contact obstacles such as the see-saw and the A-frame are roughened so as to provide grip even if they are wet. Clubs usually have a policy of not permitting dogs less than one year old to participate in classes or competition but requirements vary.

2016 World Agility Open Championships

Every year there are huge agility events held in Europe with the biggest being the World Agility Open Championships. This event is held in the UK and will attract over 200 competitors from 25 countries across the globe.

This year, Australia will be sending a team of 8 people (7 competitors and the team’s manager) over to compete but what about their dogs? Well, the Aussie team is at a disadvantage in that they don't get to compete with their own dogs but rather have to source a dog from the host country to run in the event. 

Tanya McAndrew explains that “we are the only team (unless the New Zealanders decide to attend) that has to do this as quarantine restrictions to get our dogs over and then back again are much stricter. This would mean being separated from our dogs for weeks both in the lead up to and after the competition. This is simply too stressful on both dogs and owners and it is cost prohibitive.

Border Collie Akuna on the Dog Walk (Handler: Tanya McAndrew)

This year the Australian team includes two ladies (Laura Ingall and Sherrie Cater) who live in the UK but are still Australian nationals. This is the first time this has been allowed and they will get to run their own dogs in the event. The other five members of the team will be borrowing a dog to run at the event. We will arrive a week before the event so we can get to know our dogs and work with them in preparation.”

Tanya started agility training 5 years ago with her new rescue puppy "Murphy", a Poodle Jack Russell cross, by joining the Brisbane Agility Dog club and participating in their 7-week Foundations Class. 
After training together for 12 months, Tanya and Murphy started competing at the beginner level and quickly moved up into the more competitive levels under the guidance of Maria Thiry. Maria is also a member of the Australian Team heading over the WAO in May and operates Red Dog AgilityShe has over 15 years of experience training agility dogs and has previously represented Australia.

Murphy, a Poodle x Jack Russell (Owner: Tanya McAndrew) - Picture by DP Photography

The team have been working very hard over the past 6 months raising funds to finance their trip: running raffles, selling chocolates and dog toys, putting on sausage sizzles and holding mock competitions. They would like to give a big shout out to Steve Hurley from TuffRock K9 for providing uniform sponsorship and donating great prizes to give away at their fundraising events .

All of the ladies competing have now found a host dog to run in the Championships and are keen to get over to the UK and start getting to know their new canine friends. The Queensland members Tanya McAndrew, Sue Moon, Maria Thiry will leave Brisbane on the 4th of May, Sarah Ogden & Gillian Self from Western Australia are leaving on the 5th with the team all meeting up on the 6th of May for their first ever training session together on UK soil.

 It’s an exciting journey for them all!

Where do you start your own agility journey?

You may not have a world title in your sights but if you think that agility sounds like fun, why not enrol in a foundation course at your local dog club?

Sam Bois says that "most training schools now use positive reinforcement methods - which means treats and toys are used to encourage the dogs and they love this."

Though it may not be right for every dog, agility training offers a plethora of benefits, including mental and physical stimulation, opportunities for intense bonding, and increased confidence and drive. No matter how you score, agility is usually a win-win.

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