How to Teach Your Dog Agility

Written by Small Door's medical experts

If you’ve ever seen dog agility on TV, you’ll know it’s a fast-paced, exhilarating challenge for dogs and their owners. But as fun as it is to watch, it’s even more fun to put into practice with your dog!

Agility has benefits beyond exercise: it’s great mental stimulation (for high-energy dogs in particular) and strengthens the bond between owner and dog. If you’re thinking of trying it out with your pup, keep reading for tips on how to get started at home.

What is dog agility?

Dog agility is a fast-paced, timed obstacle course completed by a dog and their handler. Courses usually contain around 15 or so obstacles, including tunnels, jumps, weave poles, and ramps, which the dog must complete in a predetermined pattern.

Benefits of teaching your dog agility

There are so many benefits of teaching your dog agility!

  • Great exercise: Running, jumping, climbing, and weaving, and all at a fast pace, is bound to tire your dog out. Agility is particularly great for high-energy dogs who need a lot of exercise.

  • Reduces boredom: In addition to providing a physical workout, agility provides mental stimulation for your dog, which reduces boredom and the destructive behaviors that can come with it.

  • Reinforces good behavior: Dogs rely on their owner to provide the commands they need to complete the agility course correctly. Teaching agility increases the level of attention your dog pays to you, and reinforces compliance to obedience commands.

  • Strengthens the bond between owner and dog: Many agility handlers comment on the increased bond they feel with their dog as a result of training as a team.

Agility is great for high-energy dogs who need a lot of exercise. It also provides mental stimulation, which reduces boredom and the destructive behaviors that can come with it.

Is my dog suitable for agility?

Agility can be done by all healthy, adult dogs but it’s not suitable for dogs that have been recently injured or very old dogs with health issues. If you have a puppy it’s wise to start out very gradually and only complete a whole course when they’re around 12-18 months old. You may also need to adapt or remove certain elements, such as jumps, for dogs with joint issues such as arthritis or those prone to back injuries, such as Dachshunds and Basset Hounds.

Many pet owners find that agility is also suitable for dogs with common behavioral issues including:

  • Nervous or anxious dogs: As many anxious or nervous dogs get stressed by not knowing what will happen next, uncertainty is scary for them. Agility courses can help these dogs, just like regular routines and repetitive activities can. They catch on quickly to the sport and enjoy the repeating sequences, which help to calm their anxious or nervous behavior. 

  • High-energy working dogs: If your dog is a working breed, you might struggle to give them enough of an outlet to expend all of their energy. These highly strung dog breeds tend to find agility both a physical and mental challenge, which can also help tire them.

  • Dogs that lack focus: If you have a dog that constantly fidgets or wiggles around and has a hard time paying attention, either at home or in a training class, agility courses might be suitable for your dog to help channel all that energy and help them focus.

Is agility suitable for me?

Dog agility should be fun for both you and your dog, so it’s also important to consider if this is a suitable activity for you. Agility can be fast and furious, so if you don’t have a solid fitness baseline, you’ll want to create a routine of training exercises for yourself that will improve strength and increase agility and balance so you can support your dog throughout the course.

Be sure to take it slow until you feel comfortable completing a course with your pup.

What to know before you start teaching your dog agility

  1. Establish a base of basic obedience.
    Your dog will need to follow your cues closely during the agility course, so brush up on her basic obedience skills, using positive reinforcement techniques, including sit, stay, and come. (Mastering stay is particularly important when it comes to the teeter board, where your dog will need to stay still until the far end touches the ground.)

  2. Improve your dog’s attention span.
    Make sure your dog can keep her attention on you, no matter what else is going on. When you’re on the course, there may be many distractions, like other dogs, loud noises, and, of course, all the fun obstacles to play with! Practicing orders like “Watch me” or “Look at me” when you’re out and about can help with this.

  3. Get your dog used to different movements.
    Get your dog comfortable with moving in strange ways before introducing her to the real obstacles. Train your dog to walk backwards, place her paws in specific places, teach her to step on top of things, climb over them, and crawl through them. Teach her to turn around an object tightly, and to move away from you, or to the left and right by tossing treats in that direction

Teaching your dog agility at home

Before you try out an agility class, you may want to build your own agility obstacles at home to see if your dog enjoys it. Here are some tips on how to put together homemade obstacles and teach your dog the basics.

Jumps
First, be sure to ask your vet whether jumping is suitable for your dog. Certain breeds, such as Dachshunds and Basset Hounds, can be prone to back problems, so jumping isn’t recommended for them.

Once you’ve got the go-ahead from your vet, you can create jumps by laying a piece of plywood on top of a few books. Make sure your dog won’t hurt themselves if they knock the jump over. Start low, and increase the jump height slowly. For large breeds, start one to two inches off the ground; for small breeds, consider placing the board on the ground to begin with.

Tire Jump
An old bike tire or hula hoop ring can work well for the tire jump. Just make sure it’s large enough for your dog to fit through comfortably. To begin with, hold your tire steady while your dog walks through it. You can slowly raise it and eventually hang it from a tree branch.

Dog Walk
The dog walk is a raised walkway with ramps at either end. You could try using a picnic bench and place pieces of wood at either end for the ramps.

Some dogs may hesitate to climb up onto this obstacle, so you can try starting with the end section first. Pick up your pup and place them a short distance from the end of the obstacle. Most of the time, dogs will take the couple of steps required to get off. Then you can build up until your dog is happy with the whole obstacle.

Tunnel
You can buy a children’s plastic tunnel from a department store fairly cheaply, or you can make a fake tunnel by draping some sheets over chairs. If your dog is unsure about going into the tunnel, don’t force them. Try to lure them with treats or by poking your head through from the other side and calling to them.

Weave Poles
One of the most entertaining obstacles to watch, the weave poles usually consist of 10 to 15 vertical poles that your dog must weave through. You could use ski poles or PVC pipes that you push into the ground.

Begin with the poles spaced pretty far apart. Walk through the poles with your dog on a leash to get them used to the movement of weaving. Next, lure your dog through the poles by themselves. You can slowly move the poles closer together as your dog begins to learn the movements. Flexibility is very important here, so take it slow to make sure your dog doesn’t hurt themselves.

Teeter Board
The teeter board is one of the trickiest obstacles for many dogs, as it requires a lot of confidence with moving objects.

Start with low objects: get your dog used to things moving underneath them, such as a skateboard, toy wagon or a wobble board. Reward your dog for showing any interest in the object, then when they put a paw onto it, and eventually when they balance on top of it. You want to turn it into a fun game, and build up a positive association with moving objects.

When you feel your dog is ready, you can build your own teeter board with a long piece of wood resting on top of a pipe. Again, you will need to progress slowly, luring your dog with treats and praising them whenever they touch and take small steps onto it. When they get to the center and the teeter begins to shift, reward your pup with a jackpot of treats for staying on the teeter. You can eventually switch to thicker pipes when they’re completely comfortable with the movement.

Where to find an agility class

If your dog enjoys agility, there are many classes you can enroll them in to improve their skills further. You can search for agility classes at an AKC Club, and eventually progress to the Agility Course Test (an entry-level agility event) before deciding if you want to compete more seriously. The United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) also offers a directory for agility groups in each state.

Summary of dog agility training

Dog agility is a fast-paced, exhilarating challenge for both dogs and owners. Agility courses are not only a fun activity, but they can be a great way to help teach your dog obedience skills, improve your dog’s attention span and help with behavioral issues like anxiety by giving your dog an outlet and helping them burn energy.

You can start with basic agility at home by creating jumps, tunnels and teeter boards or try your hand in a more structured dog agility class if you and your dog end up loving agility. If you’re ever unsure if agility courses are right for your pup, schedule a wellness exam with us to make sure Fido checks out.

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