Are you looking for an amazing activity that you can do with your favorite canine? Agility training is a great way to build a stronger dog between you and your dog, plus it’s fabulous exercise, great for solving behavioral problems, and a whole lot of fun. You don’t need to be an expert dog handler to get started with agility, and your dog doesn’t need to be an athlete. With some basic skills, an open mind, and a bit of equipment, you can get started with agility training in your backyard. The skills you learn in agility will make you a better dog handler overall, and I promise you’re dog will thank you for it.
What is Agility?
Backyard agility training is great exercise for you and your dog. Photo credit: Tara Schatz
Agility training is a form of dog training that involves a dog and handler team, who work through an obstacle course within a certain time frame. Obstacles may include tunnels, jumps, ramps, and weave poles, and the handler directs the off-leash dog through the obstacle course using body language and vocal cues. Professional agility competitions are held throughout the world, but your dog doesn’t have to compete to learn (and love) agility. It is a great form of basic obedience and dog behavior training.
There are several organizations in the US that sanction agility trials, including the American Kennel Club (AKC), Canine Performance Events (CPE), and North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC). Each organization has different rules about courses and who may compete. Skyline Agility Club has a great overview of agility organizations in the United States.
Tips for Getting Started with Agility Training
All breeds can take part in agility training.
If you have a training center or club that offers agility training, you’re in luck. Working with experts in the field is a great way to learn, and you will be able to watch other dogs learning the sport at all different levels. You will also be able to introduce your dog to the agility equipment without spending a lot of money. Here are a few tips to get started with agility.
- Find a club and go to a trial – Attending a trial is a great way to see what agility is all about. Check out Agility.Events to find an agility trial near you.
- Work on obedience training – It’s really helpful for you and your dog to have a decent handle on basic commands before starting agility. Work on sit, down, and heel, as well as loose-leash walking, and recalls with distractions.
- Use positive reinforcement during training exercises – The best way to reinforce a behavior is to use rewards when training. A reward can be anything that your dog loves – praise, a treat, or playtime. Food rewards work really well for most dogs and is a great motivator.
Agility Training Books for Beginners
The following books are perfect for those just starting out with agility training and will help you with the basics of training, backyard course development, and competing.
- Introduction to Dog Agility – If you only get one book, I’d recommend this one. It’s a dog agility bible, covering every aspect of the sport, from getting in shape and diet recommendations to training methods and do-it-yourself equipment.
- The Beginner’s Guide to Dog Agility – Based on positive reinforcement training and relationship building, this is another great resource if you’re just starting out.
- Dog Tricks and Agility for Dummies – This book goes beyond agility training to work simple and complicated tricks into your training sessions. Teach your dog to speak, push a stroller, and yes, run an agility course.
What You Need for Backyard Agility Training
An agility tunnel is relatively expensive and easy to use.
If you don’t have access to agility professionals or a training center, or don’t have the time or money to take lessons, you can still get started with agility using your backyard and some basic equipment.
There are several types of obstacles that are useful to the beginner, including jumps, tunnels, weave poles, and contact obstacles. Here’s an overview of backyard equipment that you can buy for your at-home agility course.
Tunnels are probably the most basic and cheapest of the obstacles readily available for backyard agility courses, so this is a good place to start. All dog can practice with agility tunnels, and they are great for puppies, older dogs, and out-of-shape dogs too. A basic agility tunnel will range from 10 to 20 feet long and is usually about two feet in diameter. I recommend getting a longer tunnel, like this one and then keeping it scrunched together a bit while your dog gets used to it.
Because you don’t want your tunnels rolling around your backyard and scaring your pups who are running through them, you should also invest in saddlebags to secure the agility tunnel to the ground. These adjustable saddlebags will secure any size tunnel and hold up to 25 pounds of sand.
Most jumps can be adjusted to match your dog’s size and ability.
Agility jumps include simple bars that can be adjusted to different heights as your dog becomes more confident, and tire jumps, which look like a suspended tire that your dog jumps through. A set of four bar jumps should be all you need to get started, and these from Affordable Agility are portable and come with carrying case. Once your dog is reliably jumping the bars, consider adding a tire jump to your agility course. Look for a tire jump that can be adjusted and is wide enough for your dog to jump through. Two feet in diameter is usually sufficient for medium to large dogs.
Do not work on jumping with pups who are still growing, as the jumping motion could damage joints and bones that aren’t fully developed.
Training your dog to weave in and out of poles is a challenging endeavor that will teach patience and persistence to both you and your dog. Even if you never invest in a full backyard agility course, using weaving poles at home will go a long way toward your training goals. Start with a set of six, spaced two feet apart, and work your way up to 12 poles. The Lord Anson Weave Poles are regulation-size, rugged poles that won’t bend or break during training. They are made from plastic with a heavy-duty metal base.
Other Agility Obstacles
The equipment listed above makes the perfect starter package for creating your backyard agility course, but if you get bit by the agility bug, you can keep expanding. Here are some more fun obstacles that you can train your dog to use.
- Pause Table – During agility trials, your dog must sit and stay on the pause table for five seconds. This sturdy plastic table is useful for agility, and also for teaching commands and positions.
- Teeter-Totter – The teeter-totter is a more advanced obstacle, but many dogs love it. Buy this teeter-totter base along with a 12’x1’x2” board at your local home improvement store, and you’ve got the makings for all kinds of agility adventures with your pup.
- Broad Jump – The broad jump is a set of boards that lie flat to the ground, encouraging your dog to jump farther. The boards are configured to match your dog’s size and are completely adjustable.
Agility training is a great sport for dogs of all sizes, breeds, ages, and abilities. It does require patience and hard work, but the benefits are well worth the effort. Whether you’re looking for a casual pastime or a competitive outlet, agility training will help you build a strong bond with your dog while allowing you both to exercise your bodies and minds.