Animal Athletes - Agility
Agility is an athletic event in which dogs and owners/handlers negotiate an obstacle course while racing against other teams’ times. It is designed to showcase the teamwork between the dogs and handlers.
In the ring, agility champion Enna is a pro, barreling through tunnels, whipping around weave poles, and leaping over jumps with a zeal that emulates her love for the game. But Enna’s climb to the top was a difficult one. When Jen Shipley of Warrington, Pennsylvania, adopted Enna from a border collie rescue at one year of age, the future champion suffered from behavioral issues stemming from neglectful owners.
“Enna had been ignored often in her first home, so she learned that negative attention, such as being yelled at, was better than no attention,” says Jen, adding that Enna also had a tendency to escape from the yard when not watched carefully. These bad habits made agility training difficult for Jen, who had to keep Enna on a leash or in a completely enclosed area at all times.
“Enna was not very confident and was afraid to be wrong,” Jen explains. “I taught her that agility was an enjoyable game by training without any pressure or correction.” Jen trained Enna to navigate the agility course using a reward-based approach, thanking her for quick and enthusiastic responses with toy play or treats. Now, four years later, Enna has earned 32 agility titles and is an agility dog champion in the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA).
Organizations—United States Dog Agility Association, American Kennel Club, North American Dog Agility Council, Dogs on Course in North America, Canine Performance Events
Types of exercises—Depending on the athlete’s class (class types vary among organizations), the dog is expected to navigate a timed obstacle course. Time is added for mistakes such as missing or refusing to complete an obstacle.
Special veterinary care needed—Before enrolling in an event or training program, owners should speak to their veterinarian to make sure their pet doesn’t have any underlying conditions (e.g., heart conditions, hip dysplasia, osteoarthritis) that may be exacerbated by this type of exercise.
Specific considerations—Excessive leaping or jumping puts dogs at risk for muscle strains and ligament injuries. To help prevent injuries, dogs and handlers should warm up before exercising and remain well hydrated while active. In addition, dogs who participate in agility events should not be overweight. Some dogs may need to lose weight before starting any kind of strenuous exercise.
How to get started—Beginner agility classes are available all over the country. The organizations listed above can help you find agility clubs in your state.
Benefits of the game—Agility is a great activity for breeds that require a lot of exercise (such as border collies and Australian shepherds). “Agility also strengthens the bond between the owner and the dog,” says Jen. “It provides a mental challenge for the dog as well as physical exercise; when taught using positive reinforcement, it can be a great confidence booster.”