Is your dog’s energy level cranked up a notch or two above the average pooch? Does he or she seem to have an insatiable need to run? Could you stand a little more exercise, too? Then a backyard agility course may be the perfect outlet for the both of you.
Canine agility is a sport where you run next to your dog, directing them with commands and hand signals, through an obstacle course during a set amount of time. It’s a great way to help your dog expend excess energy and pick up new obedience tips while providing a mental challenge to help reduce boredom and anxiety. Best of all, this sport gets you off the couch and helps build a stronger bond between you and your dog.
First stop: a vet check
As always, your dog’s health and safety are priorities. Ask your veterinarian to examine your dog to make sure there aren’t any underlying conditions that could be exacerbated by this sport.
Since running the course obstacles could put stress on muscles and joints, it’s especially important to look for orthopedic conditions such as arthritis or ligament ruptures as well as spinal disease. A diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean your dog can’t participate in agility, it just means you’ll need to adapt the course to keep your dog safe. Your veterinarian can provide guidance.
Learn about the sport
If possible, take a course in beginner agility or read books and articles to learn the basics. Because much of the sport relies on communication between you and your dog, teach your dog commands such as “watch me,” “look,” or the skill of touching his or her nose to your hand or a target. These are just some of the commands that will help you move your dog through the course.
At first, keep training sessions short, just five to ten minutes, then gradually lengthen the sessions. Make sure to lavish your dog with positive reinforcement in the form of praise and treats so he or she associates good things with your sessions.
Mapping your course
The obstacle course can be designed in a myriad of ways, depending on the size of your yard and the number of obstacles you choose. You can find agility starter kits online, which contain some of the basic obstacles, or you can make your own. Here are a few examples:
Weave poles — A series of lightweight, vertical poles that your dog zigzags through like a slalom skier. Poles should be flexible and bend if your dog bumps into them. Potential materials include PCV tubing, bamboo poles, ski poles, or even orange cones, initially placed about two feet apart.
Tunnels — Flexible, lightweight tunnels that your dog can run through. A children’s play tunnel may do the trick.
Jumps — Adjustable hurdles that your dog can leap over. You can build these out of almost anything, as long as the pole can be dislodged so your dog won’t be hurt if they bump it. Consider using two stacks of books or bricks with a broom handle laying across them. The height can be raised as your dog becomes more proficient.
Tire jumps — Basically, a vertically mounted ring your dog can jump through. Try securing a hula hoop or tire between two PVC pipes at a height that’s easy for your dog to leap through.
Teeter-totter — This is a plank with a fulcrum in the middle. Ideally, cover the plank with rubber or carpeting to prevent your dog from slipping. As your dog runs up this plank, the obstacle pivots in the middle like a seesaw, bringing the far end down so they walk safely onto the ground.
Start with a walk-through
Once you’ve set up the course, walk your dog through it slowly, helping them understand each obstacle. Use hand signals, vocal commands, praise and treats to help guide the way. Start with simple obstacles, then move on to more complicated ones.
Never force your dog through any obstacles that cause them fear or anxiety. For example, it might be scary for your dog to enter a dark tunnel initially. In this case, try leading them through with a trail of treats and lots of encouragement.
As your dog gets used to the course, you can gradually increase the speed or the height of the jumps. It’s a great way to build your dog’s confidence, strengthen your bond and get you both off the couch!
The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.