What do the following have in common: A-frame, tire, leash runner, standard course time, NQs, double Qs, weave pole dance, “5 and 4 and 3 and 2 and 1 and GO!”, “Here!”, “Out!”, scribe, zooming? To the average person, they don’t make sense. But to a growing number of us, those terms are part of the lingo of dog agility.
The sport of dog agility originated in England, based on showjumping for horses. Worldwide, several different dog organizations have developed rules governing dog agility competitions. International competitions are held every year. In the U.S.A., most agility trials follow the rules of either the American Kennel Club (AKC), North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), United Kennel Club (UKC), or United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA). Rules of the different groups vary. A dog must be registered with each organization to compete in trials licensed by that organization. All agility trials require the handler to direct the dog around a numbered obstacle course, running against time and completing the entire course in numbered order and in a manner appropriate to the level of difficulty of the course, which is specified in the rules of the organization.
Cavaliers are naturally suited for agility competition. They want to work with the handler and mark direction well. Their small size gives them an advantage over bigger dogs on such obstacles as the tunnels, dog walk, and see-saw. Cavaliers don’t have to slow down to get through a tunnel, and the planks of the dog walk and see-saw seem wider to them because they take up less of the width of the planks when they walk over them. Like most other dogs, Cavaliers enjoy the thrill of madly racing around the agility course, jumping, sprinting through tunnels, leaping back and forth through the weave poles, all for no other reason but that Mama or Daddy said, “Let’s do it!” In the fewer than ten years that AKC agility competition has been open to them, Cavaliers have earned many agility titles at all levels of difficulty. Several have achieved the AKC’s highest agility title, Master Agility Champion, or MACH.
In obedience competition, the timing and number of commands or signals to the dog by the handler to perform an exercise are strictly limited. Only one attempt at an exercise is allowed. Not so in agility! The handler is free to use multiple commands and whatever signals s/he deems necessary to tell the dog which direction to go and which obstacle to take next. With some restrictions, if an obstacle is missed (dog runs past a jump) or is not performed correctly (such as the weave poles), the dog is permitted to try it again. Even if the dog does not earn a qualifying score on the run, it will have the opportunity to complete the obstacle, and (the handler hopes!) do it better the next day. (Handlers are not allowed to touch the dog while performing the course, nor are they allowed to use whistles, food, or toys.)
Outside the ring, spectators eagerly await each dog’s run, knowing that it can be lost or saved literally in a split second. Not all handlers run the same course, even with the same size dog, in the same way. So each run is unique and capable of providing memorable moments.
In AKC competition, obstacles include the A-frame, bar jump, broad jump, closed tunnel or chute, dog walk, double spread jump, open tunnel, panel (solid) jump, pause table, see-saw, tire jump, triple spread jump (upper competition levels only), and weave poles. The rules specify not only the construction and dimensions of the obstacles, but also what constitutes the correct completion of each obstacle, which obstacles are allowed in a given class, and at what level of difficulty. As an option, some of the jumps may have “wings” added to the sides as for horse jumping. This does not make the jump itself more difficult, but the dog must be trained to work further away from the handler because the handler cannot get right next to the jump to give the direction to the dog.
Factors affecting the level of difficulty of an agility course include the number of obstacles, degree of angle from one obstacle to another (generally speaking, a 90-degree angle would be easier to negotiate than a 180-degree angle), proximity of two or more obstacles (putting an open tunnel near the “up” ramp of the A-frame means that the dog may perform the wrong obstacle), and leniency of judging. An example of the latter would be that in Novice (the beginning level AKC agility class), six weave poles (no more) are required, but runouts and refusals at the poles are not faulted. In Open (the next higher level), six to 12 weave poles are required, and runouts and refusals are faulted.
UKC agility trials include some unique obstacles such as the crawl tunnel, hoop tunnel, pause box, platform jump, sway bridge, and swing plank. UKC course times are more generous than AKC times, and the jump heights lower for Cavaliers (8”, rather than 12”). However, UKC rules require more demonstrated control of a dog’s performance than is found in AKC rules. Some things that are allowed in AKC agility with respect to positioning of handler and dog are faulted in UKC agility.
If you want to get started in agility competition, first make sure that you and your dog have no underlying health problems which need to be addressed. Both dog and handler should be in good condition to make the most of agility. But agility practice alone won’t make a dog OR a handler fit. There is no substitute for regular exercise—like taking the dog for a walk! Agility classes are usually held weekly for an hour or more at a time. You will learn how to teach the dog the safe performance of each obstacle, and you will also work on your own handling techniques. Usually, handlers are expected to help set up the equipment and/or take it down after class.
You will have to acquire a few pieces of equipment so you can practice at home a couple of times or more outside class; otherwise, you won’t progress quickly enough. You don’t have to buy a full set of agility equipment. You can find a lot of information on the Internet about either how to make your own equipment or you can buy practice equipment, usually cheaper than regulation trial equipment. Remember that if you only have one size dog, you don’t need full-size regulation equipment. For example, a Cavalier is most likely going to use an 8” pause table. You don’t need an expensive adjustable-height table with several different sets of legs. Find an old second-hand table with sturdy legs and cut them down. Then glue a piece of carpet on the top to provide traction. Weave poles can be made from garden stakes or plastic pipe.
Many volunteers are needed to help put on agility trials. Even if you aren’t ready to enter, you can go along and see some great runs. Some very necessary jobs, such as leash runner or ring steward, don’t require much experience. And the club will probably give you a free lunch for helping.
If you’ve read this far and are wondering what the agility terms at the start of this article were all about, here you go: A-frame – Tallest agility contact obstacle, two wide ramps connected together at the top to form an “A” shape. The dog must run up one ramp and down the other side. Tire – A tire or tire-shaped plastic pipe suspended from a frame. The dog must jump through the center of the tire. Leash runner – Volunteer worker at an agility trial who takes the leash from the dog at the start line and runs it over to the exit gate ready for the handler to pick it up at the end of the run. Standard course time – AKC term for the number of seconds in which a dog must finish an agility course without incurring time faults. NQs – Nonqualifying scores; no “legs” are earned towards a title (also applies to obedience). Double Qs – Two qualifying scores on the same day by a dog in both types of AKC agility classes, standard and jumpers with weaves (JWW). Weave pole dance – Unnatural walking or running steps by the handler while his/her dog is doing the weave poles; can be rather entertaining for spectators. “5 and 4 and 3 and 2 and 1 and GO!” – The judge counts down the seconds that the dog must remain on the pause table. “Here!” – A command by the handler to tell the dog to move toward the handler. “Out!” – A command by the handler to tell the dog to move away from the handler. Scribe – Volunteer who watches the judge when a dog is being judged in the ring and transcribes the judge’s arm and hand signals to written faults on each dog’s score sheet. Zooming – Action of a not-so-well-trained dog, as it runs madly around the course, seemingly enjoying itself, ignoring its handler and the correct performance of the obstacles; if it doesn’t go on too long, the handler may get the dog back under control and be able to finish the course.
You can locate a lot of information on dog agility on the Internet. Look for the funny side to dog agility with Barbie on a couple of club websites! Check out the rules and search for upcoming events in your area. Here are three helpful sites to get you started: www.akc.org, www.cleanrun.com, and www.ukcdogs.com. Good luck and lots of Qs!