Daily physical activity can keep your pup in tip-top shape – but at some point you might find them getting a bit bored of just fetch or a frisbee. So if you and your dog make a great sporty team together, check out agility training. Aka, a fun way to take your buddy’s fitness to the next level, gain confidence, stay mentally active, and forge a stronger bond with you. Let’s check it out.

What is agility training for dogs?

By definition, “agility” is the ability to move quickly and efficiently while changing position frequently. A dog must have good balance, speed, coordination, strength, and endurance to perform these nimble movements. 

Agility is also the name of a fast-paced, challenging dog sport. Agility trials take place on a course that includes about 15 obstacles that require twisting through upright weave poles, climbing up elevated walkways, stopping atop a pause table, leaping through tire jumps, and zipping through tunnels. Dogs and their handlers work together as a team to navigate the obstacles in the correct order.

You and your dog can sign up for competitive agility trials or you can participate in agility just for fun, without the pressure of competition. You can even create a backyard agility course using broomsticks and your kids’ old toys. Either way, agility is a great way for your pup thrive by getting physical and mental exercise. As a bonus, you’ll get a workout, too!

What are the benefits of agility training?

Agility training offers many benefits for your pup, including heart-pumping activity and problem solving. Don’t worry – your pup does not need to be a national agility champion to enjoy the social, physical, and mental benefits of agility. 

Physical and Mental Exercise

Every dog needs daily exercise, but a short walk around the neighborhood and a few minutes of tug-of-war are probably not enough stimulation for your dog – especially if they spend most of the day indoors, waiting for you to come home from work or school.  A few minutes of agility training each day can add an extra dose of physical activity and mental stimulation that will engage your dog’s brain and tire them out.

Agility requires your dog to pay close attention to your commands. Just staying focused is a challenging mental workout for your pup and allows them to put their instinctive abilities to work. Mental stimulation is just as important as physical activity for your dog’s overall health. Agility can help provide that. It can also reduce boredom, which leads to destructive behaviors like chewing on furniture or your shoes.

Healthy Weight and Mobility

To be agile, your dog needs to have good body condition and be physically fit. Working dog breeds take well to agility, because they are naturally high-energy. But even couch potatoes can participate in agility, albeit at a slower pace. If your dog is overweight or out of shape, agility training could help your dog get fit. 

Agility requires your dog to have good core strength to control their mobility from side to side. It may take some practice to help your dog get ready for agility, but the health benefits to your dog are worth it. One of the most rewarding benefits of agility is the deep bond that will develop between you and your dog. Agility training means you and your dog will be paying close attention to each other, which your dog will absolutely love. And with all the time the two of you spend together working as a team, your pup may truly become your best friend. 

Two dogs taking a break from agility training in a tunnel.

What should you consider before starting an agility program? 

Agility training can be as simple as teaching your dog to jump onto a low bench in your back yard, or as complex as entering a high-level agility competition. Have your veterinarian perform a physical exam on your dog before undertaking any new type of dog training or exercise program. Then determine if agility training is right for you and your dog by answering these two questions.

Is my dog suitable for agility?

Your pup should be in generally good health to undertake agility training. If your dog has an injury or is elderly, this may not be the right time to introduce dog agility training. 

If your dog is not accustomed to lots of exercise, ask your veterinarian or a trainer about safe ways to introduce more activity into your pup’s routine before getting started on agility. Some dogs, especially those with short legs and long torsos, may have difficulty with agility training. But you can still work on basic obedience to provide the daily mental stimulation they require. 

Your dog’s temperament is just as important as their physical condition. Your pup should be comfortable around other dogs, especially if you plan to attend agility events. Figure out what motivates your dog so you can get them through the challenging (and sometimes tiresome) dog training sessions and competitions. They may be happy to work for treats or simply a “good dog” from you. 

Some dog breeds are also on the high-energy side – so they might have a tendency to bolt at the slightest sight or sound. You might’ve experienced this if you have an Irish Setter, Australian Shepherd, or a Border Collie. In many cases, it’s usually due to their instincts, like if they have a high prey drive. So if you have a dog who’s fond of running off without warning, you could use a dedicated pet tracker like the Tractive GPS to quickly and easily track where they are – and also keep tabs on their activity levels.

packaging of the Tractive GPS DOG tracker

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Is agility suitable for me?

Agility is a team sport, and you are part of the team. Consider if you have the ability to stay alongside your fast-moving pup during a high-energy agility competition. You will need to have a basic fitness level to keep up, and the mental stamina to encourage your pup through the tough times. This might be the time to start a fitness routine to increase your own agility and balance so you can be a solid teammate for your pup!

Dog agility training takes time, but it will be worth it when you and your dog become a dynamic duo on the agility course.

Why it makes sense to start early with agility training

Puppies and young dogs may get injured doing hurdles or big jumps, so most dogs enter agility competitions around age 1 or 2. You can get a head start by teaching your puppy basic obedience before they are old enough to compete. Work on mastering commands like Sit, Lie Down, Heel, Stay, and Come. 

When training your dog in basic obedience commands, always use positive reinforcement such as treats or verbal praise when your dog complies with your request. For example, clicker training is a fun, practical way to positively reinforce good behaviors in your dog. Never employ punishment as a dog training tool – it won’t have the desired effect and can destroy the bond of trust that you are trying to build with your pup. 

Puppies have very short attention spans. Keep training sessions brief and always end on a positive note, with a successful behavior followed by a treat or belly rub. 

Instead of training your puppy on your own, consider signing up for basic obedience training classes. At class, your puppy will learn to socialize properly with other dogs and humans, and you’ll learn dog training concepts that you can use throughout your dog’s lifetime. 

Teaching your dog agility at home

A puppy playing in a garden.

Before you begin agility training, review basic obedience commands with your dog if you haven’t practiced in a while. These commands will help you and your pup communicate during your at-home training session. 

You don’t need fancy dog agility equipment to train your dog. Start in your back yard with simple homemade obstacles like benches and small tables for your dog to jump onto or crawl under. Practice turning back and forth around the flagpole. Lay a broomstick over two bricks to create a mini-jump. Gradually increase the difficulty level of these activities as your pup gains confidence. Try to complete 2 or 3 short workouts, followed by lots of praise, some treats, and a “good dog” ear rub, then take a break. 

To have a successful agility session, your dog should be able to keep their attention on you, even amid distractions. Practice commands like Look or Watch Me (followed by a treat if successfully achieved) so your dog learns to focus only on you. Agility is normally performed off-leash, so be absolutely certain that you can recall your pup at a moment’s notice, even in a crowd of dogs and people.

Agility requires movements that may seem unnatural to your dog, such as walking backwards, making tight turns, or crawling in narrow spaces. Practice these moves before taking your pup onto the obstacle course. 

Introduce Contact Obstacles

Once your pup has mastered a few agility basics and can be trusted to follow simple commands, introduce some of the specific obstacles used in agility courses. Contact obstacles are items that your dog is required to touch with at least one paw during the competition. Practice by setting treats at the contact point and only give your dog the treats if they put their paw there. 

Contact obstacles used in competitions include a steep a-frame walkway that dogs must walk up and down, and a balance beam that dogs must walk along. Get creative with items from your garage to practice navigating these obstacles in your back yard. 

Teach Jumps

For your pup’s first jumps, start with a bar just an inch or two off the ground to create a low hurdle. With your dog on a lead, walk quickly toward the hurdle together and give the Jump command. If successful, give a treat and lots of praise. 

If your pup tries to skirt around the hurdle, place the hurdle in a narrow hallway instead of an open area. Stand on the opposite side of the hurdle from your pup. Be encouraging, and your dog will probably jump over the pole (or at least step over it). Keep practicing for a few minutes every day. Raise the bar a little every week. Your dog will soon be a confident jumper.

Try Tunnels

Begin teaching your dog to navigate tunnels using an old tire or a large cardboard box with the ends open. Toss a few treats inside the tunnel, or have a friend stand at the opposite end with a treat. Give the Tunnel command as they pass through. Once your dog in comfortable with short tunnels, gradually increase the length of the tunnel. Eventually, you can make it more challenging by adding some curves so your dog can’t see the end of the tunnel. 

Build Confidence With Moving Objects

Moving objects like the teeter board are especially challenging for dogs when they first start agility training. The teeter board is exactly like playground seesaw: your dog must walk from one end to the other and navigate the tipping of the board. You can help your dog prep for this activity by setting a piece of plywood on top of a tennis ball to make it unstable. Reward your dog for simply being interested in the board or placing a paw on top. Eventually, they’ll stand on it and balance like a pro.

If you aren’t having success training your pup for agility trials at home, consider taking agility classes. You may learn some techniques that help your dog achieve feats that you never thought possible! 

Get your dog active with agility training!

If you and your dog like a challenge, dog agility trials may be the right sport for you. Both you and your pup will build stamina, gain fitness, and get a good mental workout. Best of all, you’ll build an unbreakable bond of trust between you and your furry friend. Give it a try!