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Dog Agility

Thursday March 12th, 2009

Truly a team sport, agility combines skill, training, and human-canine communication in a display that's as fun for spectators as it is for participants.

In competition, a handler directs her dog through a sequence of obstacles--such as tunnels, hoops, weave poles, and seesaws--without ever touching her dog or the equipment. Using only voice and hand signals, she directs her dog through the course as quickly as possible with as few mistakes (or "faults") as possible. Competitions are held for dogs (and handlers) of all levels, ages, and sizes.

Is it right for my dog?

While certain breeds seem to excel at agility, most notably Aussies and Border Collies, the sport can be enjoyed and done well by any dog. Even if you have no intention of ever competing, the benefits are many--two of the biggest being the intense mental and physical workout agility provides.

Bolstered confidence is another major plus. As your dog masters particular jumps and moves, and her focusing ability and athletic skills are honed, a more self-assured and nimble animal emerges. (You'll notice her confidence permeating other areas of her life as well.)

Additionally, agility training strengthens the bond between dog and human. As you work and play together, you'll learn to read one another on a unique and deeply satisfying level, communicating well beyond basic cues such as "sit," "stay," and "down."

And perhaps the biggest reward? Agility training is just plain fun.

Where to begin

Before starting agility training, schedule a check-up with your vet to make sure your dog is physically able to participate. Breeds prone to hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, or vision problems should be carefully evaluated.

Your dog's mental health should be considered as well; while agility training usually builds confidence, you want to make sure a shy or nervous dog is up to the task of performing.

Next steps

You can find agility classes of all levels in cities across the country, as well as private trainers who will work one-on-one with your dog. Search for a class that uses positive reinforcement to train and looks out for the safety of the dogs.

Usually a pup must be at least a year old to participate in classes or competition, but requirements vary. It's important to remember that your puppy's bones and joints are still forming and growing--sometimes up to 18 months of age--and high-impact sports during this period can cause problems down the road.

Bottom line: Though it may not be right for every dog, agility training offers a plethora of benefits, including mental and physical stimulation, opportunities for intense bonding, and increased confidence and drive. No matter how you score, agility is usually a win-win.

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