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When I semi retired a couple of years ago I bought myself a little dog and at the back of my mind I decided it might be fun to get a dog I could 'do something' with. So that woman and dog could be a partnership, having fun together. I had previously been involved in the dog show world and didn't fancy going back down that route so that left me with a few other alternatives. They were, obedience, flyball or dog agility. Whilst I have huge admiration for the people who do obedience I didn't really think it was my cup of tea as it is quite rigid in terms of how the dog must behave and given that dogs often take after their owners ................. well enough said! I looked at flyball as a possibility but the thing I really wanted to try out was agility. It looked fairly easy, the dogs looked like they enjoyed it and I figured I might be able to enjoy it too so I started trying to find out more.
My first step was to look on the internet (of course) to see what I could find out and I was lucky enough to find agilitynet.com which has a whole wealth of information as does agilitybits.co.uk and between the two of them I discovered that you shouldn't start training a dog to do agility until they are at least a year old (to allow them to fully develop their bones and muscles) and you can't compete until they at least 18 months old. That gave me enough time to teach him the basics every dog needs to know like coming when called, sit, stay etc which is what I did.
As he approached a year old I started to look to somewhere to go for training and discovered that most of the clubs around me had long waiting lists (around 9 months) so I made a mental note that next time I ought to put him on a waiting list much earlier! However I did discover a couple of places locally who offered basic agility training so I duly enrolled him and we started training just after his first birthday.
The agility equipment
There are several types of agility equipment which your dogs needs to learn about:
These are exactly what it sounds like a pole is suspended between two wooden 'wings' and the jump heights are adjustable to suit the size of your dog. They are a smaller version of the horse jumps you might have seen on TV and this is probably the first piece of equipment beginners learn. The dogs start with very low jumps and I found it wasn't long before little Ellery was happily jumping over any that I led him up to. Next he learned to do the same off the lead and even to run ahead to do a line of three jumps in sequence. It felt good we had started 'doing' agility.
This is basically just a jump but it is in the shape of a tyre, suspended between two verticals. It isn't quite as 'forgiving' as a regular jump as the tyre is fixed in place so you wouldn't ask a dog to jump it until you were happy it could easily clear that height as you wouldn't want them to hit the tyre. Ellery quickly learnt this one and had no problem getting through it.
This is the third type of jumping obstacle and comprises a series of flat pieces of wood on little legs increasing in height that are set one after the other so that the dog can jump length rather than height. Depending on the height of the dog you can use between two and five of these to adjust the length. Again this wasn't a problem to Ellery although he does tend to jump them quite 'high' just to show off.
* If you go to competitions you might find a few more variations on these jumps like miniature brick walls or double spread jumps but the process of learning these is much the same and once your dog is jumping they seem to be happy jumping more of
less anything - or at least Ellery is (he even practices on the cats at home when the mood takes him!)
Now these have to be Ellery's absolute favourites. They come in two styles, the rigid tunnel which is an open flexible tunnel which you can bend in the middle of you want. To teach it the trainers tend to compress it so that it is fairly short, they hold on to your dog and you go to the other end and call him. It might take a couple of attempts to learn it but once Ellery got the hang of it he was hooked. Anytime he sees a tunnel he just wants to dive through it so it clearly holds no fears for him. The other type is called a soft tunnel which has a rigid part at the entrance followed by a cloth tunnel which the dog has to push its way through. This one was much harder to teach Ellery as he couldn't see any daylight at the end and wasn't about to push the heavy canvas along. I overcame this by going through it with him a couple of times - it isn't elegant doing that I know, crawling on all fours through a tunnel, but it worked for me. He is quite OK with it now but he does make me laugh because as he comes out at the end he always stops and shakes his head just to straighten his hair!
Quite simply these are poles spaced 600mm apart that your dog has to weave its way through. They look straightforward but are quite tricky to teach, not least I suspect because the dogs don't see them as fun like they do with jumps and tunnels so you have to work at it. The class I went to had poles that they could splay outwards for training, you gradually move them more upright as the dog learns until he can work the same through fully upright poles. We struggled with this at first until I got some poles for the garden at home. These just stick into the ground on spikes (aerating the lawn at the same time!) and we did a bit of training with them. The breakthrough came when I had a chap round working on the fence and he asked about them. Ellery was very keen to show off his skill and shot through them quite quickly and very accurately (much to my surprise) and he hasn't looked back since.
This is the stuff that sorts the men from the boys as they say or should it be the dogs from the puppies? There are three sorts of contact equipment:
The A frame
As the name implies this is two large oblong sheets of wood fastened together at the short sides to make an A shaped frame which the dog has to run over. The height at the top is about 1.7 metres so this is a big piece of kit but the surfaces do have horizontal battens (like ladder rungs) to help the dog get over it. At the bottom on both sides the last couple of feet or so are painted a different colour and the dog must touch this area (the 'contact') as it goes up and comes down. This is the tricky bit, most dogs are happy to dash up and down but getting enough control to make the contact can be difficult at first.
The dog walk
This is basically a plank suspended on a couple of trestles with a ramp up each end. Both ends of the ramp have contacts painted on them and the dog has to run up one ramp, along the plank and down the other ramp and touch the contacts at both ends (no jumping off sidewards or leaping off halfway down). Again tricky to learn especially for larger dogs as it is only about 300 mm wide/
By far the most challenging thing to teach a dog. It is as it says a seesaw with contacts painted at both ends. The dog must walk up the seesaw and stay on it whilst it pivots and then walk off the end. The first time the dog feels the seesaw begin to move it can panic and jump off so you need a great deal of patience and couple of people to get your dog to understand what it expected. It took Ellery a while to learn this piece of equipment but he understands it now.
Joining a club
It has to be said that the proper way to engage in agility is to go on the waiting list, join a club and train with them. Of course I didn't do that, we sat for months on the waiting list of our local club and never reached the top whilst all the time Ellery was learning the basics. In frustration I decided to enter him for a show just to see what happened and it was entertaining to say the least.
I discovered that UK Agility were holding a show not too far from me so I looked up the details on their website and sent off my entry. I only put him in the jumping class and the steeplechase as I knew he couldn't do the agility class as he couldn't, at that point, do the seesaw unaided. To be honest he wasn't that good at weaves either but I took the view that if he missed them it didn't matter but he could hurt himself if he got the seesaw wrong and I didn't want to risk that.
We arrived, found our way to the rings and found someone willing to show me what to do as a rank beginner. The first course was quite straightforward, I walked around it with everyone else (it is customary to 'walk the course' without your dog so that you at least know where you are going) then I got Ellery and we took our place in the line. I did notice that most people sat their dog at the start, told it to wait, and walked on down the course so that as their dog jumped the first three jumps they were ahead of it. Ellery of course didn't have a reliable enough 'wait' and it was all new and exciting for him so as I sat him down and let go of his collar he set off. He was happy enough there was a jump in front of him so he knew what to do and by the time he jumped the third jump I was just trailing in his wake .....
After the first three jumps lay the weave poles but he shot past them at high speed as he had seen a couple more jumps he could do whilst I caught up. He did come back to me at the weaves, weaved through two of the poles and then spotted a tunnel so he shot off to run through that. The rest of the round is something of a blur to me (and I suspect to everyone watching) he jumped most of the jumps and certainly went through all the tunnels at least once and occasionally in the right direction. We were of course eliminated for taking the wrong course but the good thing about agility is if you do get it badly wrong you just get eliminated and can still finish the course. I gathered from one of the spectators that the judge was laughing as Ellery ran around clearly enjoying himself.
So our first show was something of an embarrassing exhibition but what I did discover is that agility folk are a friendly lot and happy to chat and someone introduced me to a member of my local club who was also at the show that day. I explained to her that we were patiently waiting to join the club and she said that the waiting list was for beginners and clearly, as I had entered him at a show, he must be much more advanced than a beginner so could go along to their improver's class and join straight away. Now in fairness to her she hadn't actually seen Ellery's run that day but I wasn't going to argue so the following week we finally got to join the local club.
Club training was quite different from the classes we had been going to. For a start it was much cheaper but then again you don't get as much individual attention. It was also much more crowded. The club I attend trains in a huge indoor horse manege and when I got their there must have been around 40 to 50 dogs and their owners
Pictures of Member Advice on Dog Agility
Ellery demonstrating the tyre jump
working on four different 'runs' of equipment down the length of the building which meant that at any one time there were four dogs off lead running different rows of equipment whilst the rest stood and watched! It was a bit daunting at first but as most people knew what they were doing it was surprisingly very orderly. Every now and then someone would shout out 'loose dog' and an errant dog would head in the wrong direction but they were soon caught or sent back to their owner with the minimum of fuss.We learnt a lot and I quickly realised we had a lot to learn before we ventured out to another show but we knuckled down and we practised and after a while we both got better.
Lots of people who do agility, even those in clubs, don't bother to compete. It is great fun to do agility with your dog and there is no real need to travel around collecting rosettes unless you have a mind to. Personally I felt that it would be good to see how good Ellery was and I thought it might be fun to go to a few shows just to see how he did.
The Kennel Club are the lead organisation form most dog events in this country and agility is no exception however there are a few other organisations involved in agility who run shows which are a little more low key so they can be a good place to start if you are just beginning. The different organisations have different rules so you need to read them carefully before you go. Most will require your dog to be formally measured to decide which size it is so that you jump the right height jumps. Food is generally not allowed in the ring so all treats must be left outside and in general dog tags which hang below the collar must be removed for safety reasons. I have a dog tag for Ellery which the collar is threaded through which is quite OK to use and some people have their details embroidered on to the collars. You aren't generally allowed to take toys, clickers or whistles into the ring either so you need to be sure you dog is trained before you go.
Our first show after joining the club was a little fun event held in a members field, it was very relaxed and there were lots of people there I knew from the club which was useful and they were all happy for me when Ellery got two clear rounds which earned him his very first two rosettes.
After that I took him to a UK Agility show nearby and again he managed to get a couple of clear rounds for me which I was delighted about. I very soon discovered that the weakest link in our agility partnership is at MY end of the lead. I am after all the one who gets to walk the course first before we run so there is no excuse for me forgetting which fence we need to jump next. Yes the fences are numbered but I defy anyone running at 'dog speed' to have the time to count their way round as well. Plus even if I do know where we are supposed to be going if I put my hand down at the wrong time Ellery can easily mistake the instruction I am giving him and take the wrong jump.
I have had a few occasions where people have videoed our runs and I can see Ellery looking hard at me waiting for me to tell him which way to go next. (You might find them on YouTube if you search for Ellery & Joan) He tries hard to guess of course but sometimes he jumps the right fence in the wrong direction because I am not being clear enough.
Would I recommend it?
Yes I would, because despite all of the above we are having a great time. It certainly isn't an easy sport to learn and I have made loads of mistakes and will doubtless go on doing so. But Ellery loves it and doesn't actually care whether he wins or .loses as long as there is a course to run. I enjoy it too, more than I ever imagined, it is keeping me fit and it also keeps my brain active memorising all the courses. The people are lovely and all of the dogs have good days and bad days so it is very unpredictable. Winning is great but not essential for the enjoyment and it is a lovely way to bond with your dog and have FUN.