Dog agility is a dog sport in which a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course in a race for both time and accuracy. Dogs generally run off-leash with no food or toys as incentives. The handler can touch neither dog nor obstacles, except accidentally. Consequently, the handler's controls are limited to voice, movement, and various body signals, requiring exceptional training of the animal.
In its simplest form, an agility course consists of a set of standard obstacles, laid out by an agility judge in a design of his own choosing on a roughly 100 by 100 foot (30 by 30 m) area, with numbers indicating the order in which the dog must complete the obstacles.
Courses are complicated enough that a dog could not complete them correctly without human direction. In competition, the handler must assess the course, decide on handling strategies, and direct the dog through the course, with precision and speed equally important. Many strategies exist to compensate for the inherent difference in human and dog speeds and the strengths and weaknesses of the various dogs and handlers.
The walk-through is critical for success because the course's path takes various turns, even U-turns or 270° turns, can cross back on itself, can use the same obstacle more than once, can have two obstacles so close to each other that the dog and handler must be able to clearly discriminate which to take, and can be arranged so that the handler must work with obstacles between himself and the dog, called layering, or at a great distance from the dog.
Printed maps of the agility course, called course maps, are often made available to the handlers before they run, to help the handlers plan their course strategy. The course map contains icons indicating the position and orientation of all the obstacles, and numbers indicating the order in which the obstacles are to be taken. Course maps were originally drawn by hand, but nowadays almost all course maps are created using a program called Clean Run Course Designer.
Each dog and handler team gets one opportunity together to attempt to complete the course successfully. The dog begins behind a starting line and, when instructed by his handler, proceeds around the course. The handler typically runs near the dog, directing the dog with spoken commands and with body language (the position of arms, shoulders, and feet).
Because speed counts as much as accuracy, especially at higher levels of competition, this all takes place at a full-out run on the dog's part and, in places, on the handler's part as well.
Scoring of runs is based on how many faults are incurred. Penalties can include not only course faults, such as knocking down a bar in a jump, but also time faults, which are the number of seconds over the calculated standard course time (SCT), which in turn is determined based on the competition level, the complexity of the course, and other factors.
Dogwalk: Three 8 to 12 ft (3 to 4 m) planks, 9 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) wide, connected at the ends. The centre plank is raised to about 4 feet (1.2 m) above the ground, so that the two end planks form ramps leading up to and down from the center plank. This obstacle also has contact zones. Most sanctioning organizations also require slats on the dogwalk ramps.
Teeter-totter (or seesaw): A 10 to 12 foot (3 to 4 m) plank pivoting on a support, much like a child's seesaw. It is constructed slightly off-balance so that the same end always returns to the ground. This is done either by placing the support slightly off-center or else weighting one end of the board. This obstacle also has contact zones. However, unlike the other contact obstacles, the teeter-totter does not have slats. The balance point and the weight of the plank must be such that even a tiny dog, such as a Chihuahua, can cause the high end of the teeter-totter to descend to the ground within a reasonable amount of time, specified by the sanctioning organization's rules (usually about 2 seconds). Smaller dogs get more time to run a course, and this is one reason why it can take them longer than it takes larger dogs.Crossover: A 4-foot (1.2 m) high, 3-foot-by-3-foot (1-meter-by-1-meter) square platform , with ramps similar to those found on a dogwalk descending from the center of three or four of its sides. The dog must ascend the correct ramp and then descend the ramp indicated by the handler, possibly changing direction to do so. This has not been a commonly used obstacle, mainly because of its size. No major agility organization in the United States currently allows the use of a crossover, but the crossover is allowed by other organizations such as The Kennel Club.
Double and triple jump (or spread jump) : Two uprights supporting two or three horizontal bars spread forward or back from each other. The double can have parallel or ascending horizontal bars; the triple always has ascending bars. The spread between the horizontal bars is sometimes adjusted based on the height of the dog.Panel jump: Instead of horizontal bars, the jump is a solid panel from the ground up to the jump height, constructed of several short panels that can be removed to adjust the height for different dog heights. Broad jump (or long jump) : A set of four or five slightly raised platforms that form a broad area over which the dog must jump without setting their feet on any of the platforms. The length of the jump is adjusted for the dog's height.Tire jump : A torus shape roughly the size of a tire, suspended in a frame. The dog must jump through the opening of the "tire"; like other jumps, the height is adjusted for dogs of different sizes. The tire is usually wrapped with tape both for visibility and to cover any openings or uneven places in which the dog could catch. Other hurdles: UKC agility allows a variety of hurdles not found in other agility organizations: bush hurdle, high hurdle, log hurdle, picket fence hurdle, rail fence hurdle, long hurdle, window hurdle, water hurdle.
Pause box: A variation on the pause table. The pause box is a square marked off on the ground, usually with plastic pipe or construction tape, where the dog must perform the "pause" behavior (in either a sit or a down) just as he would on the elevated table.Weave poles: Similar to a slalom, this is a series of 5 to 12 upright poles, each about 3 feet (1 m) tall and spaced about 20 inches (50 cm) apart, through which the dog weaves. The dog must always enter with the first pole to his left, and must not skip poles. For many dogs, weave poles are one of the most difficult obstacles to master.Other obstacles: UKC agility allows the following obstacles not found in other agility organizations: swing plank, sway bridge, and platform jump.
Different organizations place different values on faults, which can include the following:
|Time fault||Going over the maximum time allotted by the judge to complete a course (the standard course time (SCT)).|
|Missed contact||The dog failing to place a foot in the contact zone while performing a contact obstacle. Leaping from a contact obstacle a long way above the descending contact zone is sometimes called a flyoff.|
|Knocked or dropped bar||Displacing a bar (or panel) when going over a jump.|
|Weave pole fault||Entering the weave poles incorrectly (the dog must enter with the first pole on his left), skipping poles, or backweaving when attempting to correct missed poles.|
|Off course||Taking the wrong obstacle on a course in which the obstacles are numbered sequentially.|
|Refusal||The dog making an approach towards the correct obstacle, but then turning away or hesitating significantly before attempting the obstacle.|
|Runout||The dog running past the correct obstacle.|
|Handling||The handler deliberately--or, in some cases, accidentally--touching the dog or an obstacle.|
|Training in the ring||The handler deliberately taking an action that appears to be for the purpose of training the dog, rather than trying to run the course correctly, such as asking the dog to repeat an obstacle that he has already completed when the rules don't allow it. The penalty for this varies by organization: the handler may be excused from the ring, elimination may be scored but the handler is allowed to continue, the handler and dog may be allowed to complete their run but are given the maximum course time, and so on. Some organizations have no penalty for training in the ring. In general it is up to the judge to determine what is or isn't training in the ring.|
|Other faults||The dog biting the judge or the handler, the dog or handler exhibiting unsportsmanlike behavior, the dog eliminating in the ring, the dog leaving the ring and not coming back, the handler carrying toys or food into the ring, the dog running with his collar on (in organizations that prohibit collars being worn during a run), and so on.|
Judges design their own courses (with the exception of NADAC where judges have the option to design their own courses or select from several sets of courses the main office sends them. ) using the rules of the sanctioning organization. Each organization decides which classes are valid for achieving titles and how each must be performed, but there are many similarities.
Some of the common classes are
Dogs are measured in height at the peak of their withers (shoulders). They are then divided into height groups; for example, dogs measuring between 12 and 16 inches (30 and 37.5 cm) might compete together with the jumps set at a height of 16 inches (37.5 cm). This ensures that dogs who might have an advantage on a particular course because of their size (larger or smaller) keep the advantage to a minimum.
Dogs are further divided into their experience levels. So, for example, there may be competitions for 12 inch (30 cm) Novice dogs, 12 inch (30 cm) Intermediate dogs, and 12 inch (30 cm) Masters dogs. Dogs typically have to have certain numbers of successes at lower levels before they can move up to compete with more advanced dogs. Some organizations allow beginner dogs to run on-leash in some situations.
Some organizations further divide dogs into special categories because the dogs are older (usually over 7 years) or have junior handlers (usually under 18) or the like. Otherwise, dogs are not separated by age; they must only be of at least a specified minimum age to compete.
Dogs also are not separated by breed in agility competitions. Some organizations require that dogs entering its competitions must be purebred, but many organizations allow any sound, able-bodied dog, whether purebred or mixed-breed.
Teaching a dog the basic execution of most obstacles takes only a small amount of time and simple training techniques; most dogs can be readily convinced to run through a short, straight tunnel to chase a toy or to go to their owner, for example. However, to compete in agility trials and to develop speed and accuracy, both dog and handler must learn a wide range of techniques for doing the equipment, performing sequences of obstacles, and communicating on course while running full out.
The teeter-totter (or seesaw) and the weave poles are the most challenging obstacles to teach, the first because many dogs are wary of the board's movement, and the second because it is not a behavior that they would do naturally over a series of 12 poles. However, it can also be challenging to train the dog to perform its contact obstacles in a manner that ensures that they get paws into the contact zone without sacrificing speed.
Training techniques vary greatly. For example, techniques for training the weave poles include using offset poles that gradually move more in line with each other; using poles that tilt outward from the base and gradually become upright; using wires or gates around the poles forcing the dog into the desired path; putting a hand in the dog's collar and guiding the dog through while leading with a toy or treat; teaching the dog to run full speed between 2 poles and gradually increasing the angle of approach and number of poles; and many other techniques.
The designated chief ring steward or ring manager is responsible for finding and assigning workers, almost always volunteers, to perform the myriad tasks involved in putting on a trial. For example, if electronic timing is not being used, each class needs a timer, who ensures that the dog's running time is recorded, a scribe, who records the judge's calls as a dog runs the class, and pole setters (or ring stewards), who ensure that jump bars are reset when they are knocked off and change jump heights for dogs of different sizes.
In addition, competitors need space to set up quarters for their dogs and gear; when space permits, competitors often bring pop-up canopies or screenroom awning tents for shade. Dogs, when not competing, are usually left to rest in exercise pens, crates, or dog tents familiar and enclosed environments in which they can relax and recover between runs. Handlers also bring reflective cloths to protect their dogs from sun exposure and to calm them down (by covering their crates with the cloths). There also needs to be space for many handlers with dogs on leashes to move freely around the rings without crowding, and space for warming up, exercising, and pottying dogs. Adjacent to the site, parking must be available for all competitors. At weekend or weeklong shows that offer camping, space needs to be provided both for competitors' caravans and tents, and for the small fenced enclosures or gardens that they set up around them.
In heavily populated areas, therefore, it is uncommon to find real estate inexpensive enough to devote entirely to agility, so sites are usually rented for the weekend. Even in more rural areas, agility-only sites are uncommon. Popular locations include fairgrounds, large parks, covered horse-riding arenas, and in cold-winter areas, large, empty warehouses in which mats or carpet can be laid.
When the course builders finish, the judge walks through the course and double-checks that the obstacles are legal, that they are placed where the judge intended, and that there are no unintended hazards on the course (such as potholes, uneven ground, or mud puddles) around which the course must be adjusted. For many classes, the judge then measures the path through the course to determine the optimal running distance of a typical dog. The judge uses that measurement with a speed requirement determined by the rules to calculate the standard course time, the time under which dogs must complete the course to avoid time faults. For example, if the course is 150 yards (or meters) long, and the rules state that dogs must run the course at a rate of at least 3 yards (or meters) per second, the standard course time would be 50 seconds. Other organisations, though, leave the decision on course time to the judge's discretion.
The competitors then walk the course (as described earlier). When the walk-through ends, the gate steward or caller ensures that dogs enter the ring in the running order previously determined by the trial secretary and manages changes to the running order for handlers who might have conflicts with other rings of competition. As each dog and handler team runs the course, the dog is timed either by a person with a stopwatch or with an electronic timer, and the scribe writes the judge's calls and the dog's final time on a scribe sheet or ticket, which is then taken to the score table for recording.
At the score table, scorekeepers compile the results in a variety of ways. Some organizations require or encourage computerized scorekeeping; others require certain types of manual score sheets to be filled out. When all the dogs in a given height group, level, and class have run, the score table compares run times, faults, and any other requirements to determine placements (and, for classes that provide qualifying points towards titles, which dogs earned qualifying scores).
Each ring might run several classes during a day of competition, requiring multiple course builds, walk throughs, briefings, and so on.
Awards are usually given for placements and for qualifying scores. Such awards are often flat ribbons, rosettes, commemorative plaques, trophies, medals, or pins. Some clubs award high-in-trial awards, calculated in various ways, or other special awards for the trial. Dogs who complete their final qualifying scores to become agility champions are often presented with special awards.