By Carolyn Fuhrer
Agility, if introduced and taught correctly, can be a wonderful experience for almost any dog. Agility can help build confidence by exposing dogs to different surfaces, textures, and shapes dictated by the nature of the equipment. It can also help build coordination and body awareness as well as increase strength. Agility is a wonderful way to engage the mind by presenting different problems for the dog to solve.
Besides all these benefits for the dog, agility provides a great opportunity for the handler and dog to form a wonderful working relationship. The handler must be able to communicate to the dog while the dog and handler are both moving and to direct the dog in a certain path throughout the course.
Dogs need to have some basic obedience – “wait” and “come” and “with me” will help things go smoother, and because dogs will learn to focus on instructions to gain rewards (usually food or toys), these basic obedience skills are easy to teach because the dogs want to do the work. They want to play agility because it is fun and they can earn rewards
Agility can teach a handler a lot about how to motivate and focus his or her dog and how not to pressure the dog and to help the dog learn at its own pace.
A safe progressive introduction to agility equipment is extremely important. Dogs should be taught, so they want to do the work and not be lured onto obstacles with trepidation. Correct introduction builds confidence and helps to ensure safe performance. A good instructor can modify a course for all skill levels for both dogs and handlers.
Handlers learn to understand and work with their dogs. Many handlers are surprised how much focus it takes from the handler to keep the dog engaged. Without clear communication from the handler, the dog is really on its own and the results may not be what you want. Handlers must take on the responsibility of communication and be willing to present information at a pace and in a format the dog can understand.
Agility provides a medium for dogs to work on self-control skills such as start line stays, table performance, and contacts. Dogs also learn to work in the company of other dogs and still be able to focus on their handlers and the “job of agility”. Dogs learn self control by watching other dogs run the course and having to wait for their turns.
If you are interested in agility, it is important that you find a place to introduce your dog to this wonderful sport safely and correctly. Because a friend of yours may do agility with his or her dog does not necessarily mean that friend can teach you and your dog to do agility. Agility is NOT a freefor-all where dogs just run around jumping and climbing on things. If you push the dog too far, too fast, and your dog becomes worried about certain experiences, your dog can have great setbacks in learning.
There is no substitute for quality instruction from someone who not only knows how to play agility but also knows how to teach it properly.