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Springers in Agility

by Nancy Johnson

Agility has become the fastest growing AKC performance event, surpassing all expectations. What is agility and where did it originate?

Agility began in England in 1978 as a demonstration during the Crufts Dog Show. The event, consisting of a timed obstacle course of increasing difficulty for each level of titling, was patterned after equestrian events. The fledgling sport became wildly popular in England and spread to Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The fast pace, the challenges of the course and the visually stimulating equipment also electrified spectators. Within a short period of time, the sport became an official Kennel Club (UK) sponsored competitive event.

Agility came to the United States in the 1980's and in 1986, the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) was created. Other agility organizations were also formed and agility events were soon offered by USDAA, the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC) and the United Kennel Club (UKC) among others. In August 1994, the AKC jumped on the bandwagon. Dogs and their handlers compete at different skill levels for each of these organizations, although what those levels are and the rules applying to each are different. Exhibitors should contact the individual organizations for the rules and regulations in effect for the competitions they offer.

So, now your curiosity is piqued and you would like to try dog agility. How do you begin? That depends largely on the age and condition of your dog and whether you will be self-taught or have training classes available near you.

Regarding the age and condition, don’t ask your pet to do something it cannot or should not do. Unlike most AKC events where dogs may compete at 6 months, dogs under the age of 12 months are not eligible to compete in agility. Most trainers advise that very young dogs should not do the joint stressing exercises until joints and growth plates are mature. But, some training on certain obstacles, such as tunnels and chutes, can begin, along with basic obedience training. Puppies love to run through and under things, and children’s play tunnels or culvert pipes can become a great game while teaching at the same time. Other obstacles can be built "puppy size." A 1X12 or 2X12 wood plank can be set on cinder blocks or milk crates for a junior size dogwalk; a pause table set at the 8" height or placed right on the ground works fine. If you really want to work on jumping, set the jump poles at the lowest height on each side, setting the other end on the ground (forming low crossbars). An A-Frame should be lowered so that the apex is not more than a few feet off the ground. The idea is to scale down the equipment but remember that too much jumping should be avoided at a very young age.

If you’ll be working with an older dog, have its hips and elbows x-rayed and eyes checked. If a problem exists, discuss your plans with your veterinarian to ensure that you won’t be endangering your pet. If your dog is a little "hefty," take the excess weight off as stress on his joints when landing will be that much greater if he/she is overweight. One of my Springers has "geographic" retinal dysplasia, but the ophthalmologist assured me that stationary objects, including a 12-inch wide dogwalk or teeter board, would not pose a significant problem for him. I have noticed his reluctance to work in low light and shadows can cause problems. Use common sense and sound veterinary advice as your dog’s safety is most important.

Although not a prerequisite, some obedience training is a good idea. On an agility course, your dog works off-lead, must be able to take direction, and respond quickly to such commands as "come," "sit," "down," and "stay." Your Springer will also learn such concepts as "left" and "right," "out,""over," "come in," and numerous others. A good foundation in obedience can save you time and frustration later; remember, we are talking about Springers here! In addition, you will be teaching your pet the names of obstacles, with the end result that, hopefully, when you say "walk it" he doesn’t head for the tire just because it happens to be closer!

If you live in an area with formal agility classes, I recommend signing up. If you work with your dogs in other venues, you already know how easy it is to teach them something you never intended. A trainer with background in this sport will be able to help you correct your mistakes as well as your dog’s. Training with distractions (other dogs and people) is almost always beneficial, and as an added plus you can also learn from the successes and mistakes of your fellow trainees.

If you live in an area where classes are not available, you can train yourself. Great books on agility are available that offer training techniques as well as specifications for building equipment. If money is no object, equipment may be purchased from a number of suppliers. Numerous sites abound on the Internet, but here is a short reference list:

  • Agility Training: Fun Sport For All Dogs by Jane Simmons-Moake
  • Competitive Agility - Training videos by Jane Simmons-Moake
  • Enjoying Dog Agility by Daniels
  • Numerous agility training booklets by Suzanne Clothier

All of the above and more are available through Direct Book Service catalog at 1-800-776-2665 or on their Web site at Other Internet canine agility sites include:

Photos by Tien Tran