If you’ve ever attended a dog show or watched one on television, I’m sure you will have seen dogs and their handlers taking part in an agility competition. Agility is a bit like show jumping for dogs. However, there are a variety of obstacles rather than just jumps so perhaps calling it a canine obstacle course would be a better description.
Whilst it would be fair to say that the dog does the majority of the physical work, agility is definitely a team sport with the dog relying on his human partner to direct him and help him navigate his way around, through, between, and over the course. Agility is exciting to watch and even more fun to take part in. Maybe you will even fancy having a go at competing yourself with a little practice.
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Are all Poodles Good at Agility?
As a Poodle owner, you know that your dog is intelligent, athletic, and always up for fun which makes him an ideal candidate for agility training. However, all dogs are different, and you won’t know if your Poodle is good at agility unless you try!
If you have done some basic obedience training with your Poodle and perhaps some simple tricks such as spinning or weaving through your legs, and he has enjoyed it the chances are he will love agility. After all, it’s exciting, fast and he gets to spend quality time with you, and what Poodle doesn’t love having fun with his humans?
Poodles are fast, athletic, and second only to the Border Collie when it comes to intelligence. All these are desirable traits in an agility dog.
When can Training Begin? When is it Safe?
We know that puppies have soft bones and any jumping at all including on and off furniture or climbing the stairs must not be allowed until the growth plates have matured at around a year old. So, he must not begin training over jumps, the A-frame, or weaves until he is around the same age.
When puppies are young their muscles and tendons are stronger than the bones themselves and any repetitive movements such as jumping, or twisting can cause serious and permanent damage so even activities such as ball chasing should be avoided until your pup is older.
Most agility classes won’t accept pups until they are between 12 and 15 months of age and to compete in agility your dog must be 18 months old. However, you can start pre-agility training from as young as 8 weeks and some agility clubs do run pre-agility classes especially for younger pups.
There are many things you can practice with your puppy to prepare him for agility such as playing games like tug that keep his attention on you, walking over poles on the ground and in-between ‘wings’ (the upright part of the jump), box work (getting him to sit, lie or stand and stay on a box marked out on the ground), going through tunnels and standing on a wobble board or even placing his paws on a plastic box and keeping them there until you tell him to move.
There are also many useful things you can practice without any equipment such as walking to heel, obeying hand signals, and sending your puppy away to retrieve an object that you have placed somewhere. Sending away will be very useful later when you come to send him around a course.
Practicing walking over a variety of different surfaces is also very useful for a future agility dog. Once your Poodle reaches a year old you can start thinking about introducing obstacles but it’s important to keep the jumps low to start with and to take it steady through weaves.
What Different Types of Obstacles are There?
In competitive agility, there are many different obstacles that you and your dog will encounter. Let’s take a look at them.
Hurdles are the jumps you will see that look like miniature versions of the showjumps used for horses. These can have wings or upright posts with poles, usually brightly colored, between them set at heights ranging from 30 – 100cm.
The poles are very lightweight and often made of plastic so that they are knocked down easily by the dog without causing injury. Your dog must jump cleanly and accurately over these to avoid knocking them down and incurring penalties.
The Wall is a jump made of light plastic blocks that do not interlock and are easily knocked down.
The spread jump is actually 2 jumps placed one in front of the other so that the dog has to clear some width as well as height. The front pole is always placed lower than the back one so that the dog can easily judge both the width and height that he needs to clear.
Hoop or Tire
The hoop or tire is suspended above the ground between wings and the dog jumps through the center, literally jumping through hoops!
The long-jump is made up of a set of planks set onto feet at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. Each plank is slightly higher than the one in front, so these are positioned one behind the other to create a sloping obstacle that is low but wide.
The maximum length that the dog needs to clear in competition is from 40cm for small dogs up to 150cm for the largest dogs.
Occasionally you may see a water jump in agility competitions made up of a small hurdle in front of a water-filled tray exactly as seen in showjumping for horses.
This is another kind of spread jump as the dog must clear the water tray and the hurdle in one. I think my own dogs would prefer to dive into the water tray rather than clearing it! We all know Poodles love water!
The tunnel is just as its name suggests, a tunnel that the dog must run through. Your ‘sending away’ training comes into play here as you must send your dog through a tunnel that will be a maximum of 3 meters long with a minimum diameter of 600cm.
Weaves are a series of upright poles, usually, a minimum of 5 poles and a maximum of 12 poles placed 60cm apart. The dog must weave in and out of the poles without missing any as fast as possible.
In competitive agility, the dog must always enter the weaves from the pole next to his left shoulder.
The A-frame is made up of 2 ramps hinged at the top. The ramps should be 2.7m long and 90cm wide hinged at an apex 1.67m high in competition. The surface of the ramps is nonslip and usually rubberized or textured with struts at intervals to aid grip.
The bottom section of each ramp is a different color from the rest of the ramp and the dog must go up the ramp, over the apex, and down the other side. Faults are incurred if he doesn’t touch the colored section on entry and exit from the A-frame, so he has to complete a controlled climb’ rather than jumping on and off the apparatus.
The seesaw is a miniature version of the children’s playground version we all know, made up of a plank measuring 3.66m long and 30cm wide mounted on a central bracket.
Like the A-frame, the tips of the seesaw are a different color, and the dog must enter one tip and cross the seesaw accurately causing it to tip down and touch the ground. Always ensuring he steps on the colored panels on entry and exit. This is quite a difficult exercise and requires confidence and control by the dog. Your wobble board practice will come into its own here.
The dog walk is a plank set 1.2m above the ground with ramps fixed at either end. The plank should be 3.66m long and only 30cm wide. Like the A-frame and Seesaw, the bottom sections of the ramps are colored and again the dog must step in the colored sections on entry and exit.
Where Can you Train?
There are agility clubs in most towns and regions and your local dog training club should be able to tell you when and where agility classes are held locally to you. There are also many dog parks that include agility obstacles. Also, occasionally there are courses available for private hire that you can take your dog to.
However, if your yard or garden is large enough there is no reason why you can’t set up a course at home to train over whenever you like.
What is the Official Equipment? Can you use Household Alternatives?
We’ve listed the official competition obstacle earlier in this article however there are many simple alternatives that you can make at home to get you started. A broom handle balanced on plant pots is a great makeshift hurdle and if you have a ‘hooping’ hoop this can be secured upright for your dog to practice jumping through, indeed you can even hold it up for him to practice.
You can use a plastic box for him to practice stepping on and off and if you have a children’s play tunnel this is a perfect stand-in for the tunnel used in agility.
It is essential to make sure that any equipment you make at home is easily knocked over and not heavy enough to injure your dog. I would advise against using anything as an A-frame or dog walk that is not intended for this purpose in case it collapses causing your dog to fall.
How Much is too Much?
As with any sport, too much training can be bad for your dog, both physically and mentally. Even something he enjoys will become boring if he does it too often.
Agility is very tiring so sessions should be short. Keep your home practice sessions to around 15mins once or twice a week and if you attend a club this will usually be once a week. Although the classes are usually around 2 hours long these are attended by several dogs and owners so each dog will usually only be physically running the course for around 15 minutes with the rest of the time spent practicing specific exercises, watching others, or listening to your instructor.
If you prefer you can practice one thing each day for example one day you work on weaves for 10 minutes and the next you practice the dog walk and then once a week have a go at several obstacles together or even a whole course.
Always praise your dog for trying hard and try to end each session on a good note. If there is something, he is finding difficult one day leave it and do something you know he excels at, tomorrow is another day after all.
Can Poodles Compete in Agility?
In short, yes, they can. Agility competitions are not breed-specific and any breed or crossbreed can enter. You can even register dogs of unknown parentage on the Activity Register with the KC and the AKC allowing them to compete in affiliated competitions and leagues.
Agility is one canine sport that really is open to any dog. The classes are only split by size, not by breed, so even Toy and Miniature Poodles can compete in their size categories.
What are the Benefits?
There are many benefits to having a go at agility with your dog. The first and most important is agility is fun for both you and your dog and what can possibly be better than having fun with your Poodle?
Exercise is another very important benefit. A tired dog is a happy dog and he is more likely to chill on the sofa with you after a good blast around the agility course. Agility also requires a great deal of training and training makes an obedient well-mannered dog and builds a strong bond between dog and handler.
If you choose to join a club and compete at shows it’s also a great way to meet people and make like-minded friends both human and canine.
Are There any Downsides?
So long as you train sensibly and carefully putting your dog’s welfare first the only downside to agility is it can become addictive meaning you end up with more dogs!
Take care not to become too competitive and remember that while there will always be a faster, more accurate dog out there you always take the best dog home.
Do you Always Need a Qualified Trainer?
This depends on whether you want to compete in agility classes or if you just want to enjoy agility as a way of having fun with your dog at home. If you don’t want to compete, so long as you do so safely, you can train your dog your way.
However, if being competitive is your aim then you will need a trainer as habits that are fine at home may not be correct or acceptable in competition.