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Dog agility

Dog agility is a sport in which a dog moves through an obstacle course with the guidance of his handler. Dogs run off leash, so the handler's only controls are voice and body language, requiring exceptional obedience training of the animal. In competition, both accuracy and speed are important.

Agility field left side: A competition agility field showing (clockwise from lower left) a tunnel, the dogwalk, the judge standing in front of a winged jump, two additional winged jumps, dog executing the teeter-totter with his handler guiding, and the tire jump.
Agility field left side: A competition agility field showing (clockwise from lower left) a tunnel, the dogwalk, the judge standing in front of a winged jump, two additional winged jumps, dog executing the teeter-totter with his handler guiding, and the tire jump.
Agility field right side: The right side of the same agility field showing (clockwise from foreground) the weave poles, the pause table, the A-frame, two winged jumps, the collapsed tunnel (or chute), and a wingless jump. Numbered orange plastic cones next to obstacles indicate the order in which the dog must perform them.
Agility field right side: The right side of the same agility field showing (clockwise from foreground) the weave poles, the pause table, the A-frame, two winged jumps, the collapsed tunnel (or chute), and a wingless jump. Numbered orange plastic cones next to obstacles indicate the order in which the dog must perform them.

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.


Competition basics

Because each course is different, handlers are allowed a short walk-through before the competition starts. During this time, all handlers competing in a particular class can walk or run around the course without their dogs, determining how best they can position themselves and guide their dogs to get the most accurate and rapid path around the numbered obstacles.

The walk-through is critical for success because the course's path can make sharp turns, even U-turns or 270 degree turns, can cross back and forth across the field, 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 or at a great distance from the dog.

Each dog and handler team gets exactly one opportunity together to attempt to complete the course successfully. The dog starts behind a starting line and then, when instructed by his handler, proceeds around the course. The handler typically runs near the dog, directing the dog with spoken commands and with 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.

When all dogs have run, scoring is based on how many faults the dog incurred, including time faults (usually a one-to-one correspondence between points and seconds over the calculated standard course time).

Agility obstacles

Although different organizations specify somewhat different rules for the construction of obstacles, the basic form of the obstacles is the same wherever they are used. Obstacles include the following:

Contact obstacles

Two platforms, usually about 3 feet (1 m) wide by 8 to 9 feet (3 m) long, hinged together and raised so that the hinged connection is between five and six-and-a-half feet above the ground (depending on the organization), forming roughly an A shape. The bottom 36 to 42 inches (1 m) of both sides of the A-frame are painted a light color, usually yellow, forming the contact zone, into which the dog must place at least one paw while ascending or descending. Most sanctioning organizations require that A-frames have low, narrow horizontal slats all along their length to assist the dog's grip going up and down.
Three 8 to 12 ft (3 to 4 m) planks, 9 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) wide, connected at the ends. The center 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; a slatless dogwalk looks almost the same as a teeter-totter to a dog approaching it head-on.
Teeter-totter Dogs, such as this Welsh Corgi, must be in control as it hits the ground but then continue running.
Dogs, such as this Welsh Corgi, must be in control as it hits the ground but then continue running.
Teeter-totter (or seesaw
A 10 to 12 foot (3 to 4 m) plank supported just off-center about 2 feet (60 cm) above the ground so that the same end always returns to the ground. This also has contact zones. The balance point and the weight of the plank must be such that even a tiny dog, such as a Papillon or 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.
Picture a 4 foot (1.2 m) high table (see "Miscellaneous") obstacle with dogwalk ramps descending from the center of all four sides. The dog must ascend the correct ramp and then possibly change direction at the top to descend the ramp indicated by the handler. This has not been a commonly used obstacle and not all organizations have allowed it.


Tunnel (or chute) 
A solid tube, 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 m) long and about 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter, through which the dog runs. The tunnel is constructed of flexible vinyl and wire so that it can be configured in a straight line or curved.
Collapsed tunnel (also called chute) 
A barrel-like cylinder with a tube of fabric attached around one end. The fabric extends about 8 to 12 feet (3 to 4 m) and lies closed until the dog runs into the open end of the chute and pushes his way out through the fabric tube.
Tunnel maze 
A new obstacle (as of 2004) consisting of several interconnected tunnels through which the handler must guide the dog by voice commands. In the United States, only CPE currently allows this obstacle, and it must be an optional obstacle when used.
Winged single jumpJump heights are adjusted so that small dogs such as Jack Russell Terriers can compete against much taller dogs.
Winged single jump
Jump heights are adjusted so that small dogs such as Jack Russell Terriers can compete against much taller dogs.


Jump (or hurdle) 
Two upright bars supporting a horizontal bar over which the dog jumps. The height is adjusted for dogs of different heights. The uprights can be simple bars or can have wings of various shapes, sizes, and colors.
Double and triple jumps 
Two or three sets of uprights, each with horizontal poles. The Double can have parallel or ascending horizontal bars; the triple always has ascending bars. The spread between the horizontal bars is sometimes adjusted for 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. This is usually constructed of several short panels that can be removed to adjust the height for different dog heights.
Broad jump 
A set of four or five slightly raised platforms that form a broad area over which the dog must jump without setting feet on any of the platforms. Length is adjusted for dog's height.
Tire jump 
This is just what it sounds like: A tire shape suspended in a frame. The dog must jump through the opening of the tire, which varies between about 18 and 24 inches (450 to 600 mm). The tire must be wrapped with tape so that there are no openings or uneven places in which the dog could catch. The height is adjusted for dogs of different heights.


Table (or pause table) 
An elevated square platform about 3 feet (1 m) across onto which the dog must jump and pause, either sitting or in a down position, for a certain period counted out by the judge, usually about 5 seconds. The height ranges from about 8 to 30 inches (20 to 75 cm) depending on the dog's height.

Weave poles 
Similar to a slalom, this is a series of upright poles, each about 3 feet (1 m) tall and spaced about 20 inches (50 cm) apart, through which the dog weaves. Varies from 5 to 12 poles at one time. The dog must always enter with the first pole to his left and must not skip poles.

Agility scoring and clean runs

Each organization has its own rules about what constitutes faults and whether one can earn credit toward agility titles with faulted runs. In most cases, one must have a clean run (no faults) to earn credit. A completed run that earns title credit is referred to as a qualifying run.

Different organizations place different values on faults, which can include the following:

Time faults Going over the maximum time alloted by the judge to complete a course (the standard course time (SCT)).
Missed contact When the dog fails to place a foot in the contact zone when performing a contact obstacle. In popular jargon, a flyoff is when the dog misses the contact zone because he leaps from the obstacle a long way above the zone, often in a spectacular flying manner.
Knocked or dropped bar Displacing a bar (or panel) when going over a jump.
Weave pole fault The dog must enter with the first pole to his left and proceed through the weaves without skipping any. Entering incorrectly, skipping poles, or backweaving when attempting to correct missed poles can all be faults.
Off course Dog takes the wrong obstacle on a course in which the obstacles are numbered sequentially.
Refusal The dog makes an approach towards the correct obstacle, but then turns away or hesitates significantly.
Runout The dog does not directly approach the next obstacle, instead running past it.
Other faults Can include dog biting the judge or the handler or other unsportsmanlike behavior, the dog eliminating in the ring, the dog running with his collar on (they are supposed to be naked in most organizations), the dog leaving the ring and not coming back within a reasonable amount of time, and others.

Agility classes

Given the available set of obstacles and possible faults, there are many permutations of games, or classes, that one can play on the agility field. A typical course is laid out within a 100 by 100 foot (30 by 30 m) area, with roughly 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 m) between obstacles.

Judges design their own courses 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

  • Standard (or Regular): This is a numbered course consisting of (usually) at least one of each of the three contact obstacles plus jumps, tunnels, and weave poles of various flavors. A novice course might consist of as few as 15 obstacles; a higher-level course might have 22. The dog must negotiate the obstacles in the correct order within the standard course time (SCT).
    • Strategy and entertainment value: Because the handler is on the course with the dog (in all classes), she must find a way to move herself efficiently around the course while providing the dog with clear, rapid, unambiguous directions. The goal is to enable the dog to move around the course at his fastest safe speed, which can be considerably faster than most handlers, so handlers demonstrate their own skill by crossing behind or in front of the dog's path at opportune moments. At more advanced levels, the judge designs a course with more calloffs, obstacle discriminations, and other challenges.
  • Jumpers: This numbered course consists of only jumps of various types and, depending on the organization, also weave poles and tunnels. The dog must negotiate the obstacles in the correct order within the standard course time (SCT).
    • Strategy and entertainment value: The dogs achieve their fastest speed on these courses because there are no contact obstacles to slow them down. The handler must be especially nimble and clear in her directions to the dog. Judges often design the ends of their Jumpers courses with a relatively straight line of jumps leading to the finish line, which excites both dog and audience as the dog reaches his top speed.
  • Gamblers (or Jackpot or Joker): An unnumbered course. The game typically consists of two parts, an opening period and the closing period, also known as the gamble, joker, or jackpot. In the opening period, the dog has a certain amount of time in which to do whatever obstacles the handler deems appropriate and accrues points based on the obstacles completed. At the end of the allocated time for the opening period, a whistle blows. At that point, the gamble begins. The dog has a certain small amount of time (about 15 seconds) in which to complete a sequence of obstacles designated by the judge ahead of time. The challenge is that there is a line on the ground past which the handler must not step, typically parallelling the gamble obstacles, from 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 m) away depending on the level of competition.
    • Strategy and entertainment value: The handler must choose an opening sequence that flows comfortably for her dog's skills and experience. She must also plan the sequence so that, when the first whistle blows, the dog is in a good position to immediately begin the gamble (because loitering is a fault). The greatest challenge is the distance handling--getting the dog to move or even turn away from you; most handler/dog teams find this to be among the hardest agility challenges.
  • Snooker: Loosely based on the tabletop game of Snooker. The course has at least three red jumps, each numbered 1, and six other obstacles numbered 2 through 7. The dog accumulates points based on the obstacle's number. This also has two parts, an opening sequence and a closing sequence. In the opening sequence, the dog must complete a 1, then any obstacle numbered 2 to 7, a different 1 and any 2 to 7 obstacle (including the one already performed), and yet another different 1 and another 2-7 obstacle. For example, the dog could perform the red on the left for 1 point, the 7-point obstacle, the red in the middle for 1 point and then the 7-pointer again, then the red on the far side of the course and the 7-pointer one more time, for a total of 24 points in the opening. After successfully completing this, the dog must complete the obstacles 2-7, in order, for an additional possible 27 points. Failure to follow these rules exactly (such as knocking a bar or taking 2 reds in a row) results in the dog and handler being whistled off the course.
    • Strategy and entertainment value: The interesting part of the game is in seeing how people structure their opening sequence to gain more points and to be in a good position to flow into the closing sequence and still remain within the fairly short standard course time. At the higher levels of competition, most dog/handler teams strive to use the 7-point obstacle for all of their opening-sequence points. The judges are aware of this, so they typically place the 7-point obstacle in a position that makes it challenging to reach from each of the red 1-point obstacles; the dogs might have to negotiate between other obstacles without taking them or make a difficult entry to the obstacle, often combined with a longer distance between the reds and the 7 so that it consumes more time to do the higher-point obstacle in the opening.
  • Steeplechase: A numbered course that is primarily a Jumpers course but with weave poles and an A-frame. Gives the dog a good, fast run.

Fairness among dogs

Although each organization has its own rules, all divide dogs into smaller groups that are close to each other in size and experience for purposes of calculating winners. This means that there will be winners in each group for each class (or game) over the course of a trial.

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 12 inches (30 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, you might have the 12 inch (30 cm) Novice dogs competing, the 12 inch (30 cm) Intermediate dogs competing, and the 12 inch (30 cm) Masters dogs competing. 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 even 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.

History of dog agility

Dog agility is a fairly new sport, created as merely a demonstration in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom. It has since spread rapidly around the world, with major competitions held worldwide.

Its first documented appearance was as entertainment at the Crufts dog show in 1978. John Varley, a committee member from the 1977 show, was tasked with coming up with entertainment for the audience between the obedience and conformation competitions. Varley, who was more familiar with horse sports, asked dog trainer Peter Meanwell for assistance, and they adapted jumps and obstacles from horse steeplechase races to come up with a demonstration of dogs' natural speed and agility. (By some oral accounts, there was an earlier demo with similar intent using playground articles such as a teeter-totter and a tunnel, although this has not been documented.)

At the 1978 Crufts, the demonstration immediately intrigued dog owners because of its speed and challenge and the dexterity displayed by the dogs. People wanted to see more, and indeed wanted their own dogs to be able to participate. The demonstration was so popular that it grew into local, then national, and eventually international, competitions with standardized equipment. In 1980, The Kennel Club became the first organization to recognize agility as an official sport with a sanctioned set of rules. By this time, agility equipment included some additional elements modified from the training of police dogs and Schutzhund competitions, such as the A-frame and the dogwalk.

History in the United States

In the United States, several people experimented with dog agility based generally on the KC rules. In 1985, Kenneth Tatsch founded the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA ) in Texas and incorporated a year later. To promote the sport, USDAA teamed with Pedigree pet food as a sponsor, and the first Grand Prix of Dog Agility took place in 1988 at the Astro World Series of Dog Shows in Houston, Texas. Until 1990, USDAA agility competitions were only for placement ribbons, but at that time the USDAA began offering agility titles, for which the dog had to perform to certain standards in several competitions to earn scores towards the various titles. At first, the only titles offered were the Agility Dog (AD), or novice, title; the AAD Advanced Agility Dog (AAD), or intermediate, title, and the Master Agility Dog (MAD), or expert-level title. This increased the appeal for all dog owners; one's dog did not have to be a superstar to succeed at agility, but could simply be good enough and fast enough to meet the requirements to earn title points.

In 1988, almost no one had heard of dog agility in the United States, while meanwhile in England it had become an extremely popular sport, drawing hundreds of spectators. By 1989, however, when the USDAA Grand Prix was first filmed for TV, nearly 2000 people watched the final round. Just a year later, attendance neared 4000. The sport's popularity sparked interest around the country, and many dog owners wanted to start their own agility clubs so that they didn't have to drive 2000 miles to attend events in Texas. In 1989, Tatsch chose his first Board of Directors composed of experienced people from different parts of the country, including Sharon Nelson, John Cortwright, Jean MacKenzie, and Matt Mantz.

Meanwhile, the agility equipment used by the USDAA mirrored its European counterparts, as did the basic rules for the standard numbered agility course using all equipment and the numbered jumpers courses using only jumps and tunnels. However, USDAA innovated by introducing additional events, including Gamblers and Snooker, which encourage handlers to design their own courses under strict sets of rules, and the Pairs Relay.

The AKC, which for decades had sanctioned dog shows, obedience trial s, and other dog sports was slow in joining the agility world. In 1987, Charles (Bud) Kramer founded the National Club for Dog Agility (NCDA) in Manhattan, Kansas with the goal of convincing the AKC to recognize agility as a sport. At about the same time, Bob and Marliu Basin created the American Agility Associates in Colorado. Neither of these organizations lasted much beyond the early 1990s. As of 1993, when Sharon Nelson founded her own agility corporation, the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC ), using a slightly new set of rules and concepts, the AKC still had not officially sanctioned agility. At that time, NADAC and USDAA used the same equipment and had similar rules for the standard numbered and jumpers courses; NADAC also included the Gamblers event in its rulebook.

In 1994, however, the AKC belatedly entered the field with its own very limited range of agility competitions; at first, each competition had only one standard numbered course, so each dog had exactly one run and then was done for the day. The first AKC event to include a sanctioned agility match was held in August at the St. Croix Valley Kennel Club Show in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. Sanctioning by the AKC made the rapidly growing sport nearly explode in the United States, as AKC handlers began exploring USDAA and NADAC competitions as ways to expand their agility experience. A few years later, AKC introduced its own version of the Jumpers course, which included weave poles as did the International rules but which NADAC and USDAA did not include.

The United Kennel Club (UKC) introduced its own rules at about the same time; UKC agility has evolved into a different kind of sport than that provided by AKC, USDAA, and international agility organizations, involving more control of the dog over complicated obstacles rather than speed and accuracy over basic obstacles.

When the FCI introduced its international agility championships, it continued its affiliation with purebred kennel clubs around the world, including the AKC, allowing the AKC to choose a team from among its registered purebred competitors rather than affiliating with the longer-established USDAA agility program, which allows dogs of any ancestry to compete. As a result, many top-level American dogs without AKC registration were shut out of the best-known international competition. To compensate, two additional organizations--the International Agility Link (organized through email) and the World Dog Show--sponsored international competitions starting around 1996 that allowed any competing dogs to be part of their country's teams; the World Dog Show affiliated with the USDAA, while the IAL remained independent. The World Dog Show hosted a couple of international championships but financially could not continue, so the USDAA began pursuing its own affiliations with other organizations and clubs worldwide to start its own International Championships. In 2000, the Grand Prix of Dog Agility, previously known as the national championships, officially became the International Championships and hosted teams from several countries.

Meanwhile, the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) decided to provide its own sanctioning rules for agility in lockstep with NADAC, so that one could earn either ASCA or NADAC titles, or both, at dual-sanctioned events. However, over time, NADAC has moved away from the International standards, focusing on its own vision of a faster but less physically stressful environment. It has gradually eliminated or changed many of the obstacles so that its equipment specifications and many of its rules no longer match those of the USDAA, AKC, or FCI. ASCA has so far continued to adjust its rules and titles to match those of NADAC.

In 1995, Canine Performance Events (CPE) was founded by Linda Eikholt, who preferred an environment that was less intense and with less rigorous requirements than those preferred by the USDAA, yet retained the variety of events and the invitation for able-bodied dogs of any ancestry to compete. CPE agility continues to grow in the United States.

Agility in the United States

The first agility competition in the United States took place around 1986 under the rules of the fledgling United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA).

As of January, 2004, the following organizations have rules for agility performance, titles, and equipment in the United States. These organizations sanction clubs to allow them to host agility competitions ("trials" or "matches").

  • United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA). External link: [1]
  • North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC). External link: [2]
  • American Kennel Club (AKC). External link: [3]
  • Canine Performance Events (CPE). External link: [4]
  • United Kennel Club (UKC). External link: [5]
  • Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA). External link: [6]
  • Teacup Dogs Agility Association (TDAA). External link:[7]

Agility in Canada

See the following website for information about Agility in Canada:

  • Agility Association of Canada (AAC). External link: [8]

Agility titles and championships

For most sanctioning organizations, there are a variety of titles that a dog and handler can earn by accruing sufficient qualifying runs--also called legs--that is, runs that have no more than a certain number of faults (typically none) and are faster than the maximum standard course time (SCT).

For example, under USDAA rules, a dog can earn novice-level titles in Standard, Jumpers, Gamblers, Snooker, and Pairs Relay classes by earning 3 qualifying runs in each of the classes; the dog can also earn intermediate-level titles and masters-level titles in the same classes. After earning all of the masters-level titles--five qualifying runs in each, with some that must be in the top 15% of dogs competing at each trial--the dog earns its Championship. Other organizations have similar schemes; in AKC, to earn the Championship, the dog's qualifying runs must be earned two at a time on the same day; in NADAC, the quantity of qualifying runs is much larger; and so on. Most champion titles have "CH" in the title: NATCH (NADAC Agility Trial Champion), ADCH (Agility Dog Champion for USDAA), CATCH (CPE Agility Trial Champion), MACH (Master Agility Champion for AKC), and so on.

National championships

In addition, each sanctioning organization holds its National championships each year. Dogs must meet certain minimum scoring requirements to qualify to compete in the annual championship; for example, must earn qualifying scores in at least 50% of the runs at each of at least 3 trials during the year; or must place in the top certain percentage of dogs at certain trials; or must have a qualifying run in special regional qualifying events; and so on.

Just as with any agility competition, there will be national champions at each height category because it is not really possible for dogs of greatly different sizes to compete equally. For example, USDAA has 12", 16", 22", and 26" (30, 40, 55, and 66 cm) jump height categories; it crowns 4 national champions each year.

International championships

Some competitions invite qualified entrants from multiple countries, thereby making them International Championships. Examples:

  • FCI, the oldest and best-known, usually held in Europe
  • USDAA Grand Prix of Dog Agility World Championship, so far held in the U.S., but work is underway for a European version


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 and the weave poles are probably 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.

External links

In addition to the sanctioning organizations listed previously, general information is available at the following:

  • Dogpatch Dog Agility Page
  • Clean Run Agility Info Center
  • Agility Net
  • Agility Ability

Last updated: 02-08-2005 16:36:26
Last updated: 02-11-2005 17:47:38