Could Your Dog Be an Olympic Athlete?

July 27, 2012 | By | Comments (1)

OK, so it’s not quite the same. The dogs don’t have to wait four years for their next turn at glory. There’s no lighting of an Olympic torch and carrying it thousands of miles. There aren’t a billion people watching.

But across our great nation, Border Collies are racing through obstacle courses, Scotties are charging down Seesaws, and mixed breeds are flying through tires, against the clock. They’re guided by their human handlers, and team spirit is in full force. (The Corgis had their moment in the sun across the pond when James Bond Met The Queen.)

dog agility tire photo by Jennifer Mirsky

A handler guides a dog to jump through a “tire” at a dog agility competition.

“[Dog agility] increases bonding with your dog,” says Heather Smith of the United States Dog Agility Association, Inc. (USDAA). “If you look at it from the dog’s point of view, I’m asking my dog to walk up a ramp and walk across a board 4 feet off of the ground. There’s a  certain amount of trust they have to have in you.”

dog agility walkthrough photograph by Jennifer Mirsky

Handlers’ walkthrough at AKC Trial. run by Port Chester Obedience Training Club. Yorktown Heights, NY.

Like any good sport, there’s technique and then there’s strategy. And then there’s the unexpected. Before an agility competition, the handlers do a “walkthrough,” measuring how many strides, whether they should be on the left or the right of their dog. Every course is different, and no one has the opportunity to see the course until right before the competition begins. A standard agility course includes the A-frame, Teeter/Seesaw, and Dog Walk, called “contact equipment.”

dog agility photo of A Frame by Jennifer Mirsky

Dog agility competition: A-frame

dog agility seesaw photograph by jennifer mirsky

Dog Agility Competition: Teeter/Seesaw

dog agility competition dog walk photograph by jennifer mirsky

Dog Agility Competition: Dog Walk

According to Heather Smith of USDAA, “jumping and tunnels are easy to master, but the seesaw and the weave poles are not natural to dogs at all.” She explains, “Nobody walks on wobbly things on purpose. When dogs do the seesaw, the plank will move under their “feet.” They learn how to control the plank.”

So can any dog sign up for agility training?

According to Smith, “It all goes back to obedience, because you need to have your basic skills — “sit,” “stay,” “lay down,” and come when they’re called — because if  you’re trying to train those things at the same time, you won’t have any fun. All the dogs need good manners, and they should also be in good shape. A lot of people say, ‘ I want to do agility to get my dog in shape,’ but that’s not a good idea. If you’re not at your best physical shape, you don’t go run the marathon.” She adds, “They don’t have to go on a treadmill or anything. A dog’s strength can build up. But they should be in good health, not overweight and shouldn’t have health issues that would keep them from being enthusiastic about it.”

Can any aged dog participate?

Says Smith, “The age of a dog does come into play because of the way a dog’s body matures. You don’t want to put too much stress on muscles or the skeletal structure before a dog matures. A smaller dog’s body matures more quickly, say for example a Papillon at 7 months vs. a Golden Retriever, so you want to consider this versus starting too early just for sake of training.”

Are certain breeds better suited to try agility?

Smith demurs that she wouldn’t match up  a bulldog with jumping, unless the jumps measured something like 4 inches and the pet could have fun running through a tunnel. “Border Collies or Shelties or Jack Russell Terriers or mixed breeds are excellent agility dogs…Border Collies are made for it,” she says.

USDAA Dog Agility Championship

USDAA Championship. Courtesy of USDAA.

How long does it take a dog to “master” agility?

“It varies,” says Smith. “A lot of people want to rush the process, and it’s best to not rush. The final product is only going to be as strong as your foundation.” She adds that it could take 8 or 9 months, and that it takes a little longer to compete because part of competition is the strategy and the handling that the person has to learn. For example, the dogs are responding to the handler’s body language when he or she puts an arm out, turns a shoulder this way (vs. that), faces the dog.

Can anyone in the family act as the handler during the competition?

“A lot of it is timing, so when you’re doing your training, you have to get your timing right. Just because you told your dog to jump, you might do that too early or too late…generally you’re forming a working relationship and a bond with your dog. Someone else can handle your dog as well but it won’t be as well,” says Smith.

jane harding leads portuguese water dog over jump photograph by jennifer mirsky

Jane Harding, Cutwater PWD at AKC Trial run by Port Chester Obedience Training Club. Yorktown Heights, NY.

According to Jane Harding of Cutwater Portuguese Water Dogs, “Agility is fun, but there are basic things you need from your dog… it should be a team sport — you should both be having fun — you must be able to laugh at yourself. It’s the handler who makes the errors for the most part — we mislead our dogs by our body language etc! We are slower than our dogs!…. You dog should stay with you and enjoy it…and it’s good to have a sit stay!”

At the end of the day, there may be no Olympic gold medal, but the chance to compete and have fun can be its own reward. Says Smith, “Any dog and handler can be given a chance to participate in agility. That’s the great thing about agility, you can do it at any level you’re comfortable with, say once a week…Your dog may never be a national chamption, but that’s okay if you have fun. Not everyone can be a star.”

And for those who seek the more offbeat awards, you might check out the eBook, Guinness World Records: Wacky Sporting Champions. Though I haven’t yet read it, I’m intrigued by the Golden Retriever Augie (“most tennis balls held in the mouth”) and a calico fantail goldfish (“fish with the largest repertoire of tricks”), appropriately named Albert Einstein.

Related Links:

A Beginner’s Guide to Companion Events (via the American Kennel Club®)

United States Dog Agility Association, Inc. (USDAA)

Dock Jumping via The New York Times (a different “sport” than dog agility, but inspiring in an Olympic kind of way!)