I’m seeing a number of asks and posts going around about how to get started in agility. So I thought I’d make a giant post about it. This is written with a US-oriented perspective, as I know very little of agility in other countries. I may edit or expand this with more information, so if you’re getting this from a reblog please check my original post for the most up-to-date version.
Agility is definitely lots of fun, but not as easy as it looks! It’s not as simple as buying or renting the equipment and luring your dog over it. If you want to get the most out of your agility training, it will really help to have good knowledge of training mechanics, timing, and reward delivery. Sometimes you can learn this as you go, but it’s also useful to spend time teaching your dog silly tricks. Teaching tricks has benefits for both you and your dog - your dog learns to learn, basically. The more you teach your dog, the easier it is for them to learn more new things, such as agility! And you will get more practice learning training mechanics.
In addition, your dog needs solid basic obedience. Many beginner students don’t spend enough time on this or severely underestimate their dog’s obedience training, and beginner classes are often more of a battle in keeping the dogs focused or doing simple sit-stays more than actual agility. Do your homework on your obedience training, proof for distractions and in different environments. You, your dog, and your trainer will all be grateful for it.
Finding a Trainer
Your best course of action is to find a local trainer to take classes with. There is no substitute for in-person training and real-time spotting of any mistakes you are making and what you are doing well. How to find a trainer?
- Good old Googling. Do a search for “dog agility training _____” (the blank being your area, of course) and you’ll likely get some results. Just keep in mind that not every trainer has a website or is even easy to find online, though most trainers now recognize the importance of a good online presence.
- Visit agility trials. All agility trials are open to the public. Trials in bigger spaces (such as outdoors, or large buildings/fairgrounds) are easier to spectate than smaller indoor locations. Watch the dogs running, and when you see a dog that you like, ask who they train with. Obviously use a bit of common sense and talk to the handler when they have some downtime, not immediately before or after they run their dog. Talk to several people and you’ll probably find that the same trainer or two gets recommended, which is a good thing. This is probably your best way to find a good local trainer. Check the event calenders on sanctioning organization websites to find upcoming trials (AKC, USDAA, CPE, DOCNA, NADAC, ASCA, UKI, UKC) When attending an event, remember to be respectful, don’t bother the dog in the ring, don’t pet or feed dogs without asking, don’t ask questions of competitors who are about to run or have just finished a run, and it’s best to leave your own dog at home.
- Check local pet supply stores. They sometimes have business cards or trainers to recommend.
- Pet expos, local fairs, and festivals sometimes have agility demos where you can connect with other agility enthusiasts and trainers.
- Online forums. There are a number of online sport, breed, and dog forums you can ask around for trainers.
Finding a Good Trainer
So you’ve got the name of at least one trainer, hopefully more. Now you have to sort out if you actually want to take lessons from them. This can be hard to do. Anybody can buy the equipment, so having agility equipment doesn’t make you a good trainer. Just because someone has a fancy website, has been teaching agility for a long time, or has a lot of titles doesn’t necessarily mean they are a good trainer. I can name a few such trainers I’d never recommend to anybody, either because they have terrible people skills, still use old-school methods, force their students into a single method of handling or training the obstacles, or other reasons. And of course there are excellent trainers who do have fancy websites and lots of titles! It can be hard for anybody, but especially a newbie, to know who is worth spending their time and money with. But here are a few tips.
- Don’t go to a “just for fun” class, unless it is taught by a trainer who actively or previously competed in agility. “Agility for fun” classes are often taught by people with very little knowledge of agility and can set you up for a lot of training problems. Even if you don’t want to compete, it’s well worth your while to work with a trainer who trains you for competition. And if the trainer won’t take you unless you compete, you don’t want that trainer.
- Attend a class or two just to watch. Any trainer worth your while will let you watch at least one class before signing up because it’s a good way to see their teaching style in action and how the other students feel about the class. If they won’t let you watch a class, you don’t want that trainer.
- A trainer who competes in or has knowledge of more than one organization. There are a lot of choices for agility competition in the US. AKC and USDAA are the biggest and most well-known. There is also CPE, DOCNA, NADAC, ASCA, UKI, UKC, and probably more. Training for more than one organization gives a broader, more well-rounded skill set. You don’t have to compete in more than one organization, but it’s a really good thing if your trainer does. Especially because all the organizations have slightly different rules, nuances, and games classes.
- Once you start classes, you should be free to take classes or seminars with other trainers. If your trainer gets upset or forbids students from taking classes with other trainers, you don’t want that trainer no matter how good they otherwise are.
Online classrooms have grown a lot in the past few years. They can be a supplement or substitute for in-person training. Most of them have varying price scales, where you pay more to submit videos and get feedback on your training, and pay less to simply observe the material. I’ve not yet used any online courses, but have heard good things about the following:
- Fenzi Academy - currently limited in agility options, but has lots of great foundation, relationship-building, and training mechanics courses. All of which are very important for good agility training.
- Agility Secrets
- Silvia Trkman/Lolabuland - Silvia has one of the best foundation series out there.
- Agility University
- Daisy Peel Online Classroom
I don’t want/can’t find/can’t afford a trainer
Well, that’s going to make things tough but not impossible. There really is no substitute for working with a trainer, because there are so many things that can go wrong in agility training and cause frustration for you and/or your dog, especially trying to do it on your own if you have no experience with it. For example, the numerous videos I see of people training their dogs to do weave poles without regard for how they enter the poles. Did you know that dogs are required to always start the weaves pole with the first pole on their left shoulder? Neither do those people.
There are a large number of books and DVDs that extensively cover agility training from foundations to competition and troubleshooting and will help you make a go of it on your own if you really want to. I’ll cover those in Part 3 of this post.
I don’t care about competing, I just want to play in my backyard
Great! Nothing wrong with that. But if I had a dime for every person who said “I don’t want to compete” and then later ended up in the competition ring, I wouldn’t still be hunting for that winning lottery ticket. Even if you don’t have plans to compete, it’s best to train as if you are, if only to set up good habits and expand your knowledge.
If you are training on your own, it is especially important to keep safety in mind. Work your dog on a soft surface, such as dirt, grass, shock-absorbing matting, or turf. Never jump your dog or do strenuous work on hard or slippery surfaces such as concrete or tile. Be aware of jump heights. Most US organizations do not require dogs to jump much higher than their wither height. Just because your dog can jump 2-3 times higher than their withers doesn’t mean they should, especially repetitively as in agility.