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Dog agility is a dog sport in which a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course in a race for both time and accuracy. Dogs run off leash with no food or toys as incentives, and the handler can touch neither dog nor obstacles. Consequently the handler's controls are limited to voice, movement, and various body signals, requiring exceptional training of the animal and coordination of the handler.
In its simplest form, an agility course consists of a set of standard obstacles laid out by a judge in a design of his or her own choosing in an area of a specified size. The surface may be of grass, dirt, rubber, or special matting. Depending on the type of competition, the obstacles may be marked with numbers indicating the order in which they must be completed.
Courses are complicated enough that a dog could not complete them correctly without human direction. In competition, the handler must assess the course, decide on handling strategies, and direct the dog through the course, with precision and speed equally important. Many strategies exist to compensate for the inherent difference in human and dog speeds and the strengths and weaknesses of the various dogs and handlers.
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 they can best position themselves and guide their dogs to get the most accurate and rapid path around the numbered obstacles. The handler tends to run a path much different from the dog's path, so the handler can sometimes spend quite a bit of time planning for what is usually a quick run.
The walk-through is critical for success because the course's path takes various turns, even U-turns or 270° turns, can cross back on itself, 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, called layering, or at a great distance from the dog.
Printed maps of the agility course, called course maps, are often made available to the handlers before they run, to help the handlers plan their course strategy. The course map contains icons indicating the position and orientation of all the obstacles, and numbers indicating the order in which the obstacles are to be taken. Course maps were originally drawn by hand, but nowadays almost all course maps are created using a program called Clean Run Course Designer.
Each dog and handler team gets one opportunity together to attempt to complete the course successfully. The dog begins behind a starting line and, when instructed by his handler, proceeds around the course. The handler typically runs near the dog, directing the dog with spoken commands and with body language (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.
Scoring of runs is based on how many faults are incurred. Penalties can include not only course faults, such as knocking down a bar in a jump, but also time faults, which are the number of seconds over the calculated standard course time, which in turn is determined based on the competition level, the complexity of the course, and other factors.
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.
The regulations of different organizations specify somewhat different rules and dimensions for the construction of obstacles. However, the basic form of most obstacles is the same wherever they are used. Obstacles include the following:
Two broad ramps, usually about 3 feet (0.91 m) wide by 8 to 9 feet (2.7 m) long, hinged together and raised so that the hinged connection is between five and six-and-a-quarter feet above the ground (depending on the organization), roughly forming an A shape. The bottom 36 to 42 inches (0.91 to 1.07 m) of both sides of the A-frame are painted a bright color, usually yellow, forming the contact zone, onto which the dog must place at least one paw while ascending and descending. Many sanctioning organizations require that A-frames have low profile, narrow, horizontal slats all along their length to assist the dog's grip going up and down; other organizations prohibit slats; and many organizations now allow or require a rubberized surface. Some organizations allow the top of the A-frame to be narrower than the bottom.
Three 8 to 12 ft (2.4 to 3.7 m) planks, 9 to 12 inches (23 to 30 cm) wide, connected at the ends. The centre 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. Many sanctioning organizations require that dogwalks have low profile, narrow, horizontal slats all along their length to assist the dog's grip going up and down; other organizations prohibit slats; and many organizations now allow or require a rubberized surface.
|Teeter-totter (or seesaw) |
A 10-to-12-foot (3.0 to 3.7 m) plank pivoting on a fulcrum, much like a child's seesaw. It is constructed slightly off balance so that the same end always returns to the ground. This is done either by placing the support slightly off center or else weighting one end of the board. This obstacle also has contact zones. However, unlike the other contact obstacles, the teeter-totter does not have slats. Many organizations now allow or require a rubberized surface. The balance point and the weight of the plank must be such that even a tiny dog, such as a 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.
A 4-foot (1.22 m) high, 3-by-3-foot (0.91 by 0.91 m) square platform, with ramps similar to those found on a dogwalk descending from the center of three or four of its sides. The dog must ascend the correct ramp and then descend the ramp indicated by the handler, possibly changing direction to do so. This obstacle has largely been discontinued due to its cumbersome size and danger of dogs falling off as they can not easily see where the narrow ramps meet the square platform center. No major agility organization in the United States currently allows the use of a crossover. The Kennel Club discontinued the use of this obstacle in January 2009, as well as the Agility Association of Canada, but other organizations may still allow it in competitions.
A vinyl tube, 10 to 20 feet (3.0 to 6.1 m) long and about 2 feet (61 cm) in diameter, through which the dog runs. The tunnel is constructed of flexible vinyl and wire, such that it can be configured in a straight line, or in a variety of curves.
|Collapsed Tunnel (or chute or cloth tunnel) |
A barrel-like cylinder with a tube of fabric attached around one end. The fabric extends about 8 to 12 feet (2.4 to 3.7 m) and lies closed until the dog runs into the open end of the chute and pushes his way out through the fabric tube.
UKC agility allows two additional tunnel types, the crawl tunnel and the hoop tunnel, that are not found in other agility organizations. CPE allowed an interconnected set of tunnels called a tunnel maze from 2004 through 2006, but discontinued the tunnel maze as of the 2007 rulebook.
Equipment specifications for various organizations:
Each organization has its own rules about what constitutes a fault, and whether one can earn a qualifying score with faulted runs. A completed run that passes the minimum defined standards for time, faults, points, etc., is referred to as a qualifying run and in some cases earns credit towards agility titles. A qualifying run is also referred to as a leg. A clean run or clear round is one with no faults.
Different organizations place different values on faults, which can include the following:
|Time fault||Going over the maximum time allotted by the judge to complete a course (the standard course time (SCT)).|
|Missed contact||The dog failing to place a foot in the contact zone while performing a contact obstacle. Leaping from a contact obstacle a long way above the descending contact zone is sometimes called a flyoff.|
|Knocked or dropped bar||Displacing a bar (or panel) when going over a jump.|
|Weave pole fault||Entering the weave poles incorrectly (the dog must enter with the first pole on his left), skipping poles, or backweaving when attempting to correct missed poles.|
|Off course||Taking the wrong obstacle on a course in which the obstacles are numbered sequentially.|
|Refusal||The dog making an approach towards the correct obstacle, but then turning away or hesitating significantly before attempting the obstacle.|
|Runout||The dog running past the correct obstacle.|
|Handling||The handler deliberately—or, in some cases, accidentally—touching the dog or an obstacle.|
|Training in the ring||The handler deliberately taking an action that appears to be for the purpose of training the dog, rather than trying to run the course correctly, such as asking the dog to repeat an obstacle that he has already completed when the rules don't allow it. The penalty for this varies by organization: the handler may be excused from the ring, elimination may be scored but the handler is allowed to continue, the handler and dog may be allowed to complete their run but are given the maximum course time, and so on. Some organizations have no penalty for training in the ring. In general it is up to the judge to determine what is or isn't training in the ring.|
|Other faults||The dog biting the judge or the handler, the dog or handler exhibiting unsportsmanlike behavior, the dog eliminating in the ring, the dog leaving the ring and not coming back, the handler carrying toys or food into the ring, the dog running with his collar on (in organizations that prohibit collars being worn during a run), and so on.|
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 (3.0 to 6.1 m) between obstacles.
Judges design their own courses (in NADAC, judges can do so or can select from previously designed 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 types of courses or classes are
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 and qualifying scores:  
Dogs are not separated by breed in agility competitions. Some organizations require that dogs entering its competitions must be purebred, but many organizations allow any sound, able-bodied dog, whether purebred or mixed-breed. Blind dogs and dogs with disabilities judged to make the course run physically dangerous to the dog are generally ineligible for the dog's own safety. Among the major agility associations worldwide, the AKC stands out in its exclusion of deaf dogs from agility competition.
The history of dog agility can be traced to a demonstration at the Crufts Dog Show in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom. Dogs were run around a course designed similar to horse jumping courses during intermission as a way to entertain the audience. It has since spread rapidly around the world, with major competitions held worldwide.
Dog agility is an international dog sport with many different sanctioning organizations and competitions worldwide.
Dogs can begin training for agility at any age; however, care is taken when training dogs under a year old so as to not harm their developing joints. Dogs generally start training on simplified, smaller, or lowered (in height) agility equipment and training aids (such as ladders and wobbling boards to train careful footing); however, even quickly learning puppies must be finished growing before training on equipment at standard height to prevent injury.
Introducing a new dog to the agility obstacles varies in response. Each individual dog learns at his own pace; confident dogs may charge over equipment with little encouragement, while more timid dogs may take weeks to overcome their hesitations with much encouragement. Both scenarios present their own challenges; dogs may be overconfident and sloppy to the point where they have a serious accident, so self-control must be taught. Timid dogs need extra support to boost their confidence. Given the right encouragement, a timid dog can gain confidence through learning the sport itself. The size of the dog can also have an effect on training obstacles, particularly with the chute, in which smaller dogs are prone to getting trapped and tangled inside. Great effort is taken in general to see that the dog is always safe and has a good experience in training for agility so that they do not fear the obstacles, and instead perform them willingly and with enthusiasm.
The teeter-totter (or see-saw) and the weave poles are typically the most challenging obstacles to teach to any dog. Many dogs are wary of the see-saw's movement, and the weave poles involve a behavior that does not occur naturally to the dog. Contact obstacles in general are challenging to train in a manner that ensures that the dog touches the contact zone without sacrificing speed. Whether for competition or recreation, the most important skill for an agility team to learn is how to work together quickly, efficiently, and safely. Dogs vary greatly in their speed and accuracy of completing a course, as well as in their preferences for obstacles; therefore, the handler must adjust their handling style to suit and support the dog.
Training techniques for each piece of equipment varies. For example, the 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 an incentive; teaching the dog to run full speed between two poles and gradually increasing the angle of approach and number of poles; et cetera.
Agility can be trained independently (for instance at home) or with an instructor or club that offers classes. Seasoned handlers and competitors, in particular, may choose to train independently, as structured classes are commonly geared towards novices. Seasoned handlers often instead look to seminars and workshops that teach advanced handling techniques, and then practice on their own. Common reasons for joining an agility class include:
In addition to the technical and educational training, physical training must also be done. At the very least, the dog must be fit enough to run and jump without causing stress or injury to its body. The handler can also benefit from being physically fit, but with some handling styles it is not necessary to keep up with the dog (nor is it possible with very fast dogs). Being able to handle a dog from a distance allows mobility-impaired handlers to participate in the sport en par with mobile handlers. Research has also demonstrated health benefits to handlers engaged in dog agility.
Competitions (also called trials or matches or shows) are usually hosted by a specific local club. The club might be devoted solely to dog agility, or it might be primarily a breed club that wants to promote the working abilities of its breed, or it might be a club that hosts many types of dog sports. The club contracts with judges who are licensed by the sanctioning organization and applies to the organization for permission to hold a trial on a specific date or weekend; most trials are two-day weekend events.
The club designates a member to be the chairperson or show manager, who is responsible for ensuring that the trial takes place, and another member to be the secretary, who is responsible for providing competitors with the show premium or schedule—a document that describes the specific competition, summarizes the rules, describes the trial site, and includes an entry form—receiving completed entry forms, sending out running orders, producing running-order lists for the day of competition, and compiling the results from the trial to send to the sanctioning organization.
The designated chief ring steward or ring manager is responsible for finding and assigning workers, almost always volunteers, to perform the myriad tasks involved in putting on a trial. For example, if electronic timing is not being used, each class needs a timer, who ensures that the dog's running time is recorded, a scribe, who records the judge's calls as a dog runs the class, and pole setters (or ring stewards), who ensure that jump bars are reset when they are knocked off and change jump heights for dogs of different sizes.
Agility competitions require considerable space. Each ring is usually at least 100 feet (30 m) on each side, though exact dimensions vary according to the organisations. Competitions can have anything from one up to more than a dozen rings. The ground must be level and, ideally, grassy, although other surfaces are used.
In addition, competitors need space to set up quarters for their dogs and gear; when space permits, competitors often bring pop up canopies or screenroom awning tents for shade. Dogs, when not competing, are usually left to rest in exercise pens, crates, or dog tents familiar and enclosed environments in which they can relax and recover between runs. Handlers also bring reflective cloths to protect their dogs from sun exposure and to calm them down (by covering their crates with the cloths). There also needs to be space for many handlers with dogs on leashes to move freely around the rings without crowding, and space for warming up, exercising, and pottying dogs. Adjacent to the site, parking must be available for all competitors. At weekend or weeklong shows that offer camping, space needs to be provided both for competitors' caravans and tents, and for the small fenced enclosures or gardens that they set up around them.
In heavily populated areas, therefore, it is uncommon to find real estate inexpensive enough to devote entirely to agility, so sites are usually rented for the weekend. Even in more rural areas, agility-only sites are uncommon. Popular locations include fairgrounds, large parks, covered horse-riding arenas, and in cold-winter areas, large, empty warehouses in which mats or carpet can be laid.
Before the trial, each judge designs the courses that he or she will judge at the competition. The sanctioning organization usually reviews and approves the courses to ensure that they meet the organization's guidelines. Guidelines include such issues as how far apart obstacles must be, how many turns are allowed (or required) on a course, which obstacles and how many of each must appear on the course, and so on. The rules vary by level of competition and by organization.
Before each class, or the evening before the first class, course builders use course maps provided by the judges to place equipment on the course. The chief course builder is usually an experienced competitor who understands what equipment is legal, how it must be configured, how each must be aligned compared to other obstacles, and can direct several course-building volunteers to efficiently move the equipment into place. To make the job easier, courses are often marked in some way to correspond to a grid: for example, if course maps are printed on a grid of 10-foot-by-10-foot squares, the posts that hold the ring ropes marking the course's four sides are often set 10 feet apart.
When the course builders finish, the judge walks through the course and double-checks that the obstacles are legal, that they are placed where the judge intended, and that there are no unintended hazards on the course (such as potholes, uneven ground, or mud puddles) around which the course must be adjusted. For many classes, the judge then measures the path through the course to determine the optimal running distance of a typical dog. The judge uses that measurement with a speed requirement determined by the rules to calculate the standard course time, the time under which dogs must complete the course to avoid time faults. For example, if the course is 150 yards (or meters) long, and the rules state that dogs must run the course at a rate of at least 3 yards (or meters) per second, the standard course time would be 50 seconds. Other organizations, though, leave the decision on course time to the judge's discretion
The judge often holds a briefing for competitors before each class, to review the rules and explain specific requirements for a particular course. For Standard courses for experienced competitors, the judge's briefing is often minimal or dispensed with altogether. For novice handlers in classes with complex rules, the briefings can be much longer.
The competitors then walk the course (as described earlier). When the walk-through ends, the gate steward or caller ensures that dogs enter the ring in the running order previously determined by the trial secretary and manages changes to the running order for handlers who might have conflicts with other rings of competition. As each dog and handler team runs the course, the dog is timed either by a person with a stopwatch or with an electronic timer, and the scribe writes the judge's calls and the dog's final time on a scribe sheet or ticket, which is then taken to the score table for recording.
At the score table, scorekeepers compile the results in a variety of ways. Some organizations require or encourage computerized scorekeeping; others[who?] require certain types of manual score sheets to be filled out. When all the dogs in a given height group, level, and class have run, the score table compares run times, faults, and any other requirements to determine placements (and, for classes that provide qualifying points towards titles, which dogs earned qualifying scores).
Each ring might run several classes during a day of competition, requiring multiple course builds, walk throughs, briefings, and so on.
Awards are usually given for placements and for qualifying scores. Such awards are often flat ribbons, rosettes, commemorative plaques, trophies, medals, or pins. Some clubs award high-in-trial awards, calculated in various ways, or other special awards for the trial. Dogs who complete their final qualifying scores to become agility champions are often presented with special awards.
Many Kennel Clubs also award titles to those who manage to qualify enough times in a particular level. Most clubs require three qualifying scores in any level to get the corresponding title, however, other clubs may require more or less.
Surveys of handlers indicates that about 1 in 3 dogs incur injuries from agility related activities. The most common types of injuries were (in order) strains, sprains and contusions. Locations most commonly injured were shoulders, back, phalanges (forelimb/hindlimb) and neck. Injuries were most commonly perceived as being caused by interactions with bar jumps (contact), A-frames and dog walk obstacles (contact and/or fall). There were no relationship between the use of warm-up and cool-down exercises and injuries.
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