What began as an exhibition of tricks at the grand-daddy of all dog shows has blossomed into the most exciting and entertaining of canine sports. Practiced by thousands of dog/handler teams across Canada, and millions of teams in dozens of countries around the world, agility is recognized as one of the foremost athletic competitions.
Dog agility got its start as an intermission spectacle at Crufts, the famous obedience and conformation show in England and quickly spread. Equestrian shows on both sides of the Atlantic also used agility demonstrations as a means of keeping audiences entertained between their main acts.
Having done away with some of the more spectacular – and dangerous – obstacles that were better suited to circus demonstrations (ring of fire, anyone?), agility has developed into a comprehensive athletic test of a dog’s intelligence, speed, power and yes, agility. Dogs race against the clock, negotiating obstacles such as hurdles, tire jumps, tunnels, see-saws, A-Frames and the incredible weave poles, among others.
Far removed from the trick demonstration of old, agility championships draw dogs from around the world and attract thousands of spectators to the stadium, with many more watching on television and online.
In Canada, dogs of all breeds (including mixed-breed dogs) can compete in their regional championships – including the B.C./Yukon regional championships June 5-7 at Thunderbird Equestrian Show Park in Langley – and thereby qualify for the national championships under the auspices of the Agility Association of Canada (AAC). The 2015 AAC championships are scheduled for Aug. 19-23 at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby.
Formed in 1988 in Ontario, the AAC was the first Canadian sanctioning body for the sport and, with thousands of dogs involved in AAC competitions, is the largest agility organization in the country. Originally formed as the Agility Dog Association of Canada, the AAC opens its events to all breeds of dogs, including mixed-breed dogs. Although working breeds excel at the sport – herding breeds such as border collies, Belgian shepherds and Australian kelpies are popular choices among agility handlers – AAC events have seen everything from two-pound teacup poodles to enormous Great Danes, and everything in between.
While the national and regional championships are the AAC’s showcase events, local clubs host titling events – or trials – across the country. A perfect illustration of the sport’s growth: at the beginning of the century, a BC handler could attend about one trial a month and attend about two-thirds of all the trials in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Now, there are often three or four trials each weekend just in BC. Far removed from the 25-dog trials hosted in a quiet farmer’s fields in the 1980s, world championships now see thousands of spectators pack arenas, with many more watching on TV and online.
On the course: Jump!
Agility is a judged event, but there are no points for style (and some handlers are pretty relieved about that). Rather, it’s all about performance. Racing against the clock, dogs take direction from their handlers, who are usually running to keep up. A lightning fast Jumpers run (see a description of the games below) can sometimes see a dog cover nearly 200 yards with twists, turns, and 20+ obstacles in less than 30 seconds. Don’t blink!
Most of the obstacles are jumps, and the rule is pretty simple: go over the bar between the jump standards and don’t knock the bar over. Knocking a bar costs the team five faults. In addition to single-bar jumps there is also a double-bar jump and a jump called the ascending spread jump with as many as five bars.
The height of the jump is determined by the height of the dog: the smallest dogs jump 10 inches while the tallest dogs jump 26 inches. In the middle are the 16 and 22-inch heights. In competitions, dogs are matched against others jumping similar heights. In addition, the AAC has a “Specials” category, intended for dogs for whom their “Regular” jump height would be an unfair challenge – dogs in Specials jump one jump height lower. And there is also a “Veteran” category for dogs more than 7 years of age. Veterans are allowed lower jump heights and more time to complete the course.
On the course: other obstacles
Of course, agility is more than just jumping. There are several other types of obstacles dogs must negotiate on course.
– Tire jump; a suspended hoop, meant to simulate jumping through a tire. The tire jump is set at the dog’s jump height
– Tunnel; 20-foot tunnels, either straight or bent into C or S-curves
– A-Frame; just as it sounds, two nine-foot long, 36-inch wide planks elevated at approximately 45 degrees from horizontal. The dog must run over the A-frame, touching the yellow “contact zone” on the down ramp.
– Dog-walk; a 36-foot long, 12-inch wide plank set up to resemble a long bridge. The dog must run over the entire walk, touching the yellow “contact zone” on the down ramp.
– See-saw; like the child’s playground toy without the handles! This test of a dog’s confidence requires the dog to touch the yellow “contact zone” at the bottom of both the up ramp and the down ramp.
– Weave poles; a series of either six or 12 vertical poles, 24 inches apart; the dog must enter the series of poles on the right and weave between each pole. Getting the entry wrong or having to go back and start again costs the team five faults each time.
The games and how they’re played
At championship events, dogs and handlers compete in three separate games, with two of each game played over the course of the weekend. Scores from each of the six games are aggregated and the team with the most points wins in their jump height.
Standard agility is a set course, with the course laid out by the judge. Dogs must complete each obstacle in order under the direction of their handler. All the obstacle types are in use in a standard run.
The dog/handler teams start with 100 points. If they go through the course without any faults, they earn 100 points plus a bonus equal to one point for every second they complete the course under the allotted time. If they receive faults – five faults for knocking a bar, five faults for running past an obstacle and 20 faults for taking obstacles out of sequence – they lose one point for every fault and they also lose out on that time bonus. So one knocked bar could be the difference between a 130-point run and a 95-point run. So Fluffy needs to keep those bars up!
Jumpers is similar to standard in that it is run on a set course determined by the judge. The key difference is that courses only include jumps, tunnels and a tire jump. Jumpers runs are lightning fast.
Scoring: Jumpers is scored similar to standard, except that teams start with 75 points and lose points for faults or, if they run fault-free, earn bonus points for time.
Gamblers is a test of the dog and handler’s ability to communicate, especially from a distance. Rather than a set course, handlers have 40 seconds to direct their dog to whatever obstacles they like, with dogs earning points for every completed obstacle. Jumps earn the dog one point, tunnels two points, the see saw, dog walk and A-frame three points and the weave poles are five points.
After 40 seconds, a whistle or horn sounds and the dog must then attempt the “final gamble” which is a sequence of three to five obstacles that the dog must complete while the handler is at a distance of as much as 20 feet away. If the dog completes the final gamble within the allotted time – usually around 20 seconds – the team earns 35 points on top of what they earned in the opening 40 seconds.
In addition to the games being used to crown regional championships, the June 5-7 regionals will also include a game called steeplechase, which is similar to jumpers, but with the addition of an A-Frame and weave poles.
It sounds like fun and games, but it’s far removed from the mere demonstration of tricks in 1978. The B.C./Yukon regional agility championships will draw more than 300 dogs from B.C. to the Thunderbird Equestrian Show Park in Langley.