Thanks to Bill Gignac for this article. Northern California people can see his list of references at the end of the article or check out ELECTRIC VIZSLAs for other internet sites.
Our introduction to Dog Agility was the demonstration by the Bay Team at the Golden Gate Kennel club's annual show in February 1992. We were attracted by the fun and teamwork demonstrated by the human and canine participants. Our pursuit of agility started in earnest in the spring of 1994 after both our Vizslas, a two and one half year old dog and one and one half year old bitch, had the basics of obedience and we found a local agility trainer. Nan and I were interested in training to hunt, but long commutes to hunting cites and work schedules put us off. We live adjacent to a park, so regular weekday agility training seemed possible after procuring the required equipment.
Agility is an obstacle course in which the dog must perform the obstacles in the correct order and within the course time. Handlers can move about the ring with the dog, but are not permitted to touch the dog or obstacles. This is a team sport where the dog and handler form a partnership, and the most common reason for failure is a mistake on the part of the handler rather than the dog. Unlike Obedience no corrections are used; motivational training with toys or food is virtually universal. In practice, and even in many events, if an error is made handlers are being encouraged to keep the dog moving on an impromptu course to keep enthuasism high.
Agility courses are composed of four types of obstacles: jumps, tunnels, contacts and weave poles. Jumps are basically what you see in Obedience with the addition of a tire or hoop jump. In AKC agility knocking down a jump crossbar results in elimination at all levels. Tunnels can be either open tubes, or chutes with the entrance open and a fabric tube for the exit which lies flat until the dog runs through it. The contact obstacles usually consist of an A-frame (5.5 feet maximum height for AKC), teeter-totter, dog walk and pause table. Contact obstacles are named after the yellow regions (contact zones or contacts) that typically extend from each end of the obstacle 42 inches towards the center. Rules for contacts vary with agility association, but all associations require that the dog place at least one foot in the contact zone at the exiting end of the obstacle. Failure to place at least one foot in the contact zone results in elimination. Weave poles are the most difficult to teach obstacle, but also the most impressive to watch when performed by a master. A weave pole obstacle consists of 4 to 12 poles placed in a straight line and spaced approximately 20 inches apart. Dogs must always enter with the first pole on their left shoulder. Weave poles are not allowed in AKC novice agility, the beginning level.
In competition a dog is rated on the time taken to complete the course, accuracy in completing obstacles in the prescribed order and correct completion of obstacles. Faults are assessed if a dog fails to complete an obstacle correctly, for example knocking down a crossbar, takes obstacles out of order (off course), or exceeds the announced course time. Placements are generally awarded by "faults over time", meaning that a dog with a longer elapsed time and no faults will be placed over a faster dog with even one fault. Rules for the number of faults allowed vary with agility association. Competition courses typically contain 12-20 obstacles, with winning times in the 30-50 second range and qualifying times typically 60-70 seconds.
The three major agility associations in this area offering agility titles are: United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC) and AKC. Each association has different rules and jump height requirements, but all three associations have three classes of competition based on the dog's experience. For AKC the classes in order from beginner to expert are Novice, Open and Excellent. At this time all associations require three qualifying scores at each level before it is possible to advance to the next level. Course difficulty increases with class from beginner to expert by requiring more obstacles, fewer seconds per yard of course length for calculating course time, number of traps (obstacle sequences designed to pull entice a dog off course), and number of times it is advantageous for the handler to switch the side that they are working the dog from.
Handlers switching sides to gain advantage in minimizing elapsed time or avoiding an off course can require a major retraining for well drilled obedience dogs. At the higher levels of agility it is extremely important to be able to work the dog on both the handlers left and right as judges design courses so that a "left side only" handler will have to run around 36 feet of dog walk to keep the dog on the left rather than standing in place and pivoting with the dog on the right. Smooth switching of sides and knowing when to switch separates the best agility handlers from the pack. Another difference between agility and obedience or hunting is that commands may be given more than once, and in fact weave poles are frequently done with a command at each pole to keep the dog focused on the obstacle and increase speed.
Agility classes are determined by the dogs height and vary by association. Generally the most competitive class is the highest which is a jump height of 24 inches for all dogs measuring over 20 inches at the withers. The highest jump height classes are usually dominated by Border Collies. At the recent World Championships held during October in Switzerland the US was represented by a five dog team consisting of three Border Collies, a Golden Retriever and a Malinois.
The two Vizsla agility teams in our house have quite a way to go before we can compete for placements with the best agility dogs, but I believe that with their tremendous athletic ability and desire to please Vizslas will be represented in the top agility rankings in the future. We are firmly addicted to agility training a is nothing quite like the feeling of handling a fast and accurate dog in competition. As for the dogs competing in agility, our dog, Calvin, gets very excited at the sight of an agility course, especially jumps. Our bitch lacks Calvin's self confidence, but we are using agility to improve her self confidence and have recently succeeded in overcoming her fear of the teeter-totter, something that looked impossible as recently as this fall. As we gain experience new training challenges continue to surface such as building a longer distance between handler and dog, and teaching directional commands such as left and right with the dog at a dead run or going over jumps. Most of all agility has been fun for all of us, and it melds with our urban lifestyle allowing regular competition and multiple training sessions each week.
If you have any desire to start agility training the following associations and individuals provide classes in Northern California:
In the East Bay, The Bay Team - Club (510) 229-8041 In Oakland, Companion Dog Training - Pat Cook (510) 531-8996 In San Jose, Power Paws Agility - Nancy Gyes (408) 729-6983 In San Jose, Topnotch Agility - Karen TenEyck (408) 374-9722 In Cupertino, Westside Agility Training - Peggy Clark (408) 378-3162 In Santa Rosa, County-Wide Dog Training Club - Club (707) 823-8298 In Sacramento, Haute Dawgs - Club (800) 770-7166 In Sacramento, Dream Catchers (916) 369-2623 or (916) 331-6449