Becoming a Big Shot

Joining a Training Class
Different kinds, what to expect, and how to find them
Meet the Obstacles
All About Matches & Competitions
Playing by the Rules
Entering a competition and an introduction to the rules

Joining a Training Class

Different kinds, what to expect, and how to find them
The different kinds.
Agility classes are popping up all over. There are simple groups that practice together in backyards, and more organized classes that advertise. Often the organized groups call themselves by a "club" name, and as they become bigger they may even host agility matches and trials. Many obedience trainers and clubs also train agility. For the young people, there are junior handler classes, and more and more 4-H groups are starting agility training. If not, they are most likely looking for volunteers to help get something started! The fact is, agility is spreading and there aren't enough classes to keep up with the demand.

What to expect.
Don't be afraid of joining a class. You will meet plenty of "newbies" just like yourself, with zany dogs that do unexpected things just like yours. You do not need to have any prior practice. Most people do not have obstacles at home until they start training. Then they go crazy! Usually classes are small, maybe 6-10 people, so the trainers can offer more personalized service. If there are more, there might be another instructor or helper to break them into smaller groups. They last about an hour, once or twice a week, and can go 4-8 weeks per "level" (beginner, advanced, etc). Expect to pay anywhere's from $40-$90 for all the classes (most trainers do not allow a per-day payment plan).

You will need to keep your dog on a leash for the beginning classes. Later the instructor might recommend using a short leash called a "tab" that won't get hung up on an obstacle. Bring water and lots of treats if your dog is food motivated. It also helps if your dog is a little hungry. If your dog is motivated by toys, bring a favorite. Tug toys work great. It's always best to bring a toy that you might reserve for agility training only. It makes the toy more special (and desirable). The same goes for the treats. Finally, walk your dog in a designated area to allow him to relieve himself before entering the yard or building. Eliminating around the obstacles is a no-no, and if you can help it, try to be watchful of this area.

How to find them in your area.
Here at, we have a database of trainers and clubs that is searchable by states, cities, and other criteria. To make sure you are finding the closest one, however, you may also want to ask around. One of the best people to ask is a local obedience trainer. They are easier to find and often train agility as well as obedience. You can find them advertised on bulletin boards of vets and pet stores, or in the phone book.

For's searchable database of trainers and clubs, CLICK HERE.

All About Competitions

Different kinds of events and how to find them
Different kinds of events.
There are basically two kinds of agility competitions. 1) "Matches" (or "Fun Matches") and 2) Sanctioned "Trials". Matches are open to mixed breeds and are usually less stringent in rules (i.e. you may be able to use food in the ring and keep your dog on a leash). Matches are cheaper to enter, and some people will purchase more than one "run" with their dog (or dogs) just for the inexpensive practice. Matches may give ribbons or prizes, but qualifications do not add to your dog's "title". To get a "title" on your dog (it's a label, kind of like our educational labels PHD and MD) you must enter a "sanctioned" trial.

Sanctioned Trials are put on by more organized dog clubs. They must work under the "sanctioning" of a certain organization, such as AKC (the American Kennel Club), USDAA (United States Dog Agility Association) as well as others such as NADAC. These organizations determine the standards by which the agility trial will be conducted, including the kinds of obstacles used (and the quality) as well as some variation in classes offered, and rules. Some of the organizations require purebreds, some allow mixed breeds (see our link for "Other Resources" for more details on the different organizations and how to find more information on each one). Do not be overly concerned about which organization you will become acquainted with in your first trial. The two largest organizations (AKC and USDAA) have very similar obstacles and classes. What's fun about having different organizations is, you can earn titles in each one. That's double the titles. Imagine how much your dog's puppies will be worth now!

How to find them in your area.
For some reason, agility matches and trials are rarely advertised in the papers. Or at least they are hard to find when you are looking for them. If you are interested in entering one, you must find out about them early. You can subscribe to magazines offered by the organizations that have listings sent every month. If you have internet access, it is easier to find the listings online. At, we offer a very comprehensive list of events, searchable by state, date, and many other criteria! You can also visit the websites of the different sponsoring organizations (such as and and get their listings. They primarily advertise sanctioned trials. If you join a training class or club, they will often inform you of matches, as well as some trials that are closest to your area.

For's searchable database of events, CLICK HERE.

Playing by the Rules

Entering a match or competition, and what the rules are
Entering a match or competition.
Matches are usually easy to get into last minute, but most of them (especially trials) have deadlines. Apply as early as you can for trials, as they often fill up earlier than the deadlines. If you enter one, they will return your money if it gets filled up. Most are pretty strict about not giving refunds for other reasons, however. (Especially getting cold feet!). You will need to know which "class" you will enter your dog in. If you are just beginning, you will enter a "novice" class for AKC, or a "starters" class in USDAA. When competing in trials, you need to go step by step (without skipping any) because they keep track of your "legs" (qualified runs) which add up to your titles. For example, after you get 3 "legs" running your dog in AKC Novice classes, you will get a Novice agility title (NA). After you get your title, AKC will mail you a certificate that you can hang on your wall! How cool is that?

"Titles" are labels that you can add to your dog's name, kind of like our educational labels Ph.D. or D.V.M. For example, when starting off you will be acquiring a "novice agility" (NA) title for AKC, or an "Agility Dog" (AD) title for USDAA. You can they call your dog, "Snoopy, A.D.". There are more labels, and the more you get, the fancier your dog's name becomes! Some people think that these titles make a dog's puppies more valuable. Most just like the pretty ribbons and dog toys they win!

You will also need to enter your dog into a certain "height division". This is so your tea cup dog who takes 5 minutes to get between each obstacle does not have to compete against a great Dane who leaps A-frames with a single bound. Height divisions are set by each organization. There are about 5-6 different divisions. Most training classes will measure your dog and tell you what height division he falls into. If your dog is older or has a handicap, you may be able to get a lower height status, which in some organizations is a special class in itself.

The rules.
Some of the items you will want to bring to a competition is a strong buckle collar, a leash, water, treats or toys (to be used outside the ring only, unless it is a match), and a crate or tent for keeping your dog contained. This is especially helpful to keep your dog shaded from the sun. Bring a blanket also, to cover the crate for shade, and a chair for yourself. Oh, and last but not least, a poop bag! (had to mention it). You can not bring any obstacles. You will be able to use one of the "warm-up" jumps that are provided near the ring. That is the only obstacle you are allowed to practice on. Occasionally you are allowed a warm-up period in the ring to familiarize your dogs with the obstacles. Often this is not the case, however.

When you come to the competition it is helpful to get your dog crated and comfortable first. Some trials have big tents where all the crates will be held, while others allow you to set up anywhere. You can keep your dog in the car if you prefer if it's not parked too far away. Then you will need to find the registration table. There you will get an arm band. Ask for the order of runs (so you have an idea of when you will be running), when the "judges briefing" and walk-through will be, and ask if there is a course diagram available. This is a sheet of paper that shows the obstacles in order of how they will be. You can start memorizing them early if you want, though you will be given an opportunity for a walk-through to plan your strategy.

At the beginning of each class, the judge will blow a whistle or make an announcement for all those in that class to gather inside the ring for a briefing. (without your dog). The judge will then go over the rules and give all of the people a pep talk. He (or she) will also tell you whether it is a "sit" or "stay" on the pause table. Then he will allow you some time (10 minutes or so) to "walk the course" (without your dog). This is the time you quickly memorize the order of obstacles (there will be numbers to help you) and determine whether you will have your dog on the left side, right side, if your dog will go through the tunnel instead of over the aframe, etc. To some, it's almost like planning a war! Expect to feel a little foolish running around the obstacles without your dog.

When the judge blows the whistle again, you need to exit the ring and wait for your run. You can get an updated status from the "board" that is displayed near the entrance of the ring. Your dog's name will be listed there, for every class you entered. The ring steward is a person who crosses off each dog's name after they ran. They will also "call out" each dog's name (within earshot, so don't go too far if you think you will be running soon).

When it's your turn to run you will enter the ring (the judge will tell everyone ahead of time what obstacle the person ahead of you has to be doing, before you stand at the start line). Remove the leash and throw it aside, or give it to a "leash runner". Either hold your dog by the collar, or put him into a stay. Then you must catch the eyes of the person who is sitting in the ring with a stopwatch. When they nod yes or say it's okay, you are free to go whenever you want. The clock will start as soon as your dog moves, and will stop when you are over the finish line.

Each organization and class has different rules as how you "qualify" to earn a "leg". It is best to check the rules, so you are not in question. In novice agility, you are allowed a few deductions. But there are some things that will immediately disqualify you (though you can still finish the course). This includes touching your dog on purpose to help guide it, having or using food in the ring, and if your dog eliminates in the ring. Treating or speaking to your dog harshly is also not allowed. And unfortunately, if your dog knocks a jump bar down he is also disqualification. To qualify, your dog must "make the time" standard (fall under the maximum time limit), and "make the accuracy" standard (fall under the maximum amount of penalties allowed ). If you qualify, you will get a qualification ribbon, which means you earned a "leg" that can be applied to your title. You need a certain amount of legs to get a title (usually 3). You may also win a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. ribbon for the fastest most accurate dogs in your height division.

One of the misconceptions of agility is that your dog has to be fast to win. The truth is, accuracy is used as a judging standard first, then speed, in determining ribbon placements. As long as your dog didn't go past the time limit, you will still qualify even if you made a few errors. But if you make too many errors, you will not qualify, no matter how fast your dog ran. The exception to this is in the more advanced classes, where no penalties are allowed, and it's all about speed competing.

Ribbons are usually hung up or placed near the registration table later in the day for you to get. Expect to wait at least an hour after your run for your ribbons to be ready. Some ribbons and prizes (like the ribbons given for the best scores in the whole competition) are given out at the end of the day. Yawn. But it's worth it!

By Pamela Spock / 5101 State Rt. 64, Canandaigua, N.Y. 14424

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