Course of action

By Karen Rorie

Most dog owners are happy if their dog can sit, stay and roll over. But a growing number of owners are asking their dogs to jump, weave and more with agility training, which provides fun and exercise for both dog and owner.

Agility is the dog version of horse show jumping. Dogs navigate a series of obstacles under the guidance of a human handler. Handlers use a combination of verbal commands and hand signals to direct their dog. Obstacles include jumps, tunnels, hoops and a teeter-totter. The goal is to get through the course as quickly as possible, in the correct order, while making the fewest mistakes.

Pat Woodworth and his three-year-old Brussels griffon, Kip, have been attending agility classes at Leashes and Leads in Byron for about 18 months. In addition to fun and exercise, he finds the agility improves his relationship with Kip. "When you’re working together as a team, you really get to know your dog," he says.


Dogs of all sizes and ages can participate. "The nice thing about agility is that each dog competes with dogs at their own size," Woodworth says. Obstacles can be adjusted to accommodate any dog.

Dogs of all kinds attend agility classes at Leashes and Leads. Trainer Alice Howe calls each dog and handler onto the course for runs. Howe watches and offers suggestions on how to improve. Subtle changes in cues or the position of the handler as the dog finishes an obstacle can make a big difference in overall time.

Howe designs a different course for each class, so teams don’t get used to running the same set of obstacles. Handlers have just a few minutes to study the course before class and decide how the will approach each section. "There’s a lot of room for individuality in how you choose to run a course," says Sue Ryan, who was attending the class with Caviler King Charles spaniel, Ella, and border collie, Sly.

Dogs in agility classes must have mastered basic obedience skills. "If the dog isn’t attentive, if the dog won’t come back to you when you call, they’ll just go off and do what’s fun to them," says trainer Paul Howe, Alice’s husband. "Getting control will stop that."

Dogs learn agility skills in small steps. They navigate obstacles, then get a reward. Some dogs, like Kip, like a treat, while Sly prefers the chance to play with a favorite toy. Dogs work up to a full course of 20 or more obstacles.

Agility training started in England in the 1970s and is now the fastest growing dog sport. There are agility competitions all around the world, but not every agility team is bound for competition. "Some people do this for something fun to do with their dogs, others are doing it to seriously compete internationally," Ryan says. All that really matters is that both dog and handler are having fun.

Karen Rorie is a Rochester freelance writer.

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