Training your dog to do agility

As your puppy grows older and achieves one milestone after the other, you might want to introduce him to more activities to keep him fit. One sport that is gaining fame in South Africa is agility. Starting your dog at a young age, you’ll soon find out if he is cut out for it or not. This is also a great way to play and bond with him.

Agility is a serious sport, but you can see how the dogs enjoy running through the courses. Watching dogs and handlers going through the agility course as if it is a breeze stirs up a kind of energy within. Yet you’ll soon realise that it takes hours of training and practice to perfect their skills.

What to expect

The initial skills in this article are designed to help you learn how to teach your dog, how to reward him, and most importantly, how to have fun with him. The biggest challenge that dog agility teachers face when teaching new handlers is the fact that many handlers do not have an active partnership relationship with their dogs.

As dog agility is a sport where the handler and dog participate as a team, it stands to reason that there needs to be a bond between them. Translating this into dog agility terms, this means that the handler and dog need to have mutual respect and enjoy training with each other. So, your dog must want to play with you, and you need to be an active participant in any games and activities that are undertaken.

It is therefore highly recommended that handlers learn how to play with their dogs. Other activities such as obedience, flyball and trick training will also complement agility training.


Lesson 1: Hand touches

The first lesson I teach my agility dogs (this can be taught to young puppies as well) is what I call ‘hand touches’. It is a simple technique where my dog touches my open hand with his nose.

Why is this trick important in agility? Apart from the reasons mentioned above, hand touches teach our dogs to be aware of our hands. In dog agility we use our hands to tell our dogs what is required of them. If our dogs are actively focused on watching our hands, they will look out for and react to any hand signals given. In addition, a dog who has been taught hand touches will be more willing to return to his handler when requested to do so.

We have prepared a video link for you to follow.


Some points to remember:

  1. For the best results, do your training before you feed your dog. A hungry dog will be more motivated to work for treats.
  2. Make sure that you are rewarding your dog regularly.
  3. As a rule of thumb, the lesson you are teaching your dog should be easy enough for him to get it correct around 80% of the time. If your dog is struggling with the lesson, try to make your criteria easier, take a break or change the environment. The longer your dog fails, the more you are reinforcing the mistake.


Lesson 2: Circling around an object

The second lesson I teach my agility dogs is to complete a circle around an object (this can also be taught to puppies).

Why is this trick important in agility? Circling around an object is the basis of teaching our dogs a change of direction. This exercise also forms a foundation of the method that I use to teach a handler and dog how to change sides, an intermediate skill that will be taught at a later stage.

As your dog should already be starting to focus on your hands, this skill should be fairly easy to start. It involves luring your dog around an object in a circular fashion and then rewarding him.

The key thing to remember here is that you use your left hand to teach your dog to turn right (as your dog will be on your left side to turn right). You use your right hand to teach your dog to turn left (as your dog will be on your right side to turn left).

We have prepared a video link for you to follow.


Lesson 3: Circling around two or more objects

This lesson builds on the foundation taught in lesson two.

Why is this trick important in agility? Circling around an object is the basis of teaching our dogs a change of direction. This exercise adds to the initial training of circling around a single object by adding an additional object that requires the handler to change their handling side.


Step 1: The handler starts with the dog on their right, and using their right hand, they circle left around the object to their left.

Step 2: As soon as the dog completes the turn and comes back toward the handler, the handler will find the dog on their left side. The handler now guides the dog (left hand/dog on left) to a right turn around an object to the right.

When combined, these two steps create a figure-of-eight movement. Once the handler has mastered this, they can move on to step three.

Step 3: The handler now adds a third object into the game and is now required to guide their dog around all three objects in a random pattern. This step really tests both the handler’s and dog’s understanding of the skills.

We have prepared a video for you to follow.

Once a handler can do this around an object in their garden, it is advised to try this in different environments. For example: when walking your dog in the park, why not try out the exercise by getting your dog to circle around two or three trees that are close together? This is sure to impress your friends.


If you are struggling with this skill, remember the rule from lesson two.

You use your left hand to teach your dog to turn right (as your dog will be on your left side to turn right). You use your right hand to teach your dog to turn left (as your dog is on your right side to turn left).


Lesson 4: Foundations of jumping

Puppies older than eight months can start to be introduced to foundation jumps (check with your vet if your puppy is old enough). In order to ensure that your puppy is not injured by this activity, you need to follow two key rules:

Rule 1: Until your puppy is at least a year old, he must not be allowed to jump higher than his elbow.

Rule 2: Jumping exercises should only be done infrequently (once or twice a week maximum), with only two or three repetitions per time.


The aim of this lesson is not to teach your dog to jump high, but rather to understand that he will be required to judge the distance required for jumping over an obstacle.

Step 1: Get your puppy to wait behind a single low jump (please see the video for ideas).

Step 2: Recall your puppy and reward him (with praise, treats or a toy) when he clears the obstacle. Repeat these two steps until your puppy is confident with this.

Step 3: Get your puppy to wait behind a second jump.

Step 4: Recall your puppy so that he clears both obstacles. Do not forget to reward him.

We have prepared a video for you to follow.

Lesson four can also be completed by sending your dog to a toy or treat. You perform the same steps as above except the handler remains in the starting position.

Interested in starting agility training?

If you are interested in starting agility training, it is highly recommended to join an agility school, which can be a great source of support. There is a list of agility clubs available on the Gauteng Agility website. Select the links tab for a list of agility clubs by province.


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