How to Create a Dog-Agility Course at Home

All photos: Jaymi Heimbuch.

Agility training is a wonderful way to exercise your dog's mind and body, and to grow a more trusting and bonded relationship between the two of you. Agility is a partnership; while you teach your dog how to approach and complete various obstacles, your dog is teaching you how to be positive and encouraging, and how to use your body language to tell your dog exactly what you'd like to see from him or her. The skills you learn on the course carry over into daily life, and can mean a more well-behaved dog and a more attentive owner as you become a team.

Whether for fun or competition, agility can be done by dogs of all breeds and sizes. Obstacles can be adjusted for a dog's height, and courses can be endlessly arranged to provide new challenges both physically and in your rapid-fire communication with your dog while running a course. Let's say you've already taken your first agility classes and are interested in bringing the fun home. We're going to walk through what to look for when searching for the basic equipment to set up a backyard course for practice.

There are three things to consider when selecting equipment:

1. Cost

2. Safety of your dog

3. Safety of your dog

Yes, safety of your dog is listed twice because it is twice as important as the cost of any equipment. If you bring home cheap equipment, you run the risk of it breaking on you and possibly injuring your dog. If your dog is hurt or scared by a piece of equipment, it can be a big challenge to help him work up the courage to try that equipment again and an even bigger challenge to rebuild his confidence to do that obstacle without hesitating. That said, cost is still a factor when looking at equipment if you're in the just-for-fun stage. Competition-quality equipment can be very pricey, but there are much more affordable options.

Here are four pieces of equipment that can get you started with a home agility course. These are examples of mid-quality items won't break the bank, and won't fall apart with the first use. A lot can be accomplished with just a few basic obstacles, so a course that includes jumps, a chute, a tunnel and weave poles is great place to begin. These items will help you and your dog practice while also allowing you to increase the difficulty level as the two of you improve your speed and skill. And of course, more items can be added on as you both advance.

Jumps: When looking for a set of jumps you want three things: adjustable heights for the bar, a bar that can be easily knocked off by your dog's foot to avoid injury, and a jump that isn't so flimsy that it tumbles over just by looking at it. It's also great to have more than one jump in a set so that you can vary the challenge. This set of four jumps is a great example of what to look for when shopping around. It comes in a bag for easy storage and is light enough to carry around to different locations to practice. You also can adjust the height to the perfect fit, starting low and gaining height as your dog improves. (Look up measurements for appropriate jump height for your dog so you don't have him jumping too high for his body.) It is a middle-of-the-road quality and price that will suit anyone.

Chutes: Chutes are a great tool for agility dogs as it teaches them to trust their handler (that would be you) even when the handler is telling them to run into something that they can't see out of. You want to find a tunnel that can be held down so that it doesn't move as your dog bursts through the fabric train, and also that is made of rip-stop material so that your dog's nails don't tear it to pieces. This chute is a good example of what to look for: It is a nice quality, and flexible so it folds up flat for storage. It comes with spikes that you can use to keep it from rolling or moving as your dog goes through. The fabric train attaches to the tunnel with Velcro so you can use it with or without the fabric as you'd like.

Tunnels: Tunnels can be one of the most fun and challenging parts of an agility course for some dogs, especially since for your dog, going as fast as you can through a long, dark space is an amazing act of trust. So a tunnel is a great addition to your at-home agility course. A flexible tunnel is perfect for adjusting the difficulty as your dog advances or you want to change up your home course. You can have it straight, in a gentle curve, in a tight curve or even in an S-shape. The important part about selecting a tunnel is to make sure the material is thick enough that your dog's nails won't tear through the fabric after a couple run-throughs, and heavy enough that it won't move as your dog blasts through it. The thicker and heavier, the higher the price, but considering you want something that will last, don't shy away from the expensive options. This 18-foot tunnel is a good option for dogs of most any size. It is not as heavy as competition grade, but comes with spikes to secure it to the ground so it won't roll or move as your dog runs through. Expect to have to replace it if you do a lot of training, but it works well for getting started.

Weave poles: Weave poles might be the most challenging thing your dog faces in an agility course and it takes awhile to train him or her to go through it correctly and at speed. Because of the time and practice it takes to perfect this obstacle, weave poles at home are a must for agility enthusiasts. These weave poles are light enough to easily store or carry to where you're practicing, and they are suitable for using on any type of surface, indoor or out. They are not the most solid, being simply PVC pipes cut to the right length and joined together with PVC fittings. Sometimes they can lean a bit or the end poles can pop out, so when your dog gets really good and speedy, you'll have to invest in weave poles that are sturdier and closer to competition grade. However, for getting started, the light weight, easy storage, and reasonable price of PVC weave poles make them a nice option for teaching your dog how to weave.

San Francisco-based agility trainer Dianne Morey points out, "You need to make sure whatever you end up with is competition spacing in case you ever want to compete. You don't want your dog learning the wrong spacing, so 24 inches in between the poles. You will outgrow six poles really fast so if all you can afford is six, then go ahead and get cheap plastic PVC ones. They are a pretty big headache because they fall over all the time, come apart and slide around if your dog is moving through them with any speed. But they can help you get started with the concept of weaving."

Morey also recommends a Bosu Ball or Core Disc to help dogs build up core strength and confidence with balance that will help them on all the obstacles they encounter. "Plus they are fun," she says. "Bosus run about $100. I duct tape a yoga mat that I cut to fit on the flat side so its not so slippery. The JFit core discs are cheap, around $20 and they work great too."

Affordable Agility is a great website to look through. You'll see both hobby-level and competition-level equipment, and you can select the perfect obstacles for you and your dog for a price that suits you. Another excellent place to look for quality equipment is Agility Works.

There are some pieces of equipment that are a lot of fun, such as A-frames, seesaws and elevated planks. However, this is equipment that your dog is climbing and balancing on, so safety is of the utmost importance. You should consider buying these only if you are truly interested in investing big bucks because you never, ever want to try the cheap versions. The risk isn't worth it. These purchases are for people who are really serious about agility. Of course, if you are handy with carpentry, it might be worth crafting your own versions so you can be sure that it is well-built and solid. And you will likely save a pretty penny in the process.

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