How to Turn a Dog Walk Into a Dog Challenge

You and your dog can exercise by tackling some of these simple obstacles.

Niner has mastered walking along the top of a wall. (All photos: Jaymi Heimbuch).

Let's just admit it: even for those of us with the best of intentions for our pets, taking the dog out for a walk can sometimes feel like a chore. This is especially true for those of us who live in cities or suburban areas where we don't have easy access to open fields to let them just go burn off steam. Walks are a required task for any dog owner; our dogs need this daily exercise and really, so do we. But taking the same route on the same sidewalks is so booooooring. So here's a great way to make your daily walk a time for exercising the body and the brain. Turn your walks into an urban agility course!

Urban agility examples

So what do I mean when I say turn your walks into an urban agility course? If you haven't ever watched a dog agility trial, get on YouTube and do a search. They are amazing: dogs zooming through tunnels, weaving through poles, bolting over bridges and balancing expertly on teeter-totters. The dogs run at full speed yet always keep an eye on the handler to get the cue for which obstacle to take next. It is fun for both handler and dog and, most importantly, it is accomplished in no small part by having a great bond of shared trust and respect. Even if you have no interest in doing "real" agility with your dog, the principles can be applied to your daily walks. Your dog's attention becomes directed at you, and you can devise ways to turn everything from curbs to stairs to tree stumps into part of the game. The best part is that it engages both the body and the brain so you will have one very tired and contented dog by the end of a walk.

Here are ideas to illustrate how city streets are an obstacle course (in a good way):

1. Curbs

Niner sits on a curb, ready for his urban agility training

Curbs are an easy starting point. They are low to the ground and stable, so your dog can learn how to balance on a narrow surface while staying safe. You can begin by having your dog balance on the end of a curb. Practice telling him to sit, stand, sit again, and maybe even lay down on the curb all without stepping off of it. From there, move on to more uneven surfaces, like slanted curbs or pillars.

Niner stands on some uneven ground

Eventually, you can have your dog walking or trotting down a very narrow curb with expert balance. You can increase the difficulty by asking him to stop, turn around and go the other way without jumping off the curb.

Niner on a narrow curbed slope

2. Benches

Niner hops across two benches

Benches are perfect for teaching a dog to jump up onto or run along a platform, or even jump from one platform to another if there are a few benches close enough together. You can teach your dog to sit or lay down on the bench, or even balance two paws on the back of it. If you want to make it really challenging, teach your dog to jump up on the bench backwards, getting him to put his hind feet up on the bench first then pulling his front feet up for a real mental and physical workout.

3. Stairs, railings and bike racks

Niner weaves in and out of stairs' railing

Stairs are a great agility obstacle for dogs. Teach your dog to sit at the top, then scramble down to pause at the bottom until you give the OK to move on; teach him to take a staircase one single step at a time without rushing; teach him to climb the stairs backwards. There are dozens of ways to make a staircase fun, but one of the best parts of a staircase is the railing. If you can find a good railing that has posts on each step or two, you can treat it like the weave poles on an agility course, training your dog to weave in and out as he goes up or down the staircase. You can also do this on a flat surface by using a bike rack that is shaped like a row of “U”s, or the kind shaped like a row of circles.

4. Fire hydrants

Niner stands ontop of a fire hydrant

This can be a great challenge for a dog who is learning to balance on ever-smaller objects — in fact, it is a favorite of one of the bearded collies owned by a trainer friend of mine! While her dog randomly jumped up on one and has been doing it ever since, your dog may need your patience and lots of rewards to accomplish this feat. Try using hydrants that are lower to the ground before you tackle the tall ones!

5. Short walls, planter edges, ramps

Niner walks along a wall

If your dog has mastered balancing and walking on curbs, you might try low walls next. The same tricks that worked on curbs can work here, including turning around and trotting along the wall. Just make sure that your dog can jump up on it and that he can also safely jump down. For example, the ground on the far side of the wall in this photo was much higher so I had my dog jump off on the lower side to avoid any injury from jumping so far onto concrete. While it's fun to see a dog tackle a big obstacle like a fence and make great leaps on and off of things, think of his long-term health (and the vet bill if your dog hurts a leg!).

6. Ledges and cutouts

Niner sits in a small cubbyhole in a building

Once you start looking, you'll find all sorts of places your dog can fit into like windowsills and cubbyholes. Teach him to jump up into these narrow cavities, then sit, stand and even lay down while staying perched.

7. Pillars, tree stumps, and even trees themselves

Niner does a handstand against a tree on a sidewalk

Trees are a great agility tool. While teaching my dog to do handstands, we used trees as something to balance on. You can do the same with your dog. Or maybe teach your dog to go ahead and climb right on up!

Niner sits on top of a low hanging brance of a tree

As the example below shows, you can also use taller pillars once your dog is practiced at balancing and navigating from one pillar to the next. Start off with big wide tree stumps and graduate to narrower stumps or pillars around the neighborhood.

Niner sits on a pillar of a house's front porch

Want more ideas? Watch this quick video I put together of just a few more ways my dog and I use objects found during our walks as urban agility obstacles, including benches, a bike rack, a planter and a ledge. Hopefully it inspires you to get creative!

Urban agility to help behavior problems

Turning walks into an urban agility course can help with a whole list of problems many people have when walking their dogs — problems that make you want to just stay at home. Here are four examples:

Leash pulling: If you have a dog that pulls on the leash, making the walk extremely unpleasant for both of you, turning a walk into a fun obstacle course brings the dog's attention back to you. He'll be looking at you to find out what the next fun trick will be. Suddenly, you are more interesting than anything else on the walk — even smells!

Reactive Rover: Teaching a dog to be fully engaged in a trick helps him to ignore other dogs that pass during walks. If you have a dog that is leash-aggressive or reactive, you can use an urban agility trick like balancing on a bench to distract him and hold his attention when other dogs walk by. The goal is that the dog will be so concentrated on the task and earning a treat that the dog that was once such a big deal becomes background noise.

Ping-Pong Pooch: Maybe your dog doesn't pull on his leash but has that annoying habit of ping-ponging back and forth in front of you, just asking to be tripped over. If your dog is not content with staying on one side of you, give him a reason for switching sides only when you give him the cue and make a game of it. It's all part of urban agility to get the dog on a certain side of you as you approach an obstacle. My dog and I use the word "change." When I say, "Change!" he spins around to my other side. It works to get his attention back on me when he gets distracted, as well as to switch him to the other side of me when we're passing other dogs or traffic.

Fearful Fido: You might have a dog that is afraid of everything — trash cans, bushes, statues. Maybe he is just going through a developmental fear period, where he is figuring out what in his world is safe and what isn't. Or maybe your dog has a serious lack of confidence. That kind of fear sucks the fun right out of walks. But by encouraging your dog to accomplish small tricks on new obstacles, you can help boost his confidence. Suddenly he figures out that objects aren't so scary but perhaps something to interact with to earn treats. The world starts to shift from a scary place to a playground, and walks become more fun.

These changes don't just end with the walk. When your dog recognizes you as not only the source of fun games, but also the leader and rewarder of treats, you'll find that you can overcome other behavior problems inside the home as well as outside.

Before you get started

I fully recommend that before you get started on these creative urban agility walks, you take into account what your dog is physically capable of doing, and what is healthy for him. Make sure you're not asking him to jump too far or from too great a height that might hurt his joints, or to get on perches that are unsteady or dangerous. It's a great idea to take an introduction to agility course from a local trainer to get a good understanding of ways to teach your dog how to do new tricks. And of course, start small. Getting your dog to do little things like put two paws on a curb or put two paws off a curb is all part of the game as well!

And here is your end goal:

Niner asleep on the couch after a long day of urban agility training

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