Fun Agility: Building Confidence in All Dogs

A little over 8 years ago I met my heart dog. The dog who wrapped her anxious self around my heart and challenged me to give her a good life. Whisper is almost nine years old now and still running the fun agility courses, tail high, ears up, brat mode engaged. Fun Agility was key in building her confidence to be the dog she is today.

Whisper and Agility

Still to this day she loves all aspects of Fun Agility, the noises, the elevated walk, and even the teeter. This is how we got here and how agility can make a difference for dogs like her.

Whisper is a northern rescue, a shepherd mix who loves her food, her humans and being in motion. She is super smart and built to run. She came to us a bundle of nerves, stuffed her nose right into the sofa when we got her home. You see, her big brain is always thinking and she is a mix of three dogs breeds created to work (German Shepherd, Husky, Labrador – we think). Agility is her happy place, where she can stretch her legs and her mind. Where we are partners and she is rewarded for her choices and helped through her challenges.

Fun Agility is a wonderful activity for all breeds and their humans. It takes the relationship that you have developed to a whole new level as you teach your dog to try new things and extend your connection off-leash. The dogs learn to navigate the elements of the course and the handler learns to guide them with their voice and their body/hand positions. You really learn how your dog interprets their environment and how your behaviour influences them when there is no leash between you.

Especially for the anxious dog, agility gives them questions to occupy their active minds – where do I take off for this jump, how high, how do I position my body to be ready for the next. To make their choices, the dogs learn to watch their human – where is my human, which direction are they facing, how quickly are they moving.

Both of these activities (observing and choosing) help the dogs to find focus and their ability to think on their feet, all while going up and down and through tunnels of various configurations. They are rewarded for their bravery and for their attention to their human.

The combination of brainwork and physical activity is also why dogs whose humans tell us they can run all day are tired after an hour and ready to go home for a nap.

So what’s the difference between competitive agility and fun agility? A couple of things:

  • The space is not as large so the human does not have to run as much
  • The elements are set lower so there is less stress on the dogs
  • There are no formal competitions, so no stress on the humans – we do engage in some fun little tournaments from time to time
  • The focus is on fun and strengthening the connection with your dog.

First, we learned the course elements. It was quite a while ago so some of the details are a bit blurry, but I do remember a solid “no” from her when she first saw the tunnel. With persistence and lots of rewards, she learned that it was okay. Once she figured it out, it was flat out running fun! Seems like every dog has a preferred element. Whisper’s favourite is the jumps. She loves to fly. Second favourite is the teeter – I think that’s because it’s the last one we learned and so the last one that had dedicated treats.

Whisper and Agility

Then there is the A-frame, the elevated walk, the tire and the table.

The A-frame teaches the dogs to be brave going up to about 4 feet high and going down again. They sometimes hang out a bit at the top to see the world from above. It is sturdy and fairly wide which helps them feel secure. Still, it can be challenging at first to go up so high, so we encourage them with gentle touch and their favourite snacks.

Whisper and Agility

When they conquer it, they gain confidence. For safety, they must touch both yellow areas with at least two paws for us. This becomes very important when they really start to have fun!

The elevated walk is similar – not as high and a thinner walking surface – so it presents a different challenge. The dogs need to be careful where they put their paws. When we start, we have a spotter on the main elevated part to catch them if they falter. Once again, there are two yellow parts that the dogs must touch for safety.

The tire asks the dogs to jump through an elevated circle. It is sturdy and can be a bit intimidating at first. Lots of encouragement and a helper human does the trick.

Whisper and Agility

The table is really simple and sometimes one of the more challenging obstacles because the dogs just need to sit there for a count of five seconds – they need to chill. In the middle of the course and for an anxious dog this can be difficult. It is also of great help to them in slowing their brains down just for a moment as part of the fun.

For Whisper keeping her brain and body in motion has improved her focus and her confidence. Even more important, we have fun as we continue to build a strong positive relationship.

Written by Joanne Plaxton, trainer at The Dog Stop

If you’re looking to build confidence in your dog and strengthen your relationship with them, sign up for Fun Agility today!