4-H dog agility is part of the National 4-H Dog Project, which teaches youth how to develop a better relationship with their dog and life skills. While 4-H dog agility emphasizes the agility and competition aspects of dog training, it provides numerous additional benefits. As youth learn how to care for and train a dog, they gain a sense of responsibility for their dogs and their performance as well as improved confidence and leadership skills.
While they vary by club, some common objectives for 4-H dog agility participants include increasing the youths' knowledge of dogs and dog ownership, enhancing the relationship between dogs and owners and learning positive motivational training techniques for dogs. An additional goal is improving the physical fitness of the handler and dog. The life skills objectives that result from 4-H dog agility are accepting responsibility for oneself and others, improved communication abilities, patience, and empathy and understanding for others. Youth who participate in this program can also be expected to improve their planning and organizational skills, decision-making skills and confidence.
In dog agility, a dog and its handler work as a team to complete an obstacle course quickly and accurately. The handler cues the dog through jumps, tunnels, weave poles and other objects; the dog demonstrates its agility by completing the obstacles as fast as it can, according to the American Kennel Club. The team must complete all the obstacles within a set time. To be successful, the handler must clearly communicate to the dog which obstacle to overcome next, while the dog must pay close attention to its handler to read her cues.
To do dog agility, dogs and handlers must have an excellent foundation in dog obedience. The commands the dog must know are come, sit, stay, down, heel, let's go and a release word. When starting agility training, the handler should help the dog become familiar with the equipment by taking very small steps and using lots of treats for positive reinforcement. Then, the handler and dog must work with each piece of equipment, learning the correct posture, stances and form to ensure speed and safety. In addition, the handler has to learn the correct body language and footwork to cue the dog and ensure that he is able to stay ahead of the dog.
A dog agility course involves a variety of obstacles and jumps. The obstacles may include any of the following: weave poles, a set of poles the dog weaves in and out of; tunnels and chutes, tubelike structures the dog runs through; A-Frame, an A-shaped platform the dog climbs and descends; and dog-walk, a balance beam-like structure the dog runs across. Another common piece of equipment is the teeter-totter, which the dog also runs across. In addition, combinations of the single bar jump, a series of jumps and/or the tire jump are often included in agility courses. Another possible jump is the platform, which the dog must jump on, then hold a sit or stay for a specified time period.
4-H dog agility competition scores are based on faults. Each team starts with a set number of points that reflect the course's difficulty. As the team completes the course, points are deducted for running, handler and time faults. Examples of faults are a dog failing to complete or missing an obstacle, the dog entering the weave poles on the wrong side, or the handler obstructing the dog's progress. As long as the team completes the course in the required time, time is not considered unless there is a tie. However, points may be deducted if the team takes more than the standard time to complete the course. Agility teams can progress to increasingly challenging competition levels as they become more skilled.
Though agility is an active sport, this need not exclude all youth with physical disabilities. Accommodations such as clickers for individuals with hearing impairments can be used. Some individuals can even use crutches for dog agility. Additionally, in-ring assistance can be provided. Also, because agility training involves intensive and prolonged work with a dog, often youth interested in 4-H dog agility will need to own a dog. However, some clubs provide a "lease a dog" program, whereby youth can team with a dog whose owners donate their dog's time to the program. Finally, the dogs should be in good physical condition to participate in an agility program.