Canine Athletes Soar!

by Susan E. Davis, PT

Masters Agility 101, Canine Athletes Soar!


Canine agility in an international dog sport originating in 1978 where a handler or trainer directs a dog through a course made up of obstacles and jumps. Courses are fairly complicated and often change, requiring human direction.

At the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, agility is a Masters-only event, open to dogs with Master Agility Champion (MACH) titles, having achieved 750 or more champion points in its career. For the 2017 show there are 330 canine entries, both pure and mixed breeds. The most entered breeds are: 1. Border collie, followed by 2. Shetland sheepdog, 3. Papillion and 4.Golden Retriever.

There are 5 classes of agility, based on size of vertical jump. Classes are assigned based on canine height division, determined by the dog’s height at its withers. The smallest class is 8 inch: for dogs 11 inches or less at the withers. Examples of this size dog include the Papillion, Pomeranian, French bulldog, Havanese and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. The next class is 12 inch, for dogs 14 inches or less at the withers, such as the Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

The third class, being quite popular, is 16 inch, for dogs 18 inches or less at the withers, such as Border Collies. The fourth class, 20 inch, is for dogs 22 inches or less at the withers, such as larger Border Collies and most Golden Retrievers. Finally is the largest class of 24 inches, for dogs greater than 22 inches at the withers such as Dobermans, Standard Poodles, Rottweilers, and Alaskan Malamutes.

Courses are set up with 20 obstacles and jump apparatus on a surface of grass, dirt or rubber matting. Westminster uses a green rubber carpet matting on the floors. Obstacles include the teeter (similar to a see saw), A frame, tunnels and chutes, table top platforms and weave poles. Jumps include vertical hurdles ranging from single, double, winged (which narrows the jump space) and wingless, tires, and horizontal broad jumps. In August 2016, the AKC suspended use of collapsible chutes for safety reasons, replacing it with non-collapsing tunnels.

Dog’s agility course runs are scored by speed, measured by an electronic clock timer, and quality based on dexterity and accuracy. In terms of quality, the goal is to have a ‘clean run’, free of faults. Faults consist of turns not being tight, lack of solid contact with a weight bearing obstacle, making accidental contact with hurdle, going off-course, or having a run-out (running past an obstacle or jump). Weave pole obstacles have many rules regarding entry, and whether the dog’s front limbs moving symmetrically together, or separately in an alternate, reciprocal pattern.

The 10 dogs with the highest combined scores from each of the 5 classes move on to the Championship round, consisting of 50 finalists. The Championship round is a different course, designed as a ‘time to beat’ style. The scores of the first place winners from each class are then recalculated and an overall winner is awarded the Champion title. There is also an award for the Highest Scoring Mixed All American Breed in the agility trial.

The Masters Agility Champion First Place winner for 2017 at Westminster was Trick, a Border Collie handled by Mr. John Nys, with an overall time of 32.65 seconds. The First Place All American Dog winner was Crush (appearing to be a Blue Heeler mix), handled by Aryn Hervel, with an overall time of 34.87 seconds.

Beyond the ultimate goal of fast clean winning runs, is that of keeping injury free. Similar to human athletes, agility dogs must be very fit and well-trained. Trainers and handlers should also be on constant lookout for signs of fatigue or overuse syndrome, and ensure injury-free performances. Injuries in the agility sport may occur from trauma such as slips, twists and falls, or strained muscles and tendons, inflamed joints, and sprained ligaments. The following measures are used by owners, handlers, veterinarians, physical therapists and chiropractors, to prevent and treat injury in agility and other dog performance sports:

  1. Stretching, to obtain the correct length of muscles and tendons, and joint range of motion exercises. Key muscles such as the psoas, latissimus dorsi, hamstrings and the Achilles tendon, have a length-tension relationship relating to maximal firing of spindles within their fibers. An overstretched muscle will not fire effectively, nor one having too much tightness or short length.
  2. Cardiovascular conditioning: running, tracking, fast walking, on grass and concrete, 3-4 days per week.
  3. Cross training: on alternating days to regular cardio, to avoid repetitive overuse symptoms. This includes swimming, treadmill, running on varying contact surfaces: sand, dirt, hills and trails.
  4. Sports specific drills: weaving through poles, hi stepping over cavaletti rails, going up and down on ramps or varying heights and incline, hurdles, focus training on quick turns, directional changes
  5. Balance exercises on wobble boards, air filled discs
  6. Nutrition and hydration
  7. Visual Attention and Hearing response training
  8. Targeted Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (AssisiLoop™), Cold Laser, Massage, and other modalities to reduce inflammation and speed the healing process
  9. Acupuncture, Reiki, Chiropractic care

Agility is a thrilling sport for canines, handlers, trainers, and spectators alike! Come to the Westminster Dog Show next year to enjoy the 5th Annual Masters event and be sure to watch re-caps of this year’s event on Fox Sports 1.


Copyright Susan E Davis, 2/13/17