German Shepherds are natural herders. In fact, the reason why this breed was first discovered was…
Dog agility is a canine sport where dogs navigate and complete obstacle courses with direction from their handlers. They compete against other dog-and-handler teams for both time and accuracy.
If you are looking to get into agility training for German Shepherds this ultimate guide will tell you everything you need to know about that sport and how to get started.
*This article may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of the links I get a small commission at no additional cost to you :).
What is Dog Agility Training?
Dog agility training is a companion sport wherein a team composed of a dog and a handler competes with other teams to complete an obstacle course.
It is a fast-paced race, so participating dogs need to have incredible speed. But they are also judged by how accurately they complete each obstacle, so dogs need to have remarkable intelligence.
In the end, this sport exhibits the extraordinary bond between the dogs and their handlers.
The History of Dog Agility
Dog agility began in the United Kingdom, but not as a canine sport but as a form of unique entertainment.
It was through the efforts of John Varley (a committee member of the renowned annual Crufts event) and Peter Meanwell (an accomplished dog trainer) that it was launched as a demonstration of canine abilities during the 1978 Crufts show.
The show was inspired by equestrian jumping competitions and included obstacles that are similar to the ones used today. Spectators were impressed by the demonstration and became interested in engaging their dogs in the activity.
By the following year, kennel clubs were already offering dog agility training and, at the end of that year, the first competition was held at the International Horse Show.
In 1980, The Kennel Club (the UK’s official kennel club) recognized dog agility as an official canine sport and developed documented rules and regulations. The sport was increasingly popular and, in 1983, the Agility Club was born.
From there, it began to spread throughout Europe and across oceans to the United States and Canada.
Agility in the United States and Canada
In Canada, the Agility Dog Association of Canada (ADAC) was formed in 1988. Though it has since changed its name to the Agility Association of Canada (AAC), it is still the country’s most active organization in the sport.
Dog agility is said to have made its way to the United States a few years earlier than Canada.
In the country, it started through the efforts of The National Committee for Dog Agility (NCDA) and the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA). Eventually, NCDA merged with the United Kennel Club (UKC) to form one of the largest national dog agility organizations.
Today, among the most dominant groups in the world of dog agility in the United States includes not only the UKC and the USDAA; but also the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA), the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), the American Kennel Club (AKC), and the UK Agility International (UKI). Each organization has its own rules, competition style, and sanctioned events.
Dog Agility Courses
Different organizations have different rules, but generally, judges design courses and how they should be completed.
According to the American Kennel Club, an area of 100 x 120 feet is the most ideal for dog agility courses. However, they do allow minimum course areas of 5,000 sq.ft. for Novice, 6,500 sq.ft. for Open, and 8,000 sq.ft. for Excellent, Master, and Premier classes.
For all classes, no side must be shorter than 60 feet.
Dog Agility Obstacles
Depending on the sanctioning organization as well as class and the judge for the specific competition, dog agility courses can involve anywhere from 14 to 22 obstacles.
Here are some of the most commonly used obstacles by the AKC:
Two panels sloping from the floor and joined together at the top to form an “A” shape. Participating dogs need to go up one side of the panel and go down the other. As they complete the obstacle, they must touch the contact zone located at the end of the panel.
- Dog Walk
Similar to the A-Frame but has a center section that’s level and parallel to the ground. Dogs need to go up one side of the ramp, cross the center, and go down the other side. Again, they must touch the contact zone located at the end of the down panel.
Just like any other seesaw, this is a plank supported at the center by a fulcrum. It touches the ground on one side where the dog ascends the obstacle.
Then, the dog walks across, allowing its weight to shift the seesaw to the other side. The dog descends and exits the obstacle, being careful to touch the contact zone in the process.
- Pause Table
A light-colored raised platform where the participating dog must stay for a period of 5 seconds. The dog may remain in any position for as long as all paws or on the platform.
- Open Tunnel
A flexible tube that’s usually formed into a curve so that dogs can’t immediately see the other side. They need to enter a specific side, run through the tunnel, and go out the other end.
- Weave Poles
Poles made of flexible PVC are planted upright into the ground. The poles are spaced 24 inches apart, and the number of poles depends on the judge’s design.
Dogs must begin by passing the first pole on their right side and then the second pole on their left side. They continue to alternate between sides to weave through all the poles.
If they break the sequence, they repeat the course. Typically, only 3 attempts are allowed.
- Bar Jumps
A horizontal bar held up by vertical supports on either side. The height of the bar will depend on the height division. From the side specified by the judge, the dog must jump over the bar without knocking it over.
- Panel Jump
Six boards are arranged on top of each other to create a solid wall. It differs from the bar jump because dogs can’t see the other side before they jump. To complete the obstacle, they need to jump over the top panel without knocking it over.
- Double Bar Jump
Two jump bars are arranged one after the other to prompt a longer jump. The height of the bars depends on the height division, but the distance between the two bars is half of the jump height. Dogs need to jump over both bars in one jump.
- Ascending Double Bar Jump
Similar to the double bar jump, but the bars are arranged in ascending heights. Dogs need to go over both bars in one jump, without knocking any of them over.
- Triple Bar Jump
Three jump bars are arranged in ascending heights. The distance between each bar is half of the jump height. Starting from the side of the lowest bar, dogs need to go over all three bars in one jump without knocking any of them over.
- Tire Jump
An actual tire, or any other object that serves as a ring. It is made of two segments and hangs from a rectangular frame. Dogs need to jump through the tire without separating the segments or knocking over the frame.
- Broad Jump
In between four corner markers, up to four 8-inch sections are arranged to prompt a long jump distance.
Each section is slightly taller than the previous one, and the number of 8-inch panels required for each jump depends on the height division. In one jump, dogs need to clear the entire distance without stepping on or moving any of the sections.
- Wall Jump
Two pillars and a base hold up four boards to create a wall. Atop the wall are 2-inch tall “tops” that are easily displaced. In one jump, dogs need to clear the wall without displacing any of the tops.
Agility Course Walk-Through
Every competition is different, and dogs will not be able to practice on the actual course before their turn to compete. However, handlers are allowed to walk through the course before the competition begins.
The amount of time allowed for the walk-through depends on the rules of each organization, but it generally lasts between 5 and 25 minutes.
During this short span of time, the handler must strategize how they will direct their dog through each of the obstacles as well as how they will position themselves along the way.
Once they’re done with the walk-through, they wait with their dog for their turn to run the course.
Dog Agility Scoring
A qualifying run is one where the competing dog completes the course within the allotted time, and with an acceptable number of points and faults. It is these qualifying runs that serve as credits for agility titles.
Different organizations have different rules about what constitutes a fault. Generally, points are deducted from dogs who go over the specified course time.
For AKC-sanctioned events, dogs are also penalized for the following faults:
|Refusal||When a dog starts and obstacle but either stops moving completely or turns away.||R (-5 points)|
|Refused Weave||When a dog enters the weave poles obstacle incorrectly, misses the sequence, or misses poles entirely.|
|Run-outs||When a dog misses an obstacle and has to turn back to complete it.|
|Wrong Course||When a dog enters an obstacle that wasn’t meant to be next on the required sequence.||W (-5 points)|
|Pause Table Faults||When a dog leaves the table prior to the 5-second count and the judge’s signal to proceed.||T (-5 points)|
|Outside Assistance||When someone helps out the dog or the handler during the course in order to improve their performance.||F (NQ)|
|Lead Out Advantage||When handlers don’t follow specific rules pertaining to how they should prepare the dog to start, remove the lead, and cross the start line.||E (NQ)|
*NQ = Non-qualifying, where the run will not be credited towards a title.
There are two types of faults that lead to a non-qualifying run. These include Mandatory Elimination and Mandatory Excusals.
Mandatory Elimination (F)
Faults that result in a non-qualifying score, but teams are still allowed to continue their run. These faults might include the following:
- Dog or handler displaces, breaks apart, or knocks over bars or other obstacles.
- Missing contact zones.
- Flying off seesaws.
- Not completing the entire course.
- Running the course in the wrong sequence without correction.
- Handler touching any part of the course or dog.
- Going beyond the prescribed limits for refusals and wrong courses.
Mandatory Excusals (E)
Faults that also result in a non-qualifying score, but teams aren’t allowed to continue their run and must leave the ring. These faults might include the following:
- Handler uses harsh commands and corrections, or handles the dog excessively.
- Handler displays unsportsmanlike conduct.
- Dog leaves the ring, is out of control, or is unresponsive to commands.
- Going beyond the maximum allowable course time.
- Dog urinates, defecates, or vomits, inside the ring.
- Dog has on an inappropriate collar (only flat buckles and rolled leather collars with no hanging tags are allowed)
- Handler uses handling aids like whistles, toys, and treats.
Eligibility for Dog Agility Competitions
Dog agility is generally an inclusive sport without too many requirements. To compete in AKC-sanctioned events, dogs must be at least 15 months old, in good health, and current on the required vaccinations.
To participate in dog agility, dogs must be assigned to a height division. This will determine the required heights for their jumps in all their trials.
To determine their height division, dogs are measured from the withers and then assigned to the appropriate division. Handlers may choose to enter their dog in a higher height division, but not at a lower one.
|Dog Height at Withers||Height Division|
|11 inches and under||8 inches|
|12 to 14 inches||12 inches|
|15 to 18 inches||16 inches|
|19 to 22 inches||20 inches|
|Over 22 inches||24 inches|
|22 inches and under||24 inch - Choice|
Dog Agility Titles
Dog agility titles differ per organization. For the AKC, titling starts with the Agility Course Test.
Agility Course Test
The AKC’s Agility Course Test (ACT) is an event that’s meant to introduce dogs and their handlers to the sport. There are two events: the ACT1 and the ACT2.
The first is intended to hone performance and sequencing skills, while the second is meant to hone skills in performing different obstacles.
By completing these courses, dogs will earn ACT1 and ACT2 titles, respectively.
For all other classes, titles are gained through qualifying runs. Once earned, the suffixes – or prefixes in the case of the most prestigious titles — are appended to the dog’s name.
For suffixes with numbers, titles start with the base suffix and then increasing number is appended based on the number of times they have earned the title.
Here are the titles gained for different classes:
Standard Agility Titles
|MX||Master Agility Excellent|
|MXB#||Master Bronze Agility|
|MXS#||Master Silver Agility|
|MXG#||Master Gold Agility|
|MXC#||Master Century Agility|
|PAD||Premier Agility Dog|
|PDS#||Premier Agility Dog Silver|
|PDG#||Premier Agility Dog Gold|
|PDC#||Premier Agility Dog Century|
|PDB#||Premier Agility Dog Bronze|
Jumpers with Weaves (JWW) Titles
|NAJ||Novice Agility Jumper|
|OAJ||Open Agility Jumper|
|AXJ||Excellent Agility Jumper|
|MXJ||Master Excellent Jumper|
|MJB#||Master Bronze Jumper|
|MJS#||Master Silver Jumper|
|MJG#||Master Gold Jumper|
|MJC#||Master Century Jumper|
|PJD||Premier Jumpers Dog|
|PJS#||Premier Jumpers Dog Silver|
|PJG#||Premier Jumpers Dog Gold|
|PJC#||Premier Jumpers Dog Century|
|PJB#||Premier Jumpers Dog Bronze|
Fifteen and Send Time (FAST) Titles
|NF||Agility FAST Novice|
|OF||Agility FAST Open|
|XF||Agility FAST Excellent|
|MXF||Agility Master FAST Excellent|
|MFB#||Master Bronze FAST|
|MFS#||Master Silver FAST|
|MFG#||Master Gold FAST|
|MFC#||Master Century FAST|
|FTC#||Agility FAST Century|
Time 2 Beat Title
|T2B||Time 2 Beat|
|TQX#||Triple Q Excellent|
|NAC||National Agility Champion|
|MACH||Master Agility Champion|
|AGCH||Agility Grand Champion|
Preferred Agility Classes
AKC’s Preferred Agility track allows dogs with special needs to compete and earn titles as well.
The classes and titles are similar to but separate from the regular dog agility courses, but this makes the canine sport more inclusive.
This track allows dogs to jump at heights lower than they would be required to on the regular classes. They are also given five additional seconds to complete each course.
Preferred Agility Standard Titles
|NAP||Novice Agility Preferred|
|OAP||Open Agility Preferred|
|EXP||Excellent Agility Preferred|
|MXP||Master Agility Excellent Preferred|
|MXPB#||Master Bronze Agility Preferred|
|MXPS#||Master Silver Agility Preferred|
|MXPG#||Master Gold Agility Preferred|
|MXPC#||Master Century Agility Preferred|
|PADP||Premier Agility Dog Preferred|
|PDSP#||Premier Agility Dog Silver Preferred|
|PDGP#||Premier Agility Dog Gold Preferred|
|PDCP#||Premier Agility Dog Century Preferred|
|PDBP#||Premier Agility Dog Bronze Preferred|
Preferred Agility Jumpers with Weaves (JWW) Titles
|NJP||Novice Agility Jumper Preferred|
|OJP||Open Agility Jumper Preferred|
|AJP||Excellent Agility Jumper Preferred|
|MJP||Master Excellent Jumper Preferred|
|MJPB#||Master Bronze Jumper Preferred|
|MJPS#||Master Silver Jumper Preferred|
|MJPG#||Master Gold Jumper Preferred|
|MJCP#||Master Century Jumper Preferred|
|PJDP||Premier Jumpers Dog Preferred|
|PJSP#||Premier Jumpers Dog Silver Preferred|
|PJGP#||Premier Jumpers Dog Gold Preferred|
|PJCP#||Premier Jumpers Dog Century Preferred|
|PJBP#||Premier Jumpers Dog Bronze Preferred|
Preferred Agility Fifteen and Send Time (FAST) Titles
|NFP||Agility FAST Novice Preferred|
|OFP||Agility FAST Open Preferred|
|XFP||Agility FAST Excellent Preferred|
|MFP||Agility Master FAST Excellent Preferred|
|MFPB#||Master Bronze FAST Preferred|
|MFPS#||Master Silver FAST Preferred|
|MFPG#||Master Gold FAST Preferred|
|MFPC#||Master Century FAST Preferred|
Preferred Agility Time 2 Beat Title
As with the regular track, Preferred Agility has only one title for Time 2 Beat.
|T2BP#||Time 2 Beat Preferred|
Preferred Agility Multi Titles
|TQXP#||Triple Q Excellent Preferred|
|PAX||Preferred Agility Excellent|
|PNAC||Preferred National Agility Champion|
|PACH||Preferred Agility Champion|
The AKC also has Juniors in Companion Events, which are events for handlers between ages 9 and 18. It’s a great way to start out young, especially in dog agility.
Plus, competing in Juniors leads to most of the same titles as the regular events.
Agility Training For German Shepherds
German Shepherds can definitely compete in agility training and can perform very well.
Agility is quite inclusive, so your German Shepherd is definitely welcome either through the regular or preferred track. But, whether it is a sport they will excel at and enjoy will vary from dog to dog.
If you’re interested in agility training, you first need to evaluate your dog’s activity level, temperament, and drive. Since agility is a fast-paced sport, your dog needs to be energetic and excel in both speed and endurance.
Also, do they like being around other people and other dogs? Are they eager to please and driven to follow your commands?
These are all qualities you should be looking for to determine whether or not your GSD will excel and enjoy agility training.
Is Agility Training Right for You?
The decision to take up agility training should not just be about your dog.
Understand that the training, as well as the competitions, are just as much about you as they are about your GSD. The two of you will be a team, and so you also need to evaluate whether you are cut out for it.
Firstly, you need to be just as energetic as your pup.
Though you won’t be running at full speed as they would, you’d still need to be incredibly active. Plus, you need to have the patience to teach your dog how to get through the common obstacles. If you’re going to take the sport seriously, you’ll also need plenty of time to dedicate to dog agility training.
Apart from your own ability and temperament, you’ll also need to have access to an agility course.
It would be a great advantage if you had space in your own yard to set up dog agility training equipment. That way, you could practice on your own time and pace, and really help your dog master the obstacles.
If you believe your German Shepherd is perfect for agility training but you aren’t, you can always look into getting a handler or trainer for them. However, you’ll miss out on the incredible bond you’ll form by engaging in such a sport together.
How to Start Agility Training
As with any other canine sport, taking a beginner class is the best way to get started. At your first class, you’ll be able to determine whether your dog will be a good fit.
You’ll go through all the basics and get them to try some of the common obstacles. Observe their behavior and see if it’s something you both can enjoy.
Choosing a Dog Agility Club
If you end up deciding to continue on with the sport, it might be time to join a club.
Joining a dog agility club will give you access to information, mentors, classes, and events. It is in these clubs where you will also meet new friends who are also engaged in the sport.
Deciding on which dog agility club to join could be difficult. First, you need to decide on which sanctioning organization you prefer. Generally, USDAA and NADAC are those that emphasize speed, while UKC and AKC place prime importance on control and obedience.
You’ll also need to decide whether you want to join an exclusive German Shepherd Dog Agility Club, or if you prefer to participate with dogs of multiple breeds. Either way, there will be many choices for you.
Nevertheless, possibly the most practical way to decide is to choose the one that’s most accessible to you. The easier it is for you to attend events, the more active you’ll be.
Here are a few useful links to help you find the best club for you:
How to Excel at Dog Agility
No matter how talented your dog is, the only way to excel at dog agility is to dedicate plenty of time to practice.
Some of the best dog-and-handler teams have their own dog agility equipment at home, so they can spend plenty of time training and mastering the obstacles. Spending plenty of time to practice at home will also strengthen your bond and even help you communicate better.
Although using a home agility course to practice is excellent for strengthening your bond and mastering the courses, you should also take the time to practice in dog agility parks and other publicly accessible courses.
That will not only give you more variety to practice in, but it will also challenge the focus of your dog and your ability to control them. If you both perform well no matter where you are, you can be confident about your performance in competitions.
Dog Agility Equipment for Your Home
Different obstacles will require different equipment. If you’re just starting out, it’s best to have at least a tunnel, a jump bar, and weave poles.
The Dog Obstacle Agility Training Kit by Pawhut is a good option because it gets you started with an open tunnel, an adjustable jump bar, a few weaving poles, and a pause box.
Or, if you prefer to buy the agility equipment separately, check out Pawise’s Dog Agility Equipment.
They have equipment for weave poles (Slalom Set), tire jumps (Jumping Ring), and bar jumps (Hurdle).
For open tunnels, the 18-foot dog tunnel by Houseables is an excellent option.
It has a 2-foot opening, so it’s great even for German Shepherds and other large breeds.
There’s no greater way to improve your bond with your beloved dog than to have a purpose and sense of achievement together.
Whether you’re in it for fun or the titles, dog agility training will definitely help you form an incredible relationship. As a bonus, you’ll be able to meet and make friends with like-minded people and their own dogs.