Tearing Up the Course (Part 2): Starting Your Pit Bull in Agility
You've watched it, you've read about agility, and now you're ready to do it. Great! So how do you get your pit bull started in canine agility?
The Right Age
To help prevent joint problems, wait until your pit bull puppy is at least 12-14 months old (i.e., has finished growing) before you start practicing serious jumping and weaving. Young puppies may also lack the coordination to perform some of the contact obstacles safely, and you don't want your pup's first agility experience to involve falling off the Dog Walk.
This doesn't mean, however, that you need to wait until your pit bull is a year old before starting agility training. Contact obstacles can be introduced at six months, and tunnels are appropriate even for 8 week old pups. You can practice a command like "over" with a bar jump low enough for your puppy to walk over, or even by placing a broomstick on the floor between two chairs.
Some training clubs also offer puppy agility classes complete with scaled-down contact obstacles that are easier to maneuver for the little ones.
What if you have an older pit bull? As long as your dog is physically sound--have him checked out by your vet to be certain--it's never too late to get started in agility. These days there are dogs competing well into their senior years.
Keep your older dog trim and fit (agility training will help with that), and observe him carefully to make sure he's having fun and handling the jumps without difficulty.
First Things First
Before you start agility training, your pit bull should learn basic obedience commands such as sit, down, stay, and come. If you plan to compete or take classes, your dog must also be safe around other dogs off-lead and comfortable being handled by different people.
Dogs who've been properly socialized typically take to agility equipment much more easily than those who haven't experienced much of the world beyond their own backyard. Other obedience commands that are very helpful in agility (though not necessary to getting started) include off-lead healing, distance work ("out"), and directions.
Classes or Home Training
Actually this isn't an either/or proposition. Most people who take agility classes also train at home, and while there are many helpful books and videos available to guide you, when you're first starting out, it's a good idea to sign up for some classes.
Once you've mastered the basics, you can either move on to the club's intermediate class, or set up an agility course in your yard and train on your own or with friends.
Choosing an Agility Class
Always ask to observe a class before signing up. Make sure you're comfortable with the instructor's teaching style. Whether or not clickers are used, training should be based entirely on positive reinforcement. Agility is supposed to be fun, and dogs should not be punished for making mistakes. Enthusiasm and energy levels should be high.
Does everyone--dogs and handlers alike--look like they're having a great time? Is the instructor in control of the class, or does she seem overwhelmed? Is the agility equipment--particularly the large contact obstacles--in good condition? How many people are in the class?
More than 10 usually means that you'll be spending a lot of time standing around and observing others.
Home Agility Equipment
Just about everyone getting hooked on agility dreams about having a competition-quality course in their backyard. Unfortunately agility equipment is expensive. Large contact obstacles like the A-frame and Dog Walk can easily cost $600-$1200 a piece.
If you're handy with tools or know someone who is, building your own equipment might be the way to go. Weave poles and various jumps are easy to make using PVC pipe. If you're looking for an inexpensive tunnel for your puppy, try toy stores. While generally not big or sturdy enough for an adult pit bull, these kid's play tunnels can be great for puppies.
Weave poles are the toughest obstacle to learn for dogs, so even if you get no other equipment, you'll definitely want a set of these for home practice. Consider getting a set of adjustable slanted ("weave-a-matic") or channel weave poles designed specifically to make learning easier. AffordableAgility.com has a great deal on both of these ($50-60 for a set of 6 vs. $100s elsewhere).
Warning: Agility can be highly addictive. Before you know it, you'll be building an entire agility course in your backyard and spending every weekend training. Of course your pit bull will thank you for it!
NEXT: Starting to think about agility competitions.