Double Q Swissies
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Agility Info

Six year-old Burley negotiates the weave poles in record time, with three paws off the ground. Several conditions contribute to his longevity in this sport:
  • Weight control
  • No jumping or spine-twisting weave poles until one year of age
  • Start them young with pre-agility equipment and exercises
  • Keep it positive--use treats and toys
  • Don't over-train; one class per week and exercises at home a few times in-between is plenty
  • Warm up your dog before using equipment
Sample AKC Standard Courses
Novice     1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Open        1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Excellent  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
At the 2008 Eukanuba Invitational, Burley demonstrates good jumping technique for a large breed dog. Strong hindquarters allow him to pole vault over this 24" double jump with ease. His determination, drive and body condition allow him to be competitive at seven years of age.

Take time to teach your large breed dog how to jump--you want them to pole vault and arc over jumps as opposed to jumping flat.  Flat jumpers have to take off and land farther from the jump than is necessary. It causes bars to come down and unnecessary strain on their body.
Sample AKC Jumpers Courses
Novice    1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Open       1, 2, 3
Excellent 1, 2, 345, 6

Sample AKC FAST Courses
Novice    1    
Open       1, 2
Excellent 1
Agility Links
American Kennel Club
United States Dog Agility Association
Canine Performance Events
North American Dog Agility Council
United Kennel Club
Australian Shepherd Club of America Agility
Googility  a new website packed with tons of agility links
Clean Run agility magazine
Weave pole article--Ann Croft details why 24" weave poles are better for our dogs
Remembering a Course article--Susan Garrett explains how she memorizes courses
To see another kind of agility, click HERE

Running with the Big Dogs
By September Morn
First published: Clean Run, September 2006

Everyone realizes toy breeds have certain size- and weight- related issues in agility, and these are taken into account by the competition venues. The American Kennel Club (AKC), for example, requires teeters to be balanced so that a 3 lb. weight will tip the plank to the ground within 3 seconds, allowing even tiny dogs to operate teeters. Dogs under 17" even have their own Teacup Dog Agility Association (TDAA), with sized-down obstacles and shorter courses. So far, however, no such size-related competitions or equipment standards exist for big and tall dogs.

No complaints, it's great little dogs are receiving their just due. But people, especially training instructors and big-dog owners, need to realize that tall, heavy dogs also have height- and weight-related issues in agility.

Equipment Safety
Whether it's your own equipment, your club's, or the walk-through at a trial, check obstacles to be sure they're safe and sturdy before running with your big dog. Make sure the table is supported at all four corners, so it doesn't tip or flip when your big dog hits it at full speed. Check that the A-frame, teeter, and dogwalk won't rock if your big dog's approach isn't perfectly straight.

If, during a trial walk-through, you notice an obstacle seems wobbly or unsafe, immediately report it to the chief course-builder. A good way to solve the problem of shaky or under-supported obstacles at trials is to volunteer as a course-builder. You'll be able to check all the obstacles and fix any that aren't solid enough.

Many dogwalks, especially older ones and homebuilt models, weren't engineered with big dogs in mind. If the horizontal plank isn't strongly supported, it may flex dangerously under a heavy dog's weight. If a dog walk is too bouncy, wedging an adjustable steel cargo bar under the horizontal plank for support can be a temporary fix. Cargo bars, designed to span the bed of pickup trucks to brace partial loads, are sold at auto supply outlets, usually for under $20. If you have a heavy dog, pack a cargo bar with your other trial-going equipment in case it's needed.

Tunnels also should be checked. Make sure the straps used to stake the tunnel down are placed over a rib, not between ribs, so they won't decrease the tunnel opening to less than regulation size. It's challenging enough for tall dogs to duck through tunnels without making it even more difficult by constricting the tunnel's diameter.
Training Tips for Big Dogs  

Hunching down to fit through tunnels slows tall dogs on the course and creates extra muscle stress. A medium-sized dog can run through a tunnel in under 2 seconds, but a tall dog may need twice that time. If there are several tunnels on a course, some tall dogs can't make course time.

If your tall dog is slow on tunnels, keep the reward level high when practicing to keep him motivated, and don't ask for too many repetitions. Alternate tunnel work with opportunities to perform obstacles the dog prefers.

Collars on tall dogs can be a problem in tunnels. Liz Ulen, an instructor at Pawsitive Partners Dog Training Center, Indianapolis, Indiana, suggests all dogs run without collars when tunnels are on course: "In a tunnel, their withers and neck are their highest point. Even if they're ducking through, the collar can rub annoyingly or catch on the tunnel ribs."

Some handlers use practice tunnels that aren't regulation size and may be a problem for your big dog. Polly Odom, Agility Training Director for Louisiana Capital City Obedience Club, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had a play tunnel set up one day for a Papillon she was training, when suddenly her 28" Standard Poodle, Tibeau, decided it was his turn: "I suddenly had a tunnel scooting across the yard powered by a now-headless Poodle. I thought it was caught on his collar, but it turned out it was his bony shoulders." This might have frightened some dogs, but didn't faze Tibeau. Odom says, "Fortunately, Poodles are known for their sense of humor. Too bad I didn't have a camera handy, I could have sent it in to America's Funniest Home Videos."

Big and tall dogs have extra body length, which presents challenges with weave poles. A large dog's body may be engaged with four poles at a time, which requires a lot of spinal flexibility and some extra tolerance for pressure from the poles against shoulders, sides and hips. Odom says, "Getting those long bodies and legs around three or four poles at once makes top speed difficult. Tibeau would sometimes get tangled trying to get through the weaves at speed. You could see his frustration; he'd be actually fighting and clawing his way through."

Luring him thorugh at first can help a big dog learn the weaving motion. Hold the lure low enough to keep his head below the top of the poles, this way the dog can learn how the weaves should feel and get accustomed to the motion and rhythm. Luring can also help a dog avoid overly wide "macaroni" turns that make it hard for big dogs to avoid skipping poles.
If your tall dog naturally jumps with a flat arc, work on teaching him how to also jump with a more rounded style, so he'll be able to take multiple jumps spaced minimum distance apart on a course. Odom suggests also teaching tall, long-striding dogs to wrap around jumps, so they learn to turn more tightly after landing.
Contact Performance                      
Two-on/two-off may be the hardest position for big dogs, due to the sudden stop at the bottom and the concave curve the position puts in the dog's spine. With small-to-medium dogs, the rear feet are fairly close to the bottom of the obstacle, so the reverse curve may not be a problem. But the longer body of the large dog places rear feet higher, exaggerating the angle and increasing the reverse spinal curve. If you choose two-on/two-off for your big dog, teach a lowered head position to reduce the angle and put less strain on the dog's back and neck. One-rear-toe-on allows a more horizontal position for the dog's spine, as three paws are on flat ground while one rear paw remains touching the contact. This position may be less stressful on a large dog's spine than two-on/two-off, but depending on how the dog performs it, there may be a forceful jolt to the shoulders when the dog stops in this position.

Running or moving contact performance eliminates the jolting stop at the bottom and allows the dog's spine to remain in natural alignment. Many handlers are now teaching this contact method for those reasons, especially on the steep A-frame. The main drawback of running or moving contact performance with big dogs is the possiblity the dog's stride may carry him over the contact zone without touching it. If you choose a moving contact, teach a lowered head position as the dog descends the obstacle. This decreases the possibility of leaping the contact.

Various types of stride-regulators can be useful for teaching big dogs to adjust their stride length to hit the contact zones. Some trainers place tunnels or hoops close to both ends of contact obstacles to keep the dog's head lower and prevent leaping over contact zones. Low jumps before and after contact obstacles also help dogs learn to regulate stride length. Some handlers teach a verbal cue, such as Easy or Touch, to remind the dog to hit the contacts, and some handlers cue using body English, leaning back slightly as the dog approaches down contacts. Many people train using targets on contact zones to teach a paw or nose touch.

Big dogs need good balance and hind-end awareness to safely negotiate dogwalks and teeters. To encourage careful placement of rear feet, try first walking, then trotting, your dog over ladders or hoops on the ground. Pivots and lateral side passes improve rear-end awareness, too. Perch work, where the dog keeps front paws on a sturdy raised surface and circles it with rear paws on the ground, is also useful.

Big dogs need to be lined up straight with the dogwalk before running onto it. Ulen notes, "When you think of the mass a heavy, tall dog has to manage on the dogwalk, it's more like a high-wire act. Their high center of gravity, coupled with speed, makes for an easy fall if they come on at much of an angle."

My 25" 105-pound Rottweiler, Blue, has been bucked off a couple of bouncy dogwalks, from a combination of weight and speed. Teaching him to slow down has helped, because the horizontal plank flexes less under his weight at a walk or slow trot. Reserving his most favorite rewards for dogwalk training has increased his motivation, but he still doesn't trust unfamiliar dogwalks.

Brenna Fender, of Tampa, Florida, has a 30" 80-plus-pound Doberman, Hogan.  At Hogan's first trial, the dogwalk happened to be unsteady. He spent so much time frozen on it that he went well over course time. After more work, Fender entered him in another trial: "This time he was so frightened that another exhibitor had to help me lift him off the dogwalk." Following that, Fender trained some more, sometimes helping Hogan when he'd freeze by moving each of his feet in turn. He gained confidence and they started practinging on dogwalks other than Fender's own. In time, Hogan could do the one at home and two at different training sites.
When Ulen started doing agility, contacts were taught at full height from the beginning: "Thank goodness we now start low and build up." Starting low lets the dog learn the obstacle and practice hitting the contact zone without bail-offs or injuries. Ulen suggests that if you prefer a stationary contact performance on the A-frame, teach one-rear-toe-on or four-on-the-floor for less stress on joints than the two-on/two-off position.

Judith Lascola of South Carolina, runs a 32" great Dane, Greta. Lascola notes that dogs the size of Danes can't really do two-on/two-off at speed on the A-frame: "The dogs don't like to slam their shoulders and will very quickly learn to bail right above the contact zone." She initially taught Greta two-on/two-off contacts, but has since retrained her to do moving contacts.
A table that is 3' on each side has a corner-to-corner diagonal of about 4'. If the course calls for a sit on the table, most any dog can fit, but for a down, big dogs need room. Lack of space on the table can cause big dogs to lie down slowly, wasting precious seconds, or to shift around, sometimes breaking position, and stopping the count. Lascola recommends teaching the dog to find the diagonal before lying down: "I retaught the table after Greta fell backward off it a few times. Even on the diagonal she's sometimes hanging onto the edge with her toenails. Her down on the table is still pretty slow, but if she rushes she could slip off. If I'd taught her to find the diagonal to start with, she'd probaby be a whole lot faster."
Handling Tips                          
Turns and Timing
Big dogs have a longer stride than smaller dogs and need more space to turn. Learn to choose a path that's easier on your big dog's body instead of always going for the fastest, shortest path that might suit a smaller dog. Odom notes, "These aren't Border Collies--they can't stop or turn on a dime. Be prepared to train for battleship turns."

A big dog needs to know a turn is coming as early as possible, especially if he'll need to change direction immediately after a jump or obstacle. Even a slightly late cue can cause a big dog to wrench his body too hard, trying to respond in time.

Lascola notes that she makes a point of letting Greta know where she'll need to go three to four obstacles ahead, so the dog can collect herself and change leads if necessary. She says that if Greta doesn't feel she's getting the information she needs, she'll slow way down rather than risk crashing a jump from being on the wrong lead.

Front crosses can be tricky with heavy, long-striding dogs. Lascola learned through experience to avoid front crosses at the down side of the A-frame: "A 100-plus pound dog has a lot of momentum. If you're late or the dog isn't expecting a front cross, not only are you going to NQ, [but] you're [also] going to get squished." In one run Lascola cut across the course to the A-frame, positioning herself to remind Greta to hit the down contact. She came over the A-frame at full-speed, and Lascola says, "I could tell by the look on her face that, not only was she going to miss the contact, but I was [also] going to get plowed. I ducked as she flew over my head."

It's hard to get ahead of a fast-moving big dog, so learn to direct from behind and from the side. Instead of relying on front crosses, try layering and use rear crosses when possible. Also work on reliable independent contact performance. With these skills, you and your big dog can substantially reduce your course times and increase your Qs and placements.

Agility is a challenging sport, and includes special challenges for big and tall dogs. Realize your big dog isn't going to perform the same way a small- or medium-sized dog would, and allow for that. As long as your dog works happily and has been given a foundation that takes advantage of this strengths and teaches safe obstacle performance, size won't prevent him from succeeding in competition. Running with the big dogs can be fun!
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