Guide to Dog Agility Training: Tunnels, Jumps & More

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 9 min read

Guide to Dog Agility Training: Tunnels, Jumps & More

In the past, here on Toe Beans, I've covered training dogs in a bunch of different ways. Check it out:

There's one thing that pretty much all of these have in common, though. Can you guess what it is?

That's right; it's all beginner training. These are the kinds of training you do with a puppy to keep them safe, happy, and groomed. Sure, you can train older dogs that haven't been well-socialized or trained in the past, but it's still basic concepts and entry-level dog training.

What about more advanced kinds of dog training? Sure, there are all sorts of complex tricks you can teach your pup, and watching that furball go through a whole routine at your command can be pretty exciting, but that's not what I'm here for today.

Because, you see, there's a certain kind of pinnacle to dog training. Two, in fact. The peak performance of a pupper can be expressed in one of two ways.

The first is as a working dog. A great example of this is sled dogs. Sled dogs have a job to do, and make no mistake, they love doing that job. They want nothing more in life than to be inside that harness and drag a sled in tandem with their best buddies in all the world. Herding dogs, hunting dogs, and other kinds of working dogs are all the result of a lot of consistent training to do a specific kind of task, usually a task that the dog was bred to love.

The second pinnacle of a trained pooch is a show dog. Dogs that compete in agility contests are some of the most well-trained, excited, lovable, and loving dogs you can find. But agility training isn't easy; there are a bunch of tricks that need to be performed in sequence (and often in a sequence that changes), and it's all about not just doing those tricks but following your lead as you guide them through those tricks.

Of course, you don't need to go all-in to competitive agility performances. Training your pooch on a few agility tricks isn't very hard; it's fun to do, it's a good way to make sure they're disciplined and obedient, and it's an excellent way to tire them out. Plus, agility course props like jumping gates, tunnels, and see-saws can be pretty cheap and easy to set up, move, and store away when you don't want to use them.

Are you interested in agility training? If so, keep reading, and I'll tell you everything I know.

Is Agility Training Right for Your Dog?

Agility training often seems like an exclusive sport for dogs bred for speed, endurance, and, well, agility. You often see border collies, Aussie shepherds, and other similar breeds in competitions. And sure, that's true if you're hoping to reach a competitive level.

The truth is, pretty much any dog can even reach a competitive level in agility, though it's not exactly fair to put a chihuahua up against a mastiff in competition. It's all part of why divisions are important. Your dog doesn't need to be an agility breed or even a pure breed. There are even special competitions just for older dogs, with lower jumps that won't put stress on their joints.

Your dog needs to be physically healthy and obedient enough to obey commands, but that's pretty much it as far as the requirements to get into the sport. Even then, those are the requirements for competing; if all you want to do is get into agility in your backyard, you can do that too, and you don't even need anything special to do it.

A Dog Agility Training Session Image by Toe Beans

Consider getting into agility if:

  • You want a unique and exciting way to get your dog to exercise.
  • You want to give your dog a sense of purpose.
  • You want to strengthen your bond with your dog.
  • You want to build teamwork, trust, and communication with your dog.
  • You want to open the door to social groups and friendships with other trainers.
  • You want to get some exercise of your own, above and beyond simple dog walking.

Dog agility training and performance can be fun, rewarding, and exciting, and if you choose to pursue competitive-level agility, there can even be tangible rewards as well. Who doesn't like a little prize now and then?

Foundational Training for Dog Agility Training

You can't get a new puppy, so bring them to your backyard where a bunch of jumps, hoops, and tunnels are set up, and get started on agility training. There are a bunch of other commands and forms of training you need to do first.

  • Basic obedience. Your dog needs to know at least the basic commands of Sit, Down, Stay, and Come. All of these are critical for managing a dog off their leash, particularly in exciting, high-pressure, and novel environments like competitive arenas or parks where other dogs and people are everywhere.
  • Eye contact. You need your dog to be able to pay attention to you and nothing else because once they get distracted, it's all over.
  • Crate training, especially if you're traveling to competitions and shows, since your doggo will generally need to be in their crate for a lot of the time for their own safety and that of others.

After that, you can start building up intermediate tricks and coordination activities.

Training a Dog Image by Toe Beans

One very useful trick, for example, is nose targeting. Nose targeting is a kind of focus training where you get your pooch to touch their nose to your hand or to a specific target you're holding. When you see dogs running an agility course, and their trainer is running ahead holding their hand out to guide them through obstacles, that's what they're doing; guiding their dog with the hand they want to touch.

Teaching your dog to walk backward is also a good and useful trick. It's great for bodily awareness and can help in training agility tasks if they miss something or get stuck in a tunnel and need to back up.

Tricks to Start With for Building Agility

A Dog Hoop Jumping Image by Toe Beans

Once your dog has a good grasp of being obedient and following your cues through various obstacles, you can train them in additional tricks that can lead up to learning the specific agility obstacles.

There are many different tricks you can try, each with their own levels of difficulty:

Agility Trick Description Difficulty Rating
Tunnels Dogs run through fabric or rigid tunnels. Easy
Pause Tables Dogs must stop and stay on a table for a set period. Easy
Jumps Dogs leap over bars set at varying heights. Medium
A-Frame Dogs climb up and down a steep ramp. Medium
Seesaws (Teeter-Totters) Dogs balance and walk across a pivoting board. Medium
Tire Jump Dogs jump through a suspended tire. Medium
Broad Jump Dogs jump over a series of low, wide obstacles. Medium
Weave Poles Dogs weave in and out of a series of upright poles. Hard
Dog Walk Dogs walk along a raised, narrow plank. Hard
Crossover Dogs navigate to the correct ramp on a raised platform. Hard

The most popular ones to start with are:

  • Hoop jumping. Training your dog to jump through a hoop held close to the ground is a lead-in to training for tire jumps higher off the ground or when combined with other obstacles.
  • Figure-8s. Training your dog to spin in circles in both directions and to weave through your legs, table legs, or other poles in a figure-8 pattern is good training for flexibility and for the pole-weaving tricks commonly seen on agility courses.
  • Simple jumps. Dog agility jumping can be both through hoops and above poles and with varying heights. Jumping is a core competency for agility dogs.

All of this helps you build up towards a robust and full understanding of how to behave when faced with various obstacles on a course, in your backyard, or anywhere else in life.

Getting the Obstacles

There's one thing I haven't touched on yet, and that's the obstacles themselves. If you want to train your fur baby to run through them, you kind of need them, don't you? Well, fortunately, you can set up some pretty decent obstacles with some DIY materials or repurposed children's toys.

Before getting into specific obstacles, one thing to keep in mind is that your course should be customized for your pooch. Older dogs should have lower jumps and more spacing. Tunnels need to be big enough for your dog to get through without getting stuck. Dogs of different sizes need different scales of objectives. If everything is the wrong size, it won't be fun for either of you.

First you have the jumps. Simple gate jumps are poles with adjustable heights that your dog needs to jump and clear without knocking the pole over. Agility sets generally have at least six jumps, and often have more.

The simplest way to set up jumps is with some PVC pipe. PVC is resilient, easy to buy, cut to size, and put together like puzzle pieces with various poles and joints. The main things to keep in mind are that they need to have adjustable heights so you can train different difficulties of jumps and that the bars need to be able to be knocked loose, both as a sign your pooch didn't clear the jump and to prevent them from either knocking over the whole apparatus or hurting themselves running into it. Here's a simple example of a homemade jump gate.

A Dog Jumping Over a Pole Image by Toe Beans

The second kind of obstacle is the tunnel. Tunnels are great because they show your dog doesn't need your guiding hand every second of the course. You can also curve and bend them however you like to make simple S, C, or other bends.

Tunnels can be tricky because when a dog barrels through it at top speed, it risks tearing or breaking, especially if they slip, lose control, and tumble against the side. Fortunately, tunnels are cheap; you can get dog agility tunnels for anywhere from $25 to $250, depending on how long, how much, and what construction the tunnel has. If you're working on a budget, there are also cheaper tunnels made for children to play in that you can repurpose, at least until you've decided you're into agility enough to get more equipment.

A commonly forgotten but also useful obstacle is the pause table. These are raised platforms your dog jumps up onto and, critically, pauses for a moment. It's part of a demonstration of obedience and gives both you and your dog a chance to catch your breath for a second and refocus on the next sequence. You really don't need much for these, just something that is sturdy enough to support your dog's weight and won't wobble or tip over when they jump up onto it.

One of the most iconic obstacles is the weave poles. They're also one of the easiest to set up; all you need are poles and ground soft enough to stick them in. Alternatively, you can build a frame with adjustable spacing to hold poles, but again, you don't even need that until you're sure you want to get deeper into agility.

How to Set Up a Course

This is where things get interesting. Putting it all together! Obviously, you want to start slow. Your dog knows the basics, but you'll want to walk them through how to put each bit together, with course markers to go around, poles to weave through, jumps to make, and so on.

A Dog on an Agility Course Image by Toe Beans

How do you arrange your obstacles? At first, it really comes down to how much space you have to set them all up. There are defined course options, like the Birgitta Hermansson sequence or other more general sequences, but you really don't need to get into anything that well-defined, at least not right away. Just put together a few obstacles, train your dog on how to recognize and go through them, and gradually work on doing it faster and in more complex ways. Change things up, slowly raise jump heights, and you'll be agility-trained in no time!

Setting Your Goals

Finally, the one remaining piece of the puzzle is goals. Broadly, you probably fall into one of three categories.

  1. You just want agility tricks in your repertoire; you don't plan to take it seriously, but think it's fun to have a dog obedient enough to make it through a course you set up.
  2. You want to take agility somewhat seriously and maybe participate in local clubs, but you aren't really going to compete or make it a serious hobby.
  3. You want to go all-out on agility dogs and raise a champion.

Knowing your goal gives you something to work towards and, more importantly, some idea of how seriously you want to take things, how much budget you can dedicate to it, and how much time you want to spend on it.

Successful Dog Agility Training Image by Toe Beans

Agility is a lot of fun, but it's important not to take it too seriously and keep it fun. Hopefully, getting into it will give you a good experience and open the doors to a whole new world of people, dogs, and tricks!

Have you ever attempted dog agility training before? If so, what was your experience like? I'd love to hear all your stories, so be sure to leave those in the comments section!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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