Senior Dog Agility

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Physical and mental fitness is important for us as well as our pets. What can we do to exercise our minds and bodies? What regimen is appropriate for our age and health status, as well as that of our dogs? What activity would provide fun together-time? How about senior dog agility?

What is canine agility?

Canine agility is a popular competitive sport that requires cooperation between dog and handler. A specifically designed course containing a variety of obstacles such as tunnels, jumps, teeter-totters, weave poles, and cones is set up. The handler directs the dog through the course with two goals in mind: speed and accuracy.

Courses are physically challenging and they differ, so both dog and handler must think on the spot. Agility courses thus exercise both mind and body. Agility trials can be competitive with serious contenders, but many dogs and their owners run them just for fun and exercise.

How is senior agility different?

Lots of agility dogs are young, but many seniors compete in agility trials or run courses for fun. Organizations like the U.S. Dog Agility Association (USDAA) and the American Kennel Club (AKC) offer modified courses for older runners.

"These modifications are intended to reduce injury and increase safety while still allowing the older dog to exercise and compete."

Senior courses usually differ from general agility runs. Older dogs attempt jumps at a lower height than younger canine athletes. For example, depending on the entry division, a dog that is 20 inches (51 cm) tall at the withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades) would jump a 16–22-inch (40-56 cm) hurdle, while a senior dog of the same height would jump a 12-inch (30 cm) hurdle.

Other obstacles may be similarly modified for the older dog. Agility courses designed for senior dogs may also be shorter. These modifications are intended to reduce injury and increase safety while still allowing the older dog to exercise and compete.

How does agility training benefit senior dogs?

Older pets, like older people, need to stay active. The adage, “use it or lose it” applies here. There are many benefits to agility training.

Fulfills natural canine instincts. We take care of our dog’s needs by providing food and shelter, but those luxuries don’t erase his natural survival instincts. Wild dogs hunt for their food by running through the field or forest, jumping over logs, climbing up slopes, crouching under bushes, and making sharp turns to catch their prey. They must move quickly and nimbly to get their next meal. Agility courses reflect the hunting experience and allow dogs to use their inborn instincts.

Provides exercise for the body and mind. Training and running an agility course helps dogs build and retain strong muscles, increase endurance, maintain a healthy weight, and improve coordination. Since dogs must concentrate on both the course and the handler, they also benefit from mental stimulation. Navigating obstacles also requires exercising brain cells!

Builds relationship between dog and handler. Successful completion of an obstacle course depends on cooperation between dog and handler. Courses are designed so that dogs rely on their owner’s guidance through the use of verbal commands and hand signals. The amazing communication between human and dog builds a trusting relationship. This close bond extends outside the agility course and into daily life.

Develops respectful behavior. Agility dogs perform off-leash in the company of many other dogs and people, so good behavior is a must for performance and safety reasons. Dogs that follow directions during agility training are likely to be obedient off course as well. Agility dogs are mindful and respectful of their surroundings, making them well-behaved in public. They are also alert to situation changes and adjust quickly without being detoured by distractions.

Provides social interaction. Independent agility courses are set up in various dog parks and green spaces for recreational exercise. Meeting other people and their dogs in such a casual setting can be fun. Joining a local agility club will enlarge your circle of friends even further. Sociable people with sociable dogs will love agility gatherings. Shy people with shy dogs can still benefit from independent, solo exercises.

What are some safety principles for agility training in senior pets?

As with any sport or exercise regimen, safety is important, especially for the senior pet. Here are a few tips to keep both dog and human safe during agility work.

Have a physical exam. Before introducing an older dog to a new form of exercise, see your veterinarian for a physical evaluation. It’s important to verify that heart, lungs, muscles, and joints can tolerate the strain of agility training. The point of exercise is to improve health, not cause injury. A veterinary consultation can help design an appropriate work-out routine. In the case of arthritic joints, medical intervention may increase the benefits and decrease the discomfort of exercising.

Start slowly. As with any new exercise plan, a gradual introduction is better than “jumping in the deep end”. Start with short walks on leash. Move on to jogs. Then introduce basic obstacles. Gauge ability and reset activity level as needed, working up to a full agility course. Common sense will help avoid undue fatigue and injury for you and your pet.

Follow pre- and post-workout routines. Warm up and cool down! Warming up muscles and joints helps prevent injury and engage the dog’s focus before entering the agility area. Walk, then jog a bit, to make muscles, tendons, and ligaments more pliable before running the course. After a rigorous work-out, cooling down is equally important. Reverse the warm-up procedure by jogging, then walking to cool down.

Consider the dog’s temperament. Agility trials take place among many bodies, both dog and human, so dogs must be comfortable around both species. Dogs that relish large groups are better suited for agility trials than are shy dogs. Likewise, dogs that enjoy a romp but heed when their owners call them back are good agility contenders. An agility dog must be under the control of his owner all the time. Sit, stay, come, and down are not just words, they are essential safety commands that must be respected regardless of distractions.

Eat and drink. Overall nutrition is important for any dog, but especially for older dogs. As organ function changes and medical problems crop up, dogs need specific diets to meet specific needs. Diet must be designed with overall health and activity level in mind. Hydration is vitally important when exercising. Drinking adequate amounts of water and adding electrolyte supplements will prevent dehydration. Consult your veterinarian about appropriate diet and hydration.

Watch the weather. Older dogs are more susceptible to changes in temperature. Monitor the weather to make sure it’s not too hot or too cold for your canine friend to run an outside agility course.

Gauge your own endurance. While focusing on your dog’s status on the course, don’t lose sight of your own status. If you get over-tired, over-heated, or dehydrated, stop and take a break!

Take your time!

When running an agility course, the faster, the better. But when learning how to run a course, slow is good! Introduce your dog to one obstacle at a time. Master that one before moving on. Start with a simpler task, like a low jump. Once your dog is comfortable with this, tackle another obstacle, perhaps a weave or tunnel.

Keep training sessions short. Dogs have limited attention spans and long sessions can be frustrating for you both. Also, older dogs tire more quickly than younger pups. Try exercising for 10–15 minutes at a time.

Agility training can be demanding but remember that it should also be enjoyable for you and your dog – so keep it fun! Play a little, have a treat, share a hug! And you will both be healthier as a result.

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