Competition Agility


Who can compete in Agility?

Agility is run in teams of one dog, one handler. Generally, the handler is the owner of the dog, and many sanctioning organizations do not allow “professional” trainers to to compete in agility trials.


Most healthy dogs, of any breed or size, are eligible to compete in sanctioned agility events through the various organizations. The requirements vary by organization, but the basics are:

  • The dog must be registered with the sanctioning organization.
  • The dog must be physically sound – blindness, deafness, and physical impairments interfering with functional movement may disqualify a dog from eligibility, but check with each organization for details.
  • The dog must be at least 15 months (AKC) to 18 months (USDAA, NADAC) old.
  • No females in heat may compete.
  • The dog must be well-behaved enough to be off-leash around other dogs and people. Dogs who attack the judge or others will be disqualified and may eventually be banned from competing altogether.

Dogs of any size, pedigree (ancestry), or nationality can compete. (TDAA does have a height limit of 17” or shorter). THE AKC NOW ALLOWS MIXED BREED DOGS TO COMPETE IN AGILITY!!! YAY!!! Mixed breed dogs often turn out to be the strongest competitors, so get your rescue out there running agility.

Different Dogs, Different Standards

All agility organizations set different standards for different types of dogs. Those dogs that are similar in size and experience compete against each other and are provided limits in heights (jumps, etc.) and times appropriate for their class.


Dogs are measured in height at their shoulders (withers), then divided into height groups. For example, dogs measuring 12” to 16” in height might compete with jumps at 16” high…a difficult and dangerous task for a teacup dog!


In addition to height classes, the dogs are further divided by their level of experience. Every organization has established experience classes such as Novice, Intermediate, and Master levels. A dog and handler team will need a certain number of qualifying runs at each level before moving up.


Agility competitions do not separate by breed. AKC now allows mixed breed dogs to compete as well.

Agility Trials – How They Work

Agility trials are run in a similar manner to any other athletic competition. The hosting organization is usually an affiliate of one of the governing bodies (AKC, UKC), such as a local breed club and the like. They advertise the event on the governing body’s website and in other agility-related publications. The handler must register to compete and in some cases registration is allowed up to the day of the trial.

The trial judge is responsible for the course design – he or she designs the course and the sanctioning organization approves the design. Each sanctioning body has its own rules about how far apart the obstacles must be, how many turns are allowed or required, which obstacles must be present, and the like. The Chief Builder and Ring Stewards do the actual layout and building of the course.

Once it is in place, the judge checks the course and measures the distance between obstacles and the overall distance of the course to ensure it meets the approved specifications of the original design. Any necessary adjustments will be made when the judge walks the course. Most organizations intend that the same run never be used in more than one trial, though a few organizations do allow judges to select from previously used courses.

On the day of competition, the check-in packet will typically include a numbered armband, a course map, and any other information you will need to compete that day. You and the other handlers will meet with the judge for a briefing – an overview of how the course (and your class in particular) will be judged. There will be time allotted for you to walk the course, without your dog, to figure out the best course of action to finish the trial with speed and accuracy. In most cases, there will be ten or fifteen minutes allowed for this, so you will have time to run the course several times to identify the best route and potential challenges. The more experience you have in running agility trials, the easier, and more important, walking the course will become.

The dogs run the course without leashes or collars (for safety reasons), nor is the handler allowed any physical contact with the dog. When it is your turn to run, the judge will tell you when to start. Once your dog crosses the start line, the Timer will start the stopwatch. Time stops when any part of your dog crosses the finish line. There is also a Scribe who documents any faults in the run when signaled by the judge. After the run, the scribe records the time (from the Timer) on the run sheet as well. A Runner takes the completed run sheet to the score tent for final calculations.

Different organizations compile the results in different ways. Some require electronic or computerized scorekeeping, others provide standard handwritten scoresheets. Once all the dogs in a particular height group, level, and class have run, the score table compares run times, faults and any other requirements to determine placement and qualifying scores. The results are then generally posted at the scorekeeper’s tent. Each ring is likely to run several classes during a day of competition, so the entire process from setup through briefings through scoring is repeated several times.

Each dog and handler team is given one opportunity to complete the agility course. You and your dog are competing both against the other dogs in your class AND to achieve individual achievements. Your goal at every trial is to achieve a “clean run” – one with no faults and within the organization’s set time limit. Accumulating clean runs allows your dog to move up through the competitive levels of the agility organization, eventually competing to become an agility champion.

Course Map & Walkthrough

The hosting organization provides all competitors with a course map showing the layout of the obstacles on the course. You can use this map to figure out the most logical route for both you and your dog – one that flows logically for the dog and keeps you within sight of your dog to provide guidance. It is very common for agility courses to cross back over themselves and require quick 90°, 180°, or even 270° turns for both you and your dog.

Course Map

Course maps, which are usually posted or provided to agility trial participants, provide the competitors a first look at the course they will be running. Generally, the course numbers are clearly marked and the obstacles are identifiable by clear icons. The more experience you have with agility trials the easier it will be to read a course map, see the challenging areas, and strategize the best route for you and your dog.

Walking the Course

Because each course is different, handlers are allowed a short walk-through before the competition starts. During this time, all handlers competing in a particular class can walk or run around the course without their dogs, determining how they can best position themselves and guide their dogs to get the most accurate and rapid path around the numbered obstacles. The handler tends to run a path much different from the dog’s path, so the handler can sometimes spend quite a bit of time planning for what is usually a quick run.

Stuff You Need for Agility Trials

  • Pop-up canopy or screenroom awning tents for shade
  • Crate, exercise pen, or dog tent for your dog to rest, out of the sun, between runs
  • Plenty of water & treats
  • Reflective cloths to cover the crate and reduce sun exposure
  • Camera to catch the action!

Agility Scoring – Clean Runs & Agility Judging

Each agility sanctioning organization has its own regulations regarding clean runs, faults, and the requirements for agility titles. A qualifying run requires that you and your dog meet the established limits for time, faults, points, and the like. A “clean run” requires no faults and a time that is under the organization’s established minimum. Be sure to be clear on the organization’s standards before you compete…typically this information will be provided during the briefing with the judge.

To gain an agility title for your dog, you will need a specific number of qualifying runs, or legs. Generally, these qualifying runs are accumulated over time and through many different sanctioned events. The AKC and other organizations require two clean runs in one day to achieve the champion agility status.


Different sanctioning organizations set different values on faults. In general, the following errors are considered faults:

Time Fault: Going over the standard course time (SCT) set by the judge.

Missed Contact: Contact obstacles require the dog to place a paw in the contact zone on both the ascent and descent of the obstacle. Failure to make contact is a common error, especially coming off the obstacle too early and jumping over the contact zone, called a flyoff.

Dropped Bar: Dropping a bar or panel when going over a jump is another common fault.

Weave Pole Fault: The weave poles are generally the toughest obstacle to master, especially at high speed. A fault will be recorded if the dog enters from the wrong side (must enter with the pole on the left of the dog), skipping poles, or backweaving (attempting to correct missed poles).

Off Course: Skipping an obstacle on a numbered course or completing them out of order results in an off course fault.

Refusal: A refusal fault occurs when the dog approaches an obstacle and balks by turning away or otherwise refusing to complete the obstacle.

Runout: If the dog runs past the assigned obstacle, a runout fault is recorded.

Handling: A handling fault is recorded if the handler touches the dog or an obstacle. Generally, the touch must be deliberate, but some organizations count the fault even if the contact is accidental.

Training in the Ring: Most organizations have rules against training in the ring during agility trials. That is, any action taken by the handler that appears to be for training purposes rather than intended to complete the course correctly. A few organizations do allow training, to the extent that they will allow the team to complete the course and perhaps even post a score, but most disqualify the team and many require the team to leave the ring immediately. The judge makes the call on whether an action is considered training or not, and their say is final. The theory here is that competing dogs should be trained already, thus the competition ring is not the place to do that. An example of blatant training would be to have your dog repeat an obstacle that has already been completed to improve his or her performance on that obstacle.

Pause Fault: The dog leaving the pause table or area before the judges count.

Miscellaneous Faults: There are always a number of additional potential faults, depending on the organization. These typically include the dog biting the judge or handler, the dog relieving himself/herself in the ring, the dog leaving the ring during the run, the dog wearing a collar (if disallowed), the handler carrying toys or treats in the ring, and the like. Unsportsmanlike conduct is not allowed – yelling at the dog or overly harsh handling can result in the judge blowing the whistle and stopping your run. Be sure to review the sanctioning organization’s rules and regulations prior to your agility trial.

The Lingo of Agility

Like any other specialty activity, dog agility has its own vocabulary. Your first time at an agility trial can feel like visiting a foreign land where they speak a language that you took for two years in high school – you will understand bits and pieces, but the point will fly right over your head! Here is a short glossary to get you started in understanding what everyone is talking about:

  • Canopy: Pop-up tent-like that many competitors take to outdoor trials to provide shade between runs.
  • Catalog: The published list of Exhibitors for a given Agility Trial.
  • Crating Area: An area designated for competitors to set up your crate, chairs, etc. for the day.
  • Chairperson: Volunteer at an agility trial who is responsible for ensuring that the event takes place, usually a ranking member of the hosting club. Also called the show manager.
  • Chief Course Builder: Volunteer at an agility trial who is responsible for setting up the agility course according to the course map, with the appropriate distances between the obstacles, etc. Usually has a few volunteers as course builders to assist.
  • Chief Ring Steward: Volunteer at an agility trial who is responsible for finding and assigning workers (volunteers) to staff the trial. These positions include the timer, scribe, and pole setters. Also called the ring manager.
  •  SCT: The Standard Course Time is the time to beat for the run. The SCT is calculated by measuring the course in yards, and dividing the result by the yards-per-second requirement for the class (which is specified in the rules).
  • Dog Show: Any form of canine competition – conformation, agility trial, etc.
  • Exhibitor: Competitor are referred to as exhibitors by most sanctioning organizations.
  • Four-Paw Rule: In some trials, if a dog puts all four paws on a contact obstacle and then jumps off, the handler will be asked to go on to the next obstacle. The intent is safety – at that time, your dog is deemed not ready to do that obstacle.
  • Fun Match:  A low-key practice event run by a local agility club – formatted the same as a trial, but without timers or judges.
  • Games:  Courses that are NOT Standard Agility; e.g., Jumpers, Snooker, Gamblers, Pairs. Some don’t use all of the obstacles, and the rules and strategy are quite different from Standard.
  • Leg: Another name for a Q, but in NADAC you can get half-legs or half-Qs (5 points toward a title).
  • Performance Class: A category in USDAA that allows dogs to compete at lower jump heights.
  • Performance Event:  Any non-conformation event, including agility, dock diving, herding, lure-coursing, tracking, etc.
  • Placement: Finishing position relative to the other dogs in your class for a given event.
  • Pole Setters: Volunteer at an agility trial who ensure that jump bars are reset when they are knocked off and change jump heights for dogs of different sizes.
  • Premium: The documentation provided to competitors at an agility trial, describes the specific competition, summarizes the rules, describes the trial site, and includes an entry form. Sometimes called the schedule.
  • Q: or Qualifying Run, is a term for a successful official run at an agility trial, within the time and course requirements set by the sanctioning organization. As in “Baxter earned his first Q in jumpers today!” Qs are accumulated toward earning Agility Titles. Some organizations require a clean run to earn a Q, others allow partial Qs with nearly clean runs.
  • Ring Manager: Volunteer at an agility trial who is responsible for finding and assigning workers (volunteers) to staff the trial. These positions include the timer, scribe, and pole setters. Also called the ring chief ring steward.
  • Ring Stewards: Volunteer at an agility trial who is in charge of all the volunteers. and makes sure they are all in their places prior to the start of the class
  • Schedule: The documentation provided to competitors at an agility trial, describes the specific competition, summarizes the rules, describes the trial site, and includes an entry form. Sometimes called the premium.
  • Scribe: Volunteer at an agility trial who records the judges calls as the dog runs his or her class.
  • Secretary: Volunteer at an agility trial who is responsible for providing competitors with the show premium or schedule, receiving completed entry forms, sending out running orders, producing running-order lists, and compiling the results at the trial, and forwarding those results to the sanctioning organization.
  • Show Dog: Any dog that exhibits in Conformation or Performance Events. A particularly useful term if a hotel clerk ever gives you any grief about your dog…”But he’s a show dog” can be more effective than you might think!
  • Show Manager: Volunteer at an agility trial who is responsible for ensuring that the event takes place, usually a ranking member of the hosting club. Also called the chairperson.
  • Show n’ Go: The AKC name for a Fun Match. Many are open non-registered and mixed-breed dogs, in contrast to most AKC events.
  • Standard or Regular Agility:  A traditional agility course, incorporating all obstacles the organization uses.
  • Timer: Volunteer that records the dog’s running time at an agility trial.
  • Titles: The rewards for accumulating Qs. Standard Agility Titles are awarded in all organizations at all levels; Games Titles are awarded at all levels in NADAC, but in Masters only in USDAA.
  • Trial:  A competitive event sanctioned by one of the established agility organizations.

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