If you have a fearful or anxious dog, you might think competitive dog sports are out of the question. After all, if unfamiliar people, dogs, and/or environments overwhelm your dog, how can you train him to participate, let alone compete, successfully? However, when it comes to agility, the very process of training might be just what your dog needs to help overcome his anxiety.
In the sport of agility, a dog and his handler complete an obstacle course. The dog tackles a fun array of obstacles, such as jumps and a seesaw (teeter-totter), in the order the handler dictates, all while racing against the clock. It requires teamwork between the dog and handler, focus, and self-control. Facing the obstacles also requires confidence. And for a fearful dog, the benefits of training these behaviors and building these personality traits are endless.
During an agility trial, a dog must look to his handler to know which obstacle to approach and in what order. In addition, the dog and handler run beside one another and coordinate their movements around the course, with the dog reading the handler’s body language and cues. To be successful, the dog must focus on his handler’s instructions, and the two must work as a team.
The focus and trust fostered in agility training will help an anxious dog off the course, as well. If he is looking at his owner, he can’t be looking at the other people or dogs that make him nervous. What he is paying attention to is most likely what he is thinking about, so the more he looks at his owner, the less he will be overwhelmed by the world around him. And if he trusts that his owner has things under control, he will have less to worry about.
Self-control is another quality encouraged in agility training. While running a course, a dog can’t simply tackle his favorite obstacle first. He needs to proceed in the sequence set out by the handler. In addition, some obstacles, such as the Dog Walk -- a long, narrow elevated platform, and the seesaw have contact zones that the dog must touch with at least one paw to ensure he is entering and exiting the obstacle safely. This requires teaching the dog to control his excitement and slow down enough to make the contact. This self-control training is beneficial for anxious dogs because it helps them manage their emotions and think a situation through, rather than act on impulse.
The obstacles on an agility course present a new experience for dogs, and some of them can be scary, such as the A-frame, a tall up-and-down ramp. The seesaw not only moves, but also makes a loud bang when it drops, presenting two challenges. Learning to conquer new and frightening obstacles such as these builds confidence and teaches a dog he can tackle anything. Once your anxious dog realizes he can master these unusual situations, everyday events that were once frightening may become less of a concern.
The structure of a well-taught and positive agility class is suited to fearful dogs. In a beginner class, dogs will be introduced to the obstacles at their own pace, not pushed into a situation they don’t feel comfortable with. It can take quite some time for an anxious dog to conquer the obstacles, but if he decides on his own that he’s ready, it will be far more beneficial for his self-confidence. Dogs also work the obstacles one dog at a time, so your nervous dog can train independently and focus on you and the training exercise rather than being too distracted by the other students.
There are so many advantages to teaching your anxious dog agility skills, from building his confidence to helping him focus on you instead of the world around him. But it requires patience and persistence. While the bold and adventurous dogs in the class move at a faster pace and speed through the tunnel that your nervous Nellie won’t even enter, remember your true goal -- to ease your dog’s fears. The two of you may never step into the ring for competition, but because of your training, your dog will be happier and more confident, and your bond will strengthen. And you never know, your anxious dog might blossom into a champion.