What makes a good agility dog?

Do you want to start out in agility training with your pup, but are unsure if he is the right dog for the job?

The good news is that every healthy and fit dog can enjoy agility. Of course, some breeds such as Border Collies will be faster and more agile than others. But athleticism is not the only trait of a great agility dog. Let’s discover what makes a good agility dog!

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husky in agility

How can I tell if my dog will be a great agility dog?

A number of different factors contribute to a dog’s success in the agility ring. From physical traits over work ethic to temperament, a good agility dog has several different traits.

Healthy weight and overall fitness

Agility is not a sport that you should start with a dog that is not in shape. If your dog is overweight, carries a few pounds too many or starts panting during a short walk, you should first get him to a healthy weight. As dogs are running, jumping and turning in agility, a lot of strain is put onto their muscles and joints. Every pound too many is going to increase the chances that your dog will get injured!

You should never start agility with the goal of making your dog fitter. Rather, get your dog in shape first and then start agility training with a dog that already is lean and trim. In addition to feeding your dog a bit less, try to incorporate daily walks (and eventually jogging) into your routine. If your dog likes other dogs, having him play with them is a great way to provide him with social interaction and exercise!

Strong nerves and a good temperament

While it is possible to do agility with reactive dogs, visiting training classes will be a lot easier if your dog is well-socialized and not aggressive towards other dogs or people. If your dog is not scared of new places and not sensitive towards sounds, he can easily be a good agility dog.

Some dogs are scared of heights – making training the dogwalk a challenge. While it can be done even with a scared dog, if your pup is not afraid of being up high he is likely to do great in agility right from the start.

heeling dog
collie and owner

Handler focus and work ethic

The dogs that are the best agility dogs have a strong work ethic and are naturally focused on their handler. While every puppy will be distracted at some point in training, as an adult your dog should be able to pay attention to you for longer periods of time.

Some independent breeds such as different kinds of Huskies are not the best at focusing on their owner and following cues. These dogs most like to run and be free and have their own fun! However, it is possible to train them in agility with a lot of patience and rewards.

The Top 5 agility dog breeds

The breeds that make the best agility dogs and are found most often in competitions are mostly herding dogs. This comes at no surprise – these dogs are very athletic and have intense focus on their owner. However, they are not always the ones with the strongest nerves. 

If you own a herding breed and wish to train your dog in agility, make sure to expose him to plenty of different places, sounds and sights when he is young. That way he will develop a bomb-proof temperament and strong nerves.

black and white border collie

Border Collies

Border Collies are the absolute #1 when it comes to agility breeds. No other breed participates in as many agility competitions, both in North America and the rest of the world.

Border Collies have become so popular in agility that some breeders are breeding specific “sport Border Collies”. These differ from the herding and show lines. They are typically a bit smaller, very lean, have long legs and a shorter back. They most commonly are black and white, however red and white Border Collies as well as merle Border Collies are popular in dog agility as well.

Make sure to never pick a Border Collie just because he has a rare color though – temperament and disposition, as well as health is much more important!

Australian Shepherds

Similar to the Border Collie on first glance, Australian Shepherds are quite different in their temperament and behavior (for more details, see our article Australian Shepherds vs Border Collies). 

They are a bit more “physical” than Border Collies, known to play very rough and enjoy body slamming. When Aussies are excited in agility, they often knock bars or even bite the handler in excitement. It is important to teach an Australian Shepherd a strong foundation so that he will succeed on the course.

australian shepherd
sheltie

Shelties

For owners that like smaller pups, Shelties are great agility dogs! If you get a Sheltie, you better have a high tolerance for barking – because these dogs don’t have many waking moments in which they do not bark. They are very attached to their owners. Shelties’ coats require a lot of grooming and maintenance. If owners are unsure how to manage it, using a professional groomer is the way to go.

Shelties have the tendency to become quite reactive on leash or towards sounds. A lot of positive exposure during their puppyhood is crucial for making them well-adjusted companions.

Papillons

Basically a pocket-sized Border Collie, Papillons are tiny but mighty. They can be incredibly athletic and run very fast. While they might seem like a lap dog, many Papillons flourish once they have “a job” and can practice agility regularly. In any national and international competition, the small category is dominated by these little dogs.

papillon good at agility
australian cattle dog

Australian Cattle Dog

Another herding dog concludes our list. The Australian Cattle Dog (also called Heeler) is a great agility dog. Strong, with a lot of power and endurance, this breed will not quit on you no matter how often you want to repeat a course!

Similar to the Australian Shepherd, Heelers have a tendency to become mouthy when overly excited. They can nip at the feet of their owners when they are frustrated or just “for fun”. It is important to teach them very clearly what their job is on the agility field: navigating obstacles, not biting the owner.

Can mixed breeds be good agility dogs?

Absolutely! A dog does not need to have the potential to become a national champion in order to enjoy agility with his handler. As long as your mixed breed is healthy and fit, you can start agility training at any time. 

Some mixed breeds have even won the Westminster Agility Championship, such as the rescue dog Roo in 2014. Agility is all about having a dog connect with his owner and having a good time, and any dog regardless of pedigree will love to do that!

What dogs are not good for agility?

Any dog that is overweight or injured should not start agility training. You also do not want to start jumping training with a young puppy.

Senior dogs are not the best choice for an agility dog – they are not athletic enough anymore. They often have joint pains that will get worse through repetitive exercise. It is not fair to subject them to the physical requirements of agility training.

Some very heavy breeds or breeds that are not athletic at all should not start agility training. If you own a Basset Hound or Tibetian Mastiff, your dog will probably enjoy another sport such as nosework more than agility training.

The Bottom Line

The most important traits of a good agility dog are good health and physical shape, strong nerves and focus on the handler. Of course, all of these can be improved on with some training – so you should not hesitate to start agility even if your dog is lacking in one or more areas.

Herding dogs are traditionally used the most for agility competitions. This does not mean that other dogs won’t have fun though – most breeds and mixes will enjoy the new sport with their owner. In fact, if you are just starting out in dog sports, you might do better with a medium drive dog, rather than an extremely high-strung sport line Border Collie. Their intense work ethic often comes with “side effects” – such as the tendency to engage in obsessive behaviors like staring at lights for hours or chasing their own tail out of boredom.

If you have a senior dog, a dog that is overweight or injured – you should hold off on the training. As agility is a very physical sport, a dog that is not in good shape won’t be a good agility dog and could even get hurt during training! Make sure that your dog is at a healthy weight and in good physical shape to begin with.