Spectator Guide to Agility Competition

by Barb Cunningham
We hope this guide will help you understand and better enjoy the fast-paced sport of agility.

In brief, it’s a sport in which a dog navigates an obstacle course on commands from the handler, on a timed course. Agility training strengthens the bond between dog and handler, and provides fun and exercise for both. Agility competitions are held throughout the United States through several organizations and in many other countries.

You will be welcomed at an agility trial as a spectator, provided that you and anyone with you is considerate and does not interfere with the competition or its participants. Dogs must be on leash. Any spectator - adult, child, or dog - who is NOT well-behaved as judged by the trial organizers, participants, or staff, WILL be asked to leave. Any spectators and dogs must not be a hazard to persons, dogs, or property. Any dog on trial premises must have current vaccinations, and must have current dog's rabies vaccination. Enthusiasts of agility have earned a reputation for being among the most considerate and tidy. Everyone at a trial, whether competitor or spectator, is required to clean up dog waste after their dogs. Please uphold the respectful tradition of leaving the trial site clean.

Before you reach out to pet a dog, it's always a good idea to ask the owner/handler FIRST. This is not a petting zoo; these participants are athletes. Aside from some dogs being not quite as friendly as others, there are other good reasons why owners would prefer you did not pet their dogs. Please, especially be sure your children observe this rule. Please supervise your children at all times.

Feel free to park a chair ringside and observe for any length of time, but please remember to stay back a reasonable distance from the ring itself. If you're not sure you are too close, please ask someone who knows. It is against the rules for spectators to assist or coach the handler/dog team by, for example, yelling out the correct obstacle order from the sidelines. It is also not appropriate to shout the dog's name, since this would distract the dog from the handler's commands. But please feel free to applaud and cheer the dogs on, and show your appreciation at the END of a particularly good or entertaining run.

As you watch the dog and handler teams compete, please understand that it takes a lot of training to get to the point of competition. Although we may enjoy the thrill of competition, what is most important to us is to be doing challenging and fun things with our canine partners. Most of us had to face the unknown at the beginning of competition, with nervousness, maybe fear and anticipation. We are doing this for fun and we cheer even the smallest success. Often there is a dog/handler team that is to be congratulated simply for making it around the course and often such a team goes on to much greater success!

AKC trials are open to any purebred dog that is at least 15 months of age, except bitches in season, dogs suffering from any deformity, injury or illness that may affect the dog's physical or mental performance, or dogs exhibiting any signs of aggression towards people or other dogs. All dogs participating in AKC events must be registered with the American Kennel Club. If your dog is not registered with AKC but is purebred, the AKC has the ILP/PAL program. See the AKC website at www.akc.org for more details.


JUMPS - Most of the jumps are single bar jumps, some with colorful and decorative wings holding up the bars; there are also double- or triple- bar spread hurdle(s), or a tire jump which is a tire-sized hoop suspended in a frame. Each type of jump is set at the proper height for each class, determined by the height of the dog at the withers (shoulders). Dogs must clear the full height of the jump without knocking a bar off.

TUNNELS - There are two types of tunnels: open tunnels which are long, open tubes; and "chutes", which are open at one end and have a collapsed fabric tube at the other. The concept is pretty simple - the dog goes in one end and out the other.

CONTACT OBSTACLES - The contact obstacles, so called because of the yellow contact zones" at each end, consist of the A-frame, the dogwalk, and the teeter (also known as the see-saw). To perform these obstacles correctly, the dog must get at least one paw in each contact zone when they descend the obstacle. On the see-saw and dogwalk both the ascent and descent contacts must be performed. The contact zone rule is for safety considerations - no one wants to see a dog injured during an unsafe performance of an obstacle.

WEAVE POLES - The dog must enter with the first pole to the dog’s left shoulder and “zig-zag” through each pole to the end. They must not miss a pole. This can be the most difficult obstacle to teach, but some dogs are spectacular when they slalom through the poles.

PAUSE TABLE - The dog must land on the table and assume a sit or a down position (based on the judge’s instructions before the class starts) for a count of five seconds. This is more difficult than it might seem, especially when a dog gets going and doesn't really want to take a time out!

THE JUDGE - It is the judge’s responsibility to design and supervise the set-up of the courses and also “referee” the dog's performance and indicate any faults which may occur.

FAULTS - Under AKC rules, faults are indicated by the hand signals a judge gives while a team is on the course. These can include:

REFUSAL/RUN OUT (Closed Fist) - Dog commits to an obstacle and fails to perform the obstacle; dog starts toward an obstacle and then runs around it or turns back on his path; dog passes the plane of the next correct obstacle; regardless of whether the dog sees or is approaching the obstacle.

WRONG COURSE (One Open Hand) - Dog takes an obstacle out of sequence. It is considered one wrong course until the dog returns to the correct obstacle, no matter how many wrong obstacles are taken.

TABLE FAULT (Two fingers or hands in a “T” formation) - Dog jumps on / of the table, with each occurance being faulted. Handler/dog anticipates the table count, causing the dog to leave the table before the judge finishes saying the word “GO”

FAILURE TO PERFORM (Two open hands) - Handler or dog knocks down any obstacle or jump; dog misses contact zone; dog runs the wrong course and course is not correct before crossing the finish line; handler touches an obstacle or their dog (not faulted if the dog touches the handler and the performance is not aided); teeter fly-off.

MANDATORY EXCUSAL (Judge blows whistle) - Dog leaves course and discontinues working; excessive handling, harsh commands or corrections; exceeding the maximum course time; dog fouls the ring; violation of the “four paw safety rule” (dog commits all four paws onto an obstacle, bails, and the handler tries to reattempt the obstacle; bad language / poor sportsmanship; inappropriate collars and/or tags or attachments on the collar. The team must leave the course.

TIME FAULTS - A dog is also assessed time faults for each second that the dog exceeds the Standard Course Time (SCT). The judge is responsible for establishing the SCT.

Judge's Briefing and Walk Thru - When the course for each class has been set up, the handlers gather together for a "judge's briefing" where the judge summarizes how the class is judged. This is pretty standard unless there are special circumstances that the judge wants the handlers to be aware of. The judge will calculate how long, in yards, the course is and using a standard formula, how many seconds they have to complete the course. This is called "Standard Course Time" which will be used to calculate the dog’s score.

Then the handlers may "walk the course". They do this as a group, without their dogs, following the numbers to become familiar with the course. Most handlers try to walk the course as many times as they can in the time alloted, to determine how they are going to handle (navigate) their dog in a particular sequence. You may see handlers during a course walk actually running the course with an imaginary dog, giving the commands as they would during their competing round. Sometimes, handlers gather in little groups and discuss potential problem spots and how they are going to handle them.

Competition - After walking the course, the handlers leave the course and prepare their dogs to run. The dogs run the course individually, off leash and with or without collars. The "timer" will tell the handler when he/she may begin. The electronic timers are set to begin timing when the dog crosses the “eyes” which are set at the first obstacle. As each dog runs, the judge indicates, though the use of hand signals, any faults which are noted on a sheet of paper by a ring steward known as a "scribe." At the completion of the run, the timer tells the scribe what the dog's time was. The information is then conveyed to the "scorekeeper," who calculates the qualifying performances and top placements. Other crew members who help run the trial include: course builders, bar setters/chute straighteners, chief ring steward, gate steward, leash runners, chairperson, and trial secretary.



  • AKC has three different CLASSES of agility

    STANDARD AGILITY CLASS - The purpose of the Standard Agility class is to demonstrate the handler's and dog's ability to perform all of the agility obstacles.

    JUMPERS WITH WEAVES CLASS The goal of the Jumpers with Weaves (JWW) class is to demonstrate the ability of the handler and dog to work as a fast-moving, smooth-functioning team. This class highlights the jumping ability of the dog while testing the handler for effective handling styles while moving at a rapid pace. The course usually consists of jumps and weave poles but may also include tunnels.

    FAST CLASS – FAST (Fifteen And Send Time) Class is the newest class of AKC agility. This class demonstrates the handler’s and dog’s ability to negotiate distance challenges, where the dog must work away from the handler.

    SCORING - In order to earn a qualifying score (known as a “Q”) in agility, the team must earn a minimum score of 85 (out of 100) in the Novice, Open, and Excellent A classes. In the Excellent B class, the dog must earn a perfect 100. In order to earn titles, three “Q’s” must be earned at the respective level (except for the Masters level, where 10 “Q’s” are required.) There are many titles that can be earned in agility, with progressive levels of difficulty!


    NOVICE LEVEL - This is the beginning level of AKC agility. All dogs begin in the Novice class. However, Novice level includes two subcategories based on the handler’s experience in agility: Novice A: Novice A is for handlers who have never earned an agility title on any dog in AKC. Novice B: Novice B is for handlers who have earned an AKC agility title. Time faults for this class are 1 point for each second over standard course time.

    OPEN LEVEL - For dogs and handlers who have earned their Novice title. The goal is to test the handler’s and dog’s ability to perform the obstacles at a faster rate of speed, while performing the obstacles with more directional and distance control, exhibiting obstacle discrimination. The course design should encourage the handler to work the dog from both sides. Time faults for this class are 2 points for each second over standard course time.

    EXCELLENT LEVEL - For dogs and handlers who have earned their Open title. There are two divisions of the Excellent class: Excellent A: Excellent A is also known as the “Excellent” level; dogs in this class are still allowed time faults, but no other faults are permitted. All dogs begin Excellent in the “A” class. Time faults for this class are 3 points for each second over standard course time. Excellent B: Excellent B is for dogs which have earned their Excellent title in the A class. This is the highest level of agility – no faults are allowed for a qualifying score!


    REGULAR DIVISION - Dogs must jump in the height they are measured to run in (or higher, at the discretion of the handler).

    PREFERRED DIVISION - Dogs in the Preferred Division jump 4” lower than their measured jump height (they may not run in a higher jump height in the preferred classes). Dogs are also given an additional five seconds on the standard course time to complete the course.