Just about any dog can enjoy agility in some capacity, but there are certainly some dogs that are a cut above.
Whether you’re looking to compete across the country or just enjoy some training in the backyard, getting the right dog for the game will make your life much easier.
What to Look for in an Agility Dog
Agility is about more than just speed. Of course, having a fast dog is important in competition, but if speed was all that mattered, you’d expect more Greyhounds winning agility competitions, right?
When you’re looking for an agility partner, breed isn’t everything. Breed traits (like speed or ease of trainability) are certainly passed on through genetics, but just purchasing a Border Collie won’t automatically rocket you into agility championships.
In fact, many mixed breeds excel at agility!
As you peruse puppies and dogs searching for your agility partner, keep in mind:
- Intelligence. Having a smart dog just makes a lot of things easier. These quick-witted pooches can make you feel like they are reading your mind, not to mention agility training is a lot more fun when your dog picks up on new skills quickly and easily.
- Trainability. Not all smart dogs are trainable, and not all trainable dogs are smart. “Trainability” generally is a combination of intelligence, focus, and drive – the dog needs to want what you have (drive), the ability to pay attention (focus), and the ability to understand what you’re asking (intelligence).
- Focus on You. Some dogs just are not as naturally interested in their owners. This makes your job as a trainer harder because you’ve got to do more work to keep your dog’s focus. In contrast, some dogs are naturally very “handler focused” and in tune with their owner’s movements and patterns. This makes working together as a team much easier!
- Emotional Stability. Shyness and over-excitability are common with agility dogs. This can really hurt their focus and confidence in training or lead to them getting overly excited in competition and ignoring their handlers. Unless you’re a skilled trainer, it’s best to start your agility career with a dog that doesn’t have confidence issues, over-arousal issues, or other emotional and behavioral instabilities.
- Drive. Plenty of smart, focused, trainable, stable dogs just don’t make it as great agility dogs. What they lack is called “drive” by many trainers. Drive is essentially a dog’s baseline level of motivation for a toy or food. Dogs with “high drive” come with a prepackaged ball obsession or chowhound mentality. This makes them easier to train and motivate (but harder to live with sometimes). Of course, you can build up your dog’s desire to play or eat over time, but it’s often easier to start with a dog that will already work hard to earn his treats or toys.
- Body Structure. This is arguably one of the most important aspects of a good agility partner. Dogs with odd gaits, bad hips, or splayed elbows may find agility painful and are likely to be much slower than a well-structured dog. The ideal structure for each breed differs, but you’re generally looking for a well-muscled dog with a smooth, even gait at a variety of speeds. The legs should look straight from the front or back and the shoulders shouldn’t cave in or poke out ahead of the chest. A breeder or trainer can help you evaluate a dog’s structure in detail.
You can work with a dog to improve most of these traits – but it’s easier to start with the deck stacked in your favor.
The Best Dog Breeds For Agility
Keeping all of the above traits in mind, it’s absolutely true that specific breeds are more likely to have the traits you need for a good agility dog.
No matter how much training you do and how much drive your dog has, you’re not likely to find a Pug that can outpace the average Sheltie – and no matter how fast they are, most Greyhounds simply can’t keep up with the smarts of an Australian Shepherd.
Genetics influence your dog’s behavioral traits, and breed is often one of the best places to start when looking for a specific “type” of dog.
1. Border Collie
There’s a lot of reasons that these whip-smart workhorses dominate on the agility course. Bred for off-leash obedience and learning complicated patterns to herd sheep, the Border Collie has transferred almost seamlessly to being the go-to agility companion.
Standout Traits: The complete package: speed, intelligence, drive, trainability.
Off-Course Behavior: This breed can be too “go-go-go” for many owners (my Border Collie frequently falls asleep with his toys and wakes me up with toys in my face, even if he went on a 20-mile hike that same day).
They can be barky, pushy with toys, and creative in finding new “jobs” (like emptying the trash or rearranging the insides of your pillows) if you’re not keeping them busy enough. They can also be a bit shy with new things.
But if you’re dedicated to training and exercising them, they are a true joy to work with. I don’t know if I’ll ever own another breed after getting my first Border Collie in 2017.
Common Health Problems: Generally a healthy breed, Border Collies nonetheless can suffer from eye and joint issues, especially as they age. A genetic anomaly can also make many Border Collies allergic to Ivermectin, the active ingredient in many flea and tick medicines.
2. Australian Shepherds
A bit bigger and goofier than Border Collies, Australian Shepherds have a lot going for them as agility companions.
They’re similarly bred for learning complex herding behaviors, listening to their owners in distracting scenarios, and working all day on the farm. They’re also, in my opinion, one of the most photogenic dog breeds out there. Most Australian Shepherd mixes tend to be gorgeous as well!
However, when their tails are docked (as is common at a young age in the U.S.), they often lose out on balance and speed compared to Border Collies.
Standout Traits: Intelligent, happy-go-lucky workhorses. Generally a bit more outgoing than Border Collies with dogs and people.
Off-Course Behavior: Australian Shepherds are lovers of stimulation and adventure, making them a bit too high-energy for some owners. They can be quite boisterous and clingy, following their owners everywhere and barking at just about everything.
But unlike Border Collies, Aussies are generally known for being wiggly and friendly with others. They still aren’t as stranger-loving a most Retrievers, but they’re not quite as reserved as some other herding breeds.
Common Health Problems: Merle Aussies, especially “Double Merle” Aussies, are prone to serious health problems. Deafness and blindness are unfortunately common in these blue-eyed or white-faced Aussies. Otherwise, this is generally a hardy breed.
3. Shetland Sheepdog
The smallest herding dog that we’ll discuss today, the Sheltie is shockingly fast and intense for such a small, fluffy package.
While they aren’t always as fast as a Jack Russell at a sprint, Shelties are one of the smartest and most trainable small breeds out there. They’re excellent agility companions for people who are happy to compete in smaller height classes.
Standout Traits: Arguably the most handler-focused of the small breeds, very smart.
Off-Course Behavior: There’s no way around it: Shelties are barkers. They are also prone towards nervousness and anxiety (that’s a strong trend for most herding breeds), especially if under-exercised and understimulated.
Common Health Problems: Shelties are prone to eye issues, including Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), Corneal Dystrophy, and Collie Eye Anomaly. They are also susceptible to epilepsy and heart issues.
4. Golden Retriever
Is there anything that Goldens can’t do? Surprisingly fast for their size, Golden Retrievers often make appearances at the highest levels of agility competitions.
They love learning and
Standout Traits: Friendly and loving, yet very work-oriented and smart when given a task.
Off-Course Behavior: Goldens are big lovebugs and workaholics. Most love people and dogs of all sorts, but also need far more exercise and mental stimulation than people expect. They are somewhat prone to resource guarding.
Common Health Problems: A shocking 60% of Golden Retrievers die of cancer. Like many other large breeds, they’re prone to hip and elbow dysplasia. Overall, this breed has seen a dramatic decline in healthiness in the last 30 years.
5. Jack Russell Terrier
Spunky and athletic, the Jack Russell Terrier (and its close cousins, the Parson Terrier and Russell Terrier) always makes a strong showing in the small-dog class of agility.
While terriers can be a bit headstrong, they love to work and do very well with motivational training methods. They’re also smarter than they let on sometimes!
Standout Traits: A low-slung body and innate musculature make the Jack Russell a natural fit for fast and furious agility competition.
Off-Course Behavior: Like most terriers, Jack Russells enjoy digging, adventuring, and destroying things. To be pleasant roommates, they often require a skilled trainer. They can also be “snarky” with other dogs in many cases.
Common Health Problems: Legg-Perthes Disease, a hip joint disease, is common in this breed. Jack Russells and Jack Russell mixes may also suffer from inherited eye problems and deafness.
6. Cocker Spaniel
Don’t be fooled by the ultra-cute face of this little dog. Cocker Spaniels are tough, smart, and fast on the agility course. While it can be a bit tricky to keep Cockers slim (so keep an eye on your Cocker Spaniel’s diet), they’re excellent, small-ish agility dogs that are easy to live with off-course.
Standout Traits: Spunky and cheerful, Cocker Spaniels are fantastic companion dogs that are fun to work with on and off the field.
Off-Course Behavior: Loveable and playful, Cocker Spaniels may be the easiest of the agility dogs to live with. That said, they’re still highly energetic and adventurous. Don’t be fooled by their small size and cute face!
Common Health Problems: Unfortunately, Cocker Spaniels are not a very healthy breed. There are a host of eye issues common with the breed (Progressive Retinal Atrophy, cataracts, and entropion are just a few), as well as issues with knees, elbows, and hips. As always, going with a reputable breeder who does thorough health testing can protect your future dog from these risks.
Another small and fluffy cutie, Papillons are astonishingly smart and fast. Some trainers swear that their Papillons are just as smart, trainable, and driven as any Border Collie.
Standout Traits: Spunky, smart, and fast, these little dogs are enthusiastic training buddies that are surprisingly athletic.
Off-Course Behavior: Loveable and friendly, most Papillons thrive on human contact. They enjoy the same outdoor adventuring that the big dogs thrive on, but can require extra post-hike grooming thanks to the long coat.
Common Health Problems: Generally healthy, Papillons are nonetheless susceptible to patella luxation (slipping kneecaps) and are genetically prone to a fontanelle soft spot on their skull. Heart and eye issues may also be a problem, especially if a breeder isn’t careful to test the parents before breeding them.
These dogs are fast. Bred for racing and lure coursing, running is what whippets do best. They tend to be more handler-oriented (and easily trainable) than some other sighthound breeds, but still can be a bit trickier to train than your average herding dog.
Many Whippet owners love that their Whippets easily relax and chill out at home, unlike many other agility dogs that are go-go-go all the time.
Standout Traits: Lightning fast, Whippets readily learn that speed is the name of the game. There’s nothing better than watching a sighthound in full sprint!
Off-Course Behavior: Notoriously lazy off-course, most Whippets readily become couch potatoes when they’re home. That said, not all Whippets “turn off” so easily. Many Whippets are cuddly and social, but they’re also famously difficult to train off-leash because of their very high prey drive.
Common Health Problems: Keeping Whippets slim and trim is important. This breed often looks “skinny” due to its leggy frame and thin coat, and should have two to four visible vertebrae at a healthy weight according to the AKC. Whippets are also prone to joint issues, heart problems, and skin allergies. Their slender bones can also break more easily than stockier breeds.
All sizes of the Poodle are athletic, intelligent, and trainable. Despite their reputation as “prissy,” Poodles actually have their roots in hunting and can really hold their own in both brains and brawn!
Just be prepared for some extra grooming. Even poodle mixes tend to have their fair share of hair!
Standout Traits: Poodles are right up there with the herding breeds as far as intelligence goes, but they lack some of the “stranger-danger” tendencies (and herding oddities) that come with herding dogs. They are very attached to their handlers, which make them fun and easy to train.
Off-Course Behavior: Athletic and a bit anxious, Poodles thrive on a consistent routine of exercise and training. They often love swimming and playing fetch. Expect to spend a considerable amount of time keeping your Poodle busy!
Common Health Problems: Each size of Poodle has a slightly different risk level for health problems. Luxating patellas (slipping kneecaps) and Legg-Calve-Perthes disease are more common in the smaller varieties, while the larger Standard Poodle is at risk for bloat and skin conditions.
How to Find Your Next Agility Partner
The best way to find a dog for agility is to go to agility clubs and competitions. Find a dog that fits your goals, physical requirements (like size or coat type), and level of training skill. Then ask the handler about her dog.
Most handlers are happy to chat about the good, the bad, and the ugly of living with their dog. This gives you valuable insight into the realities of that dog. Once you’ve found a dog or two that suit your fancy, ask about the breeder.
It’s important to find a well-known, reputable breeder that is known for producing agility dogs. While “pet-line” Golden Retrievers are lovely, they’re quite different training-wise from the “sporting” Goldens. This difference exists in most breeds.
If you want to go with a rescue dog, try to get a clear picture of what you’re looking for. Be honest with yourself about what you can train (for example, I feel very comfortable building confidence in a dog but am less confident in my skill to build drive).
Then go out to shelters and rescues and talk to people. The staff at the rescues and shelters know the dogs and will be able to tell you more than a kennel card ever could!
How did you find your agility companion? Why do you love her breed? We’d love to hear your thoughts!