Agility with Irish Wolfhounds

David Berzins running Dauphine (Howlin’s Praline) in Jumpers with Weaves agility at the 2017 AKC Agility Invitational.

What is agility?

Dog agility is a sport that requires a dog and handler team to complete a numbered obstacle course with both speed and accuracy. An agility course may be around 90-190 yards long with 14-20 obstacles depending on the competitor’s skill level and the course design. It is conducted off-leash and may take many months, perhaps years, of training before being ready to compete. While agility is generally perceived as a “herding dog” sport, agility is accessible to all sizes and types of dogs and with proper training, it is a gratifying way to spend time with your Irish Wolfhound.

AKC Agility Basics

The AKC has two main titling classes in agility: Standard Agility and Jumpers with Weaves (JWW). Standard Agility has the most diverse obstacles: an A-frame (two giant boards forming an “A” with the apex at 5 feet 6 inches), Dog Walk (which consists of a 12 foot long center section that is 4 feet off the ground with ascending and descending sections also 12 feet long; all made with boards 1 foot wide), Seesaw or Teeter, Pause Table, Tunnel (a flexible, 24 to 26-inch diameter tube about 12-20 feet long), Weave Poles (usually 12 poles spaced 24 inches apart), and a variety of jumps (single bar, double bar, triple bar, panel, tire, broad, etc.). A Jumpers with Weaves course will have jumps and weave poles, and commonly tunnels (max of 2).

There are three different levels of competition in either Standard or JWW agility: Novice, Open, and Excellent/Master in order of advancement. As one advances through the different levels, the number of obstacles increases, the allowable faults/mistakes decreases, and the time to complete the course decreases. For more information, visit the AKC site.

How high do Irish Wolfhounds have to jump?

Marigny JumpingThe jump height that a dog competes in is determined by the height of the dog. Irish Wolfhounds and other dogs greater than 22 inches at the shoulder jump at the 24-inch jump height level. This is known as a Regular jump height. However, one may enter one jump height lower (20 inches) and be in a Preferred jump height class. In addition to being able to jump at a lower height level, 5 extra seconds is allotted to complete a course for Preferred dogs. Although Irish Wolfhounds can easily clear the 24-inch jump, the lower jump height may be kinder on the joints of such giant dogs and is one of the main reasons owners of larger dogs and older dogs choose to participate in the Preferred class.  

Challenges of having an Irish Wolfhound in Agility

There are several main challenges of having an Irish Wolfhound compete in agility compared to the typical breeds.

First, Irish Wolfhounds take a longer time to mature and it is generally recommended to not have forced repetitive jumping during their first 18 months or so. This limits the amount and type of training one can do with a young Irish Wolfhound. However, it does not mean that skills useful to agility training cannot be acquired during the puppy years. Some kennel clubs may offer agility skills classes where proprioception/body awareness, core strength, and balance exercises are taught. For instance, one exercise may involve having the dog place its two front paws on a telephone book while rotating their body/hindquarters in a circle. This teaches awareness of paw placement, which is valuable for running agility especially for the teeter and dog walk.

Marigny on Weave PolesSecond, it takes many months for an agility dog to learn the obstacles, handling techniques, and develop teamwork with the handler. To then master those and advance to higher levels of competition may take years. Unfortunately, IWs have a shorter lifespan and so when they finally “get it” agility-wise, they are often in their mid to veteran years.

Finally, and the most obvious, most of the agility equipment is built for smaller dogs. The tunnels are usually 24 inches in diameter (26” tunnels are allowed but most clubs do not have them), so a Wolfhound, if they are able, has to crouch through the tunnel. Tunnels are obstacles that slow down giant dogs but not smaller dogs that can just run through them. For weave poles, because of their length, an Irish Wolfhound may span 3 weave poles at once. A small dog that fits within that span has a lot less to keep track of as to their body position. The dog walk and teeter are only 1 foot wide, therefore it does not give much room for error in such large dogs where their chests/hips are around that wide.

The Benefits of Agility for Irish Wolfhounds

Agility provides a good mental and physical workout for your Wolfhound. For the physical workout, although a course run may be 30-70 seconds long, it does keep you both active and provides different actions than walking/jogging with them or playing with other Wolfhounds/dogs. Mentally, an agility dog has to learn to focus, paying attention to verbal or visual/physical cues to know which obstacles to take. Cues even as slight as pointing your feet or shoulders in the wrong direction can cue the dog to take a different obstacle. Agility, and especially Standard agility with its greater variety of obstacles, can also increase the self-confidence of the dog. For instance, going on the teeter that moves gives them the assuredness to face uncertain terrain. Further, with the hours of training, it strengthens the bond between Wolfhound and handler. Finally, agility is a fun sport where success is mostly objective; either you both run the course correctly and Qualify or you do not.

David Berzins running Dauphine (Howlin’s Praline) in Jumpers with Weaves agility at the 2016 AKC Agility Invitational.

Getting Started with your Irish Wolfhound in Agility

Many kennel clubs or training centers will offer classes. A good idea to see who offers classes may be to see who offers agility trials in your area via the AKC event search page. Most clubs/training centers will offer classes ranging from skill type of classes that go over proprioception/body awareness exercises to beginner and on to advanced classes. As one progresses through classes, one may encounter different instructors. Perhaps most important of any advice one may offer, it is incredibly important to have an instructor who is willing to listen to you and consider your wishes and what is in the best interest of your IW with respect to training and safety. Irish Wolfhounds do not have the same interest, focus, and enthusiasm as many other breeds for certain training and it is imperative that your instructor recognizes this. While younger Irish Wolfhounds may find going through a tunnel fun, going through it more than a few times in a class session becomes demotivating due to the nature of the way they must go through the tunnel. And a key is to keep it fun and motivating for your IW. For adult Wolfhounds that will go through the tunnel reliably, they may only need to take the tunnel once every several training classes. Further, your instructor should allow you to sit out a series or even adapt the course sequence to your liking. It is so very important to have a flexible and conscientious instructor.

Safety with Irish Wolfhounds in Agility

As you and your Wolfhound advance through classes and learn training and handling techniques, it similarly is very important to always have the safety of your Irish Wolfhound as a priority. Many of the obstacles induce more stress on a giant breed than the smaller breeds. For younger Wolfhounds, limit jumping before their growth plates are closed (around approximately 18 months). For competition in AKC agility trials, perhaps enter in the preferred class as described above. Over the years, this will be easier on their giant joints. Though jumps are usually what are mentioned to beginners as being stressful on their Wolfhounds, other obstacles may also present physical stress on IWs. The weave poles are spaced 24 inches apart, so an IW must wrap their body around the poles, thereby bending their spines in lateral positions that are not as natural. Similarly, negotiating a tunnel places unnatural forces on their bodies. For contact equipment, the A-frame especially places great stress on the shoulders on the downward approach. Falls off the dog walk can be devastating physically and mentally, so some IWs may be better off just entering Jumpers with Weaves agility to avoid this possibility. In addition to the individual obstacles offering physical challenges to IWs, the actual course or sequence of obstacles in a trial may do so too and safe handling is needed there. For instance, some judges place a tunnel approach at an angle from the previous jump. Many smaller breeds can easily turn into the tunnel in a normal stride, but an IW would have to turn and bend downward to do so. It is up to the handler to guide the IW to a safer, straight approach to avoid possible harmful twisting while crouching.

If you decide to venture into agility with your Irish Wolfhound, “run fast, run clean” but remember to always have safe fun!

This page was last updated 01/04/2021.