Agility is a rapidly growing recreation within the United States for dog owners. Agility is a dog sport that requires human handlers to guide their dog through an obstacle course. The goal in completing the course is to be the fastest team while collecting the least number of faults. There is a niche community built around the sport that ranges from avid competitors to hobbyist handlers that participate. Research in the sport of agility has primarily focused on the dogs that compete. This original research previously found that dogs gain many benefits from participating in the sport. One of the benefits for dogs is the improvement in their overall health. Since the agility is a team sport between dogs and humans, one has to assume if previous research has confirmed that the dogs in the teams receives health benefits then the human handlers must receive some benefits as well since they participate in completing the course with the dog. Research in this field of questioning the benefits of participating for the handlers only began in the early 2000’s, but is quickly expanding. This new research has presented strong evidence into the benefits in health for human handlers. These benefits in health for human handlers for participating in agility can be examined within the three different categories: physical, mental, and emotional.
Agility can help improve the physical health of handlers by increasing their physical activity. Agility requires physical participation by the handler either jogging or running to help guide the dog through the course. Participants in a research study from Lakehead University from the School of Kinesiology were found to spend “158 minutes” of agility per week that varied from “moderate and vigorous intensities more frequently” (Farrell and Hulstein 16-17). The length, intensity, and repetition of participating in either practice or competition make for higher “energy expenditure” and lower health risks for handlers (Farrell and Hulstein 18-22). Even the flexibility of the types of competitions in agility allow for individuals to participate that otherwise might not (Farrell and Hulstein 39, 93). Overall, agility was found to help handlers meet the physical activity recommendations (Farrell and Hulstein 92). However, there are risks in participating in agility for human handlers.
Risks come in the form of injury for handlers. A study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health examined the reported injuries among 217 handlers found that there were 31 injuries mostly to the knees and lower trunk (Comstock et al. 1032). The study found the risk of injury was even higher in obese handlers compared to the normal handlers (Comstock et al. 1032). Most of the injuries recorded consisted of strains and sprains, which are physical ailments (Comstock et al. 1032). The physical ailments recorded are not as serious as a broken bone, but can hinder handlers from being physically active while dealing with the inflicted injury. The handler would receive no physical health benefits while they are unable to participate. Despite these findings of potential injury, the potential benefits a handler could receive are far greater than the risk involved. Physical health benefits are not the only health benefits that handlers can receive.
The psychological health of handlers also improves with participation in agility. Agility allows people to “reduce nervous tension” and “gain mental relaxation” outside of stressful situations (Niewiadomska 84). Relaxation is a way to self-care for handlers. It reduces the mental taxation the mind goes through while dealing with stress. Interviews with handlers confirm this overall perception of “receiving mental stimulation” from practicing agility, and use of agility to escape daily stress (Brus). A study with handlers found agility was able to have met the three innate psychological needs of humans (“autonomy, competence and relatedness”), and was able to meet these needs by the varying levels of challenge along with the unique environment of agility (Farrell and Hulstein 30). In other words, handlers were able to feel that they were the source of own action/behavior, experience “mastery”, and have “meaningful social interactions” (Farrell and Hulstein 30). These benefits in mental health have been linked to other benefits as well.
Agility can even improve even the social health of handlers in a variety of ways from community building to therapy. With the improvements in physical and mental health, agility is able to help handlers improve performance at either work or school (Niewiadomska 84). Humans that overall feel healthier are able to perform better than humans that don’t feel healthy. This better performance at key institutes of society would help improve the social standing of handlers as well since good performance means good outlooks from bosses and peers alike. Work and school was not the only place to see improvements. The social communities of the handlers were built around and supported by friends, family, and mentors (Farrell and Hulstein 75-77). Humans are creatures that build their life around communities, and need a group that they can share similar values with. This can be hard if the barriers of the environment do not allow for communities to be built, but the environment of dog agility does allow for a strong interconnected community to be built. This idea has been further explored by studies in special needs children that struggle in social settings. Animals can act as great “social buffers” that lower anxiety in social settings (Miresan et al. 1). A study from the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Cluj-Napoca involving Para-Agility (modified agility for those with special needs) and autistic children that struggle with social behaviors found a positive relation between participation in agility instead of regular play with dogs (Miresan et al. 5). Children with autism typically struggle in social situations since their sensory processing is highly sensitive hence social situations overwhelms them are difficult (Miresan et al. 1). The tables and graphs from the research conducted revealed both types of activities from structured (Para-Agility) to unstructured (normal play) were positive in promoting positive social behaviors for the autistic children (Miresan et al. 5). However, the frequency of positive affects in the children was higher for the structured (Para-Agility) play than the unstructured play (Miresan et al. 4). This empirical data is proof of the therapeutic benefits of agility for those socially challenged (Miresan et al. 4). However, not everyone will be able to access the benefits observed by handlers.
To successful gain any health benefits as a handler in agility, there is a contingency. Handlers have to own the “right dog” that likes participating and competing in agility (Farrell and Hulstein 73). Not all dogs make good agility dogs, especially if they have disabilities or illnesses that put them in danger on the obstacle course. Some dogs may even lack interest in the completion of the course based on their innate personality. The bond developed between handler and dog is a “critical component” of participating (Farrell and Hulstein 74). Agility is a team sport between dog and handler that relies on this bond to communicate in order to finish the course fastest and most accurate. This limits the access to the dog sport for those unable to participate in agility due to circumstances outside their control. Though interviews with handlers currently competing revealed that the handlers believed that they would continue the sport even if their dog were no longer with them by getting a new agility dog (Brus). This partially contradicts the belief that if the dog can’t participate the handler will stop participating, since the handlers are willing to get another dog in order to continue participating. Although, it should be noted the interviewers were handlers already participating in the sport (Brus). This fact skews the perspective since it present a bias in support of agility since they already have contact with the sport. It is hard to know if people not participating in the sport, but have a dog that physically can compete in agility will share the same thoughts as handlers already participating. Therefore, those that can meet this condition will be able to participate and receive any of the health benefits discussed above.
Agility is more than just an alternative to a traditional workout or a recreation for people. Agility offers many health benefits for the human handlers that participate. These benefits can come in a variety of forms from physical to psychological. Even with the risks and limitations for handlers in participating in agility, handlers can still gain a health improvements in a variety of categorizes. The overall health benefits that a human handler can gain are encouraging for human participants that are joining the sport. These benefits may even encourage further growth in popularity of the dog sport within the United States so long as they meet the basic requirements of agility. However, more research is needed to confirm this since not many studies have been tested in the field of dog agility since it is a niche community. Also, new testing methods need to be developed to remove influencing factors such as participants involuntarily affecting the data, and skewing the data in a favorable manner. The research into handler benefits of participating in agility is in its’ infancy and will continue to expand as the recreation grows along with it.
Brus, Brian. Agility Training Benefits Dogs and Their Owners. 29 February 2008. 23 July 2020 <https://bi-gale-com.libproxy.utdallas.edu/global/article/GALE%7CA175701264/5aab744f6470704e55506140015c7e1f?u=txshracd2602>.
Farrell, Joey and Hulstein, Rodney. Dog Sports: A Mixed Methods Exploration of Motivation in Agility Participation. Dissertation. Lakehead University. Ann Arbor: ProQuest, 2014.
Comstock et al. “Epidemiology of Injury Among Handlers and Dogs Competing in the Sport of Agility.” Journal of Physical Activity & Health 11.5 (2014): 1032-1040.
Niewiadomska, Monika. “Agility as a Modern Form of Recreation.” Physical Education of Students 3 (2013): 84-86.
Miresan et al. “The Development of a Canine Para-Agility Program: Positive Affects in Children with Autism and in Therapy Dogs.” Bulletin of University of Agricultural Science and Veterinary Medicine 73.1 (2016): 66-71.