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What Are the Best Agility Dog Breeds?

Kristin is a dog agility instructor and competitor with 20 years in the sport.

Is your dog one of the top five best breeds for the exciting sport of agility?

Is your dog one of the top five best breeds for the exciting sport of agility?

Don't Box These Top Dogs In

When people find out I'm a professional dog agility trainer, the questions begin to fly:

"Can I board my dog with you, so you can train him to behave?"

"Do you show other people's dogs?"

"Do you use shock collars?"

And, "What breeds do best in agility?"

The answers are no, no, never, and well, that's a bit complicated.

When trying to label any breed as "the best," there has to be a general understanding. In every breed, there are exceptions. For instance, the Border Collie is known for being fantastic in agility, however, I've known quite a few couch potato Border Collies who would much rather chew a bone in front of the fire than run an agility course. I've also known a few Bull Mastiffs that are drivey Border Collies in massively big and broad Mastiff bodies.

The danger of putting any breed into a box is it does not take the individual dog into account. Each dog, regardless of breed, is going to have strengths and weaknesses that may or may not match the norm of the breed.

This means an owner may look at a "best agility breeds" list and not see their dog's breed listed. The owner may then think, "My dog isn't going to be good at agility. We'll look at another dog sport." In fact, perhaps that dog has the ability to be a terrific agility dog, but because it isn't on the list, it gets labeled as a "less than ideal" breed for agility. The owner then overlooks agility, and a great opportunity for fun and success is missed.

Conversely, an owner may want to get a dog suited for agility, look at "best agility breeds" list, get a breed on that list and then wind up with a dog that would rather sleep than work.

When reading this list, please keep in mind that many different breeds and mixes can make incredible agility dogs. It's the INDIVIDUAL dog—not the breed—that will determine success in agility.

A Sheltie barking as he exits the weaves.

A Sheltie barking as he exits the weaves.

Mixes and Pure Breeds—All Are Welcome!!

While this article will be looking only at pure breeds, mixed breeds can and do excel at agility. It is no longer true that only pure breeds can show in agility. In any agility venue in the United States, mixed breeds are welcome to compete side by side with the pure breeds. Mixes are wonderful, and it's great to see them doing so well in agility and other dog sports.

This list isn't just the author's guess at which breeds make the best agility dogs as most lists are. This list is comprised out of the Top 20 Overall Dogs and Top 20 Lifetime Overall Dogs in the "American Kennel Club Agility Stats: End of Year MACH Totals for 2012" report. And yes, although my personal breed - the Shetland Sheepdog - does come in first, that is only coincidence. The top breeds out of the two top 20 lists are: the Shetland Sheepdog with 12 dogs; the Poodle with six dogs; and the Border Collie, Golden Retriever and Papillon with four dogs each.

A Sheltie flies out of a tunnel.

A Sheltie flies out of a tunnel.

#1: The Shetland Sheepdog

My personal breed, the Shetland Sheepdog (also called the Sheltie) can make a fabulous agility dog. There are lines within Shelties that are full of monster, crazy drive, and there is the exact opposite with other lines which are calm, shy and introverted. If the Sheltie is on your shortlist for a working companion, be sure to do your homework by studying the breeding lines.

Shelties have thick coats and require regular grooming. In addition, they were bred in the Shetland Islands to herd livestock by barking at them. This barking trait exists in the breed today. If you don't like barking, do not get a Sheltie.

If from more drivey lines, these small to medium dogs ranging in size from just under 12" to over 16.5" make wonderful agility teammates. Their eagerness to work, innate intelligence, speed, and spunk are the reason they often dominate the winners' spots in the 12" and 16" categories at National and World competitions.

A miniature poodle can make a great agility partner.

A miniature poodle can make a great agility partner.

#2: The Poodle

The general public often thinks of Poodles as frou-frou show dogs, but those in the dog world understand the brilliance and athleticism of this breed. Whether a tall Standard Poodle, a Miniature Poodle or a Toy Poodle, these dogs are found at almost any agility trial, and they are giving their competitors fits.

Fast, intelligent and quick learners, Poodles make excellent agility teammates, and it's no wonder six of them can be found in the 2012 "top 20" lists mentioned above.

Poodles were originally water retrievers, so their athletic background comes naturally to them. Their curly coat requires professional grooming, and the smaller varieties should be checked for luxating patellae (also called "floating kneecap"). As with all breeds, extensive research into the family lines is necessary when looking to purchase a Poodle.

Because Poodles come in so many different sizes (standard, miniature and toy), you can see Poodles running in almost any jump height, but they seem to mainly dominate the 24" and 12" jump heights.

A black and white Papillon leaps high over a jump.

A black and white Papillon leaps high over a jump.

#3: The Papillon

The Papillon, also called the Pap, make wonderful agility partners and home companions. These spunky, adorable dogs may fool many people who don't realize that outstanding athletes live in those small, cute bodies, but agility exhibitors have always known the "Power of the Pap."

Papillons can be very fast and are usually great jumpers for their height. They are willing workers, and they are fun to run. Anyone thinking about a Pap needs to do research on the lines as some Paps are quite timid. Also as with all small breeds, luxating patella can be a career-ending health issue.

These small dogs are often found running at the World level in the mini category. Here in the United States, Paps can be found at almost any agility trial in the 12" and 8" jump height classes.

A Border Collie racing through brightly colored weave poles.

A Border Collie racing through brightly colored weave poles.

#4: The Border Collie

The Border Collie (usually called the "BC" for short) is the breed that most often comes to mind when agility is discussed. Outrageously smart, often drivey and quickly agile, the BC seems to have been created with the sport of agility in mind. Check the winners of any National level or World level agility trial, and the BCs will dominate in the 26" and 20" classes.

BCs are known for their brilliance and ease of training. While their smarts may make them easy to train, it can also mean they can turn the tables and easily train their handlers. To boot, these dogs are often high drive. Owners need to be aware that BCs must have a job. You cannot get a BC and put it in the backyard. It will quickly find itself mentally bored, and it will come up with its own mental stimulation. Chances are you won't like its choice of mental fun.

Can I mention again that these dogs need a job? Their drive and mind must be channeled. Whether the job is agility, herding, disc dog, obedience, flyball or more, the BC needs your attention and your daily involvement in its exercise and training.

Owners prepared for smarts and drive can find themselves happily paired with a great agility dog.

A Golden Retriever having fun playing agility.

A Golden Retriever having fun playing agility.

#5: The Golden Retriever

The Golden Retriever (often called simply "Goldens") are one of the most popular breeds in the United States and with good reason. When well-bred, these dogs are one of the most friendly and beautiful breeds.

Goldens are a sporting breed and many compete in hunting tests across the country. It didn't take agility competitors long to discover the attributes that made the Golden so good in retrieving also could transfer nicely to agility. Their readiness to work, biddability and drive have made the Golden one of the top agility dogs.

While most people don't think of the Golden Retriever when thinking of their top five agility breeds, the statistics prove this breed deserves a second look. Goldens can be found in the 20" and 24" divisions across the country, competing and holding their own against other breeds one might consider "best for agility."

Which Breed Is Your Choice?

So Many Great Agility Dogs

Wait! Where are the Aussies, the Corgis, the Miniature Schnauzers, the Jack Russell Terriers, and others? All of those dogs and more can make excellent agility dogs, but when looking at the American Kennel Club's 2012 MACH totals report, the Border Collie, Sheltie, Papillon, Poodle, and Golden Retriever were listed most often.

Yet, among those more commonly seen breeds in the AKC's "End of Year MACH Totals for 2012" were many less common agility breeds. Some breeds less commonly associated with agility included in the two top 20 lists were the American Eskimo, the Cairn Terrier, the Welsh Terrier, the Keeshond, and the Rat Terrier. As such, it is very important not to force any individual dog into the category of "good for agility" or "bad for agility." Each individual dog regardless of breed or mix may have the right stuff to shine in the agility ring.

Maybe the next Top 20 dog is sitting at your feet right now!

Agility Video Featuring the Author's Two Shelties


Kristin Kaldahl (author) on February 23, 2014:

Lots of different than expected breeds excel at the sport. Your Pyr is one!! Congrats!!!

Pyr mom on February 23, 2014:

I have a Great Pyrenees who loves agility, we started him in agility because he was really shy, and wanted to expose him to different situations. Turns out he LOVES agility. Not the breed you think of for agility, people come to our agility class just to see him run. I didn't plan on doing trials, but he likes agility so much, we will be doing trials when he is ready. He is only 16 months, so we have a while.

Pam V on October 16, 2013:

I get to live with 4 Cairn Terriers and am so so proud that one of the top agility titling dogs of all time in the AKC is a Cairn. Not a breed one would have guessed, but proof positive that one doesn't HAVE to run a Sheltie or a BC or a Pap to excel at this game. Love the one you're with!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 16, 2013:

The list IS accurate according to the 2012 AKC Stats. You may argue the validity of the stats, but I think they're accurate for what they were measuring. :)

Louise on October 16, 2013:

Not too sure about the accuracy of this list, since the Poodle is listed ahead of the Border Collie and we all know that is not correct.

dismissed.zebra on October 16, 2013:

I think most important us to match the handler to the breed. A super drivey dog is not suitable for someone who simply can't keep up (not just on foot but mentally as well brutally honest but true). On the other hand, a more consistent and focused dog (but with perhaps a bit less drive) might not be best suited for a more high drive handler.

I think it so very important to really look at the individual dog's and the individual handler's strengths, weaknesses, and personality when choosing a partner. This is a longterm relationship, not just on the field but at home as well. Picking simply the breed based on top 20 scores will not necessarily lead to the best match.

All dogs are wonderful, and it is easy to fall in love with all those cute puppies or sad rescue stories, but I do believe it is mist important to step back and really think what's going to be best for both this dog and this handler.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 04, 2013:

I know of several poodles who are rock stars in agility. They're great as house dogs, obedience dogs, rally competitors and more too. Poodles are a wonderful breed. Thanks for dropping by.

star*light on October 04, 2013:

I owned a poodle and he was good at Agility but that was all

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on August 04, 2013:

Oh, I bet you're very worthy to own a poodle!!! There are also great poodle mixes available at shelters all the time. I love goofball dogs too. :)

calculus-geometry on August 03, 2013:

Poodles are crazy smart so I figured they'd be good at agility too. I've always wanted to have one be never felt 'worthy' of one, lol. The dogs I've always had have been more of the goofball variety.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on August 03, 2013:

Thanks for dropping by!!! Yes, Paps are a type of toy spaniel - good catch. They are really fantastic little dogs. You hit the nail on the head with Poodles, which most people don't expect to be in the top five list. I appreciate you taking the time to read my top five article!!

calculus-geometry on August 03, 2013:

Funny, when I looked at your profile the first thing I wondered was this very question! Poodles I expected, but shelties surprised me. I've never heard of a Papillon before; it looks a bit like a type of spaniel. Are they related?

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on May 31, 2013:

LOL!!! Bizarre function is very funny. :D All of the other "top agility breeds" lists I've seen have not been based on stats but instead on opinion. This is how 2012's stats played out. Go Poodles!! :)

Barbara Fitzgerald from Georgia on May 31, 2013:

Stunning that the poodle beats the Border Collie - Ughhhh.. Voted thumbs up and interesting. I'd hit the bizarre button too if they had one...

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on May 29, 2013:

Nope. :) No "affirmative action" out there for other breeds, however anyone wishing to can compete in the Preferred level, which gives dogs the opportunity to jump four inches lower and they get five extra seconds. Many veteran dogs are in the Preferred classes (like my little sheltie Aslan). This allows breeds that aren't as structurally agile to compete. This type of class exists in all agility titling venues that come to my mind.

Also, agility in America is not a "winner takes all" system. The winner in AKC actually gets nothing but bragging rights and a blue ribbon. In AKC agility, what counts is whether the dog qualifies - or passes - the course on a given day. By accumulating "passes," teams can garner titles. Only in the big competitions such as Nationals, Regionals, Tournament games, etc. does winning really count.

In Great Britian, they have a different class for BCs only, and they also have a winner takes all system for titling, I understand.

Melissa A Smith from New York on May 29, 2013:

So I take it that they don't have any 'affirmative action' standards for the breeds like blood hounds and whatnot, lol. It's strange to see large dogs doing it.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on May 29, 2013:

Thanks Melissa!! BCs don't win all the time, especially at local trials. We see lots of various breeds and mixes do great in agility, which is one of the great things about the sport. :D Thanks for dropping by!!

Melissa A Smith from New York on May 29, 2013:

Agility competitions are always so boring with BCs winning all the time. Good hub Agilitymach.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on May 05, 2013:

Thanks alexadry!!! I know several Rotties who do agility quite well. :) While not normally considered one of the breeds that do agility, like the article says, it's amazing to see which dogs can excel. Rally-O is good fun too, though. My dogs and I have competed in it as well. Enjoy!!

Adrienne Farricelli on May 05, 2013:

A great read! Agility is a sport I haven't explored much yet, and I think it's because my Rotties aren't the most agile dogs and they're getting a bit old now, yet I have seen some compete and was impressed. So I am sticking to Rally'o for now. But if I ever think about giving this sport a try, I know what breeds excel in it. Voted up and useful!