What Are the Best Agility Dog Breeds?
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.
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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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?
Which Breed Not on This Article's Top Five List Would Be Most Likely to Make Your Top Dog List?
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!