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Great Danes are enormous dogs who are sometimes thought to be clumsy or lazy. However, Danes were initially bred to help hunters take down deer, boar, and even bears, which suggests that they are at least somewhat athletic and energetic.
So, while a Great Dane might not be the first breed that pops into your mind when you think of the canine sport, can Great Danes do agility?
Great Danes can certainly do agility, and are often actually quite good at it! They are powerful and athletic dogs who were bred to work and eager to please, so with proper training and preparation, a Great Dane can absolutely thrive in the sport.
In this article, we’ll look at what exactly agility is, why any given Great Dane may or may not be well-suited to agility, and cover some tips for how to get your Dane started with the sport.
Let’s jump in!
What Is Agility?
Agility is a canine sport in which dogs essentially run an obstacle course as fast as they can. There are typically 14-20 obstacles in an official agility course, such as:
- A-frame – a ramp that requires your Great Dane to run up one side to the peak and then down the other side to the ground
- Dog walk – similar to an A-frame but with a raised flat section in the middle that your Dane must walk along
- Seesaw – just like the playground version, except that your Great Dane must run up one side, wait for the plank to pivot, and then run down the other side
- Tunnel – a flexible tunnel for your Dane to run through (sometimes the end of the tunnel will not be supported by a frame, so your Dane will have push through the hanging tunnel material)
- Spread jump – your Great Dane will need to clear a certain distance
- Panel jump – basically a short wall that your Dane will jump over
- Broad jump – raised platforms that your Great Dane must jump over without touching any part of the obstacle
- Tire jump – a tire or another similar circular object that is supported vertically in a frame for your Dane to jump through
- Pause table – your Dane will need to jump up on the table and pause there for a predetermined amount of time
- Weave poles – a series of vertical poles that your Great Dane must weave through slalom-style
There are several different organizational bodies that put on agility contests and demonstrations, and each one has its own rules regarding the dimensions of the obstacles as well as which types of obstacles are included – there could be 15 different jumps and 2 tunnels or two of each type of obstacle listed above or any other combination.
Different organizations have different rules about which dogs can compete as well. The AKC, however, allows all breeds (including mixed breeds) to participate in their agility events.
The exact course is different for each competition, which means that your Great Dane will be relying on you to prompt him as far as which obstacle he needs to navigate next. As such, agility is a great way to bond with your Great Dane and good exercise for you both!
Of course, it’s not necessary to compete in organized agility contests – you can absolutely build your own DIY agility course in your backyard or visit a course at a local dog park and just do it for fun!
Reasons Great Danes Can Excel At Agility
Great Danes have a few key characteristics that help them excel in agility events:
1. Powerful and Athletic
Great Danes aren’t just big and they can also be quite athletic. Although it will sometimes take a bit of motivation to get a Great Dane to run, they can quickly cover a lot of ground when they do get going – thanks to their long legs, smooth strides, and powerful muscles. AIn a time-based event like agility, their galloping speed is an asset.
Additionally, Great Danes can be quite athletic if they have regular exercise. They were originally hunting dogs who were bred to run for miles, after all. But, just like humans, Danes do need training and conditioning to live up to their full athletic potential.
2. Eager to Please
Danes are very lovey dovey with their owners, and they generally will try just about anything to win your praise and approval – including potentially scary agility obstacles! This willingness to please is actually one of the most critical characteristics of a dog who is successful in agility. You could have the quickest, smartest, most athletic dog in the world but if he’s not willing to listen to you and do as you ask, he likely won’t get very far with agility.
3. Bred to Work
Finally, the Great Dane is a working breed, bred for endurance, stamina, and ruggedness. Initially, these characteristics were put to use on long, sometimes drawn-out hunting expeditions as mentioned above, but with the advent of hunting guns, Great Danes were repurposed to be guard dogs and occasionally to haul carts of goods to markets.
All in all, they are bred to get stuff done – including agility courses.
Reasons Great Danes Might Have Trouble With Agility
However, there are some things that work against Great Danes when it comes to potential agility skills:
Intelligence (Or Lack Thereof)
Great Danes aren’t necessarily the sharpest tools in the shed, coming in at 48th on dog intelligence expert Stanley Coren’s rankings of dog breeds by intelligence. And, to make matters worse, there are several ties ahead of Great Danes on the list, so they are really beat out by 87 other breeds.
This somewhat lackluster ranking places Great Danes in the “average working/obedience intelligence” category, which, according to Mr. Coren, means that they will likely require 25-40 repetitions of a new command before they master it and they have a rather abysmal 50% success rate of obeying on the first command.
However, that is not to say that Great Danes can’t still learn to ace an agility course. It’s just going to take a bit more time and patience than if you were training one of the most intelligent breeds. The same positive reinforcement techniques will still work…they’re just going to need a little more time to sink in.
Also, as with all breeds, certain Great Danes are smarter than others, so it all comes down to the individual dog.
Great Danes go through an explosive growth period during the first year of their lives, growing from just 1-2 pounds at birth to 100-175 pounds and 28-36 inches tall at the shoulder at one year old. They then continue filling out and putting on weight until around two years old. During these insane growth years, a Great Dane’s bones and joints are vulnerable and susceptible to injury, which is why it’s critical to provide age-appropriate exercise for your Dane.
As such, it wouldn’t be a good idea to have him run an agility course at full speed if he’s younger than two years old. Young Danes should be restricted to gentle, short-distance walks, playtime (not too rough), swimming, obedience training sessions, and beginner agility work. Conveniently, all of these suggested activities lay the groundwork for more advanced agility once your Great Dane has matured and his bones and joints have been strengthened.
Conversely, it likely wouldn’t be a good idea to have a senior Great Dane run a demanding agility course, although gentler exercise can help keep a Dane healthy and mobile into old age. And, unfortunately, Great Danes often only live to be 7-10 years old, so there is a relatively narrow age window where agility is appropriate for a Dane.
Fully grown Great Danes can weigh as much as 100-200 pounds, with some particularly beefy specimens (thanks to very selective breeding) tipping the scales at 245 pounds! That’s a lot of weight to move around, so although Danes have long legs and powerful muscles, they are heavy and not necessarily the most agile. Their relatively high center of gravity makes it more difficult for them to turn on a dime, unlike lower-to-the-ground breeds like Australian Shepherds.
Additionally, if your Great Dane is even a little bit over his healthy weight, that extra poundage can significantly impact his joints, which can make things like running and jumping painful. Before beginning any kind of agility training, ensure that your Great Dane is a healthy weight and get your vet’s approval.
Medium Energy Level
Great Danes aren’t necessarily lazy, but they also don’t have the highest energy levels of all dog breeds. They generally enjoy a good snooze on the couch and don’t have the always-on-the-go attitude that terriers or retrievers might display. This laidback personality could lead you to believe that Great Danes don’t need much exercise, but they do thrive with regular physical activity and mental stimulation.
But, again, be sure to limit your Dane to age-appropriate exercise and, when he’s reached two years old, introduce more demanding activities (advanced agility obstacles and other fun things like hiking and jogging) slowly. Watch your Great Dane for cues that he is getting tired or experiencing pain of any kind, and immediately dial the activity back if you notice those signs.
Prone to Hip Dysplasia and Other Joint Issues
Unfortunately, Great Danes are prone to hip dysplasia and other joint problems that can make agility work uncomfortable or painful. Hip dysplasia can affect all breeds, but it is particularly common in large breeds like Great Danes, Saint Bernards, and so forth.
Too much or too little exercise can increase the chances of a Great Dane developing hip dysplasia, so always consult your vet about how much agility training is appropriate for your Dane. Diet can also play a role in preventing hip dysplasia, so be sure to choose age-appropriate food that is specifically formulated for big dogs to support your Dane through his explosive growth period.
Finally, Great Danes can sometimes be quite clumsy, which obviously makes agility more difficult. Danes are usually especially clumsy during the first two years of their lives, since their body mass and center of gravity are constantly changing. Some Danes grow out of this clumsiness as they get older, but others…not so much.
Fortunately, you can help your klutzy Great Dane become more coordinated by teaching him body awareness and especially rear end awareness – basically encouraging him to learn what his back legs are doing instead of just allowing them to follow his front legs.
Plus, agility training is, in fact, another effective antidote to clumsiness! Just start slow, be patient, and keep training sessions short so your Great Dane doesn’t start to feel overwhelmed or frustrated as he works to gain body control and coordination.
How To Get Your Great Dane Started With Agility
If you’ve decided that agility training sounds like a good idea for your Great Dane, here’s how to go about getting started:
Ensure Your Great Dane is Healthy Enough for Agility
Again, ensure that your Great Dane is healthy enough to handle agility training. Consult with your vet about how much time to spend training and which age-appropriate obstacles to introduce as your Great Dane grows and matures.
Get Warmed Up
Just like humans, Great Danes need to warm up their muscles before doing anything too demanding to help prevent injuries. Before diving into an agility training session, you and your Dane will likely want to do a little loosening up, whether that’s by taking a quick walk or easy jog, playing a game of tug, or some other activity that you both enjoy. Obviously you don’t want to exhaust yourself or your Dane, just get the blood moving a little bit before you start running and jumping around.
Train Basic Obedience and Agility Commands
The first step to teaching agility is to teach your Great Dane basic obedience, which encourages focus and self-control. In fact, there are many reasons to start teaching your Great Dane obedience even as a young puppy, but it is particularly useful for agility as well. Focus on commands like sit, stay, down, come, and place (pointing to where you want your Dane to go).
Once your Great Dane has mastered basic obedience commands, you can start moving on to more specific agility commands. For example, you might start working up to jumps by teaching your Dane ‘over’ and asking him to step or hop over a small obstacle (even a Dane puppy can likely handle very small jumping obstacles).
You can also work on the weave pole obstacle, which is often the most difficult for all dogs but especially for Great Danes and especially as they grow bigger and longer. Of course, if you have your own course for fun, you can adjust the spacing of the poles to be a little bit easier for your Dane’s long body to navigate.
Train Body Awareness
As we covered above, the ‘cure’ for clumsiness is often increased body awareness, which can be taught. As ridiculous as it sounds, teaching your Great Dane to walk up stairs backwards can help him think about where his back feet are landing and generally what his rear end is doing.
Start by having him back up and step his hind feet onto something that’s only a couple of inches tall, then have him back up further and bring his whole body up onto the step. Work up to higher and higher steps until he can navigate a staircase backwards.
Socialize Your Great Dane
Socializing your Great Dane, while not directly related to his ability to complete agility obstacles, will help immensely with obedience, general training, and calmness. If you are practicing agility at a public course, taking a class, and/or competing in an organized agility contest, there will obviously be dozens of other people and dogs all around.
So, it’s important to train your Great Dane from a young age to associate new people and dogs with positive things like treats and pets so he doesn’t get reactive or uncomfortable at the agility course. Basically, teach your Dane good manners around both people and other friendly pups.
Use Proper Equipment
Use proper agility equipment that is designed with safety in mind. It will be a severe blow to your Great Dane’s confidence in you if you ask him to jump up onto something only for it to collapse around his ears when he does so. Inspect the obstacles before beginning training each time and if you build your own course, be sure to research the design and safety aspects.
Introduce the Obstacles Slowly
If you go to a public agility course, allow your Great Dane to investigate whatever obstacles he wants, but only focus on training a few of them at a time, starting with the simplest and working up to the more complex or ‘scary’ ones.
If you decide to build a backyard obstacle course, you can simply set up one additional obstacle after your Dane masters the previous one. You can purchase jumps, tunnels, or even an entire agility kit online!
Build Fitness and Speed
Once your Great Dane has mastered a variety of obstacles, you can start to increase the speed at which you ask him to complete them. Build up your Great Dane’s speed and fitness gradually until he’s just a massive blur leaping over obstacles! Of course, your Great Dane won’t be able to compete with speedsters like Greyhounds and other fast breeds but those long legs can still move pretty quick!
Take a Class
Alternatively, you can enroll your Great Dane in an agility class or join an agility club. This will provide more realistic competition environments, professional training, and a community of other agility-lovers in your area.
Enter a Contest
Finally, when your Great Dane is ready to put his skills to the test, you might consider entering an official contest. There are contests specifically for beginners that involve the easier obstacles and have a more relaxed environment. If your Great Dane turns out to be a serious competitor, you can enter him into more advanced contests with more difficult courses and quicker time requirements.
As you can see, these Great Danes are having a blast competing in an agility event:
Great Danes might not be specifically bred for their speed and agility, but they are strong, athletic dogs who can definitely enjoy agility training and even do well in agility competitions with proper training, preparation, and conditioning. Plus, it’s a good bonding experience for you and your Dane and good exercise for you both!