Setting up an obstacle course for your dog provides exercise, enjoyment, mental stimulation, and agility practice all in one. As an added bonus, completing a series of activities gives your dog -- and you -- a feeling of achievement.
Obstacle course “kits” available for purchase can get expensive. Fortunately, you can DIY your own outdoor obstacle course at a fraction of the cost of most pre-assembled sets, and you can set it up almost anywhere. Here’s how to get started with an at-home obstacle course in your own backyard.
Keeping Your Dog Safe on the Obstacle Course
The most critical and basic component of any agility obstacle course is your dog’s safety.
Don’t try to challenge your dog beyond their ability -- start with small jumps and simple obstacles to build your dog’s confidence and prevent accidents.
Don’t build an obstacle course without taking your dog’s height, weight, length, and physical fitness into consideration first.
Don’t include anything in your obstacle course that has a sharp edge, is unstable, is old or broken, or poses a suffocation risk. All elements should be breathable, lightweight, and collapsible.
Don’t leave your obstacle course accessible to your dog during times that it’s not in use. Your dog should be supervised whenever they are playing on the course. Anything that would rust or decay should be picked up and put away safely between training sessions.
Don’t yell at, punish, or shame your dog if they are unable to complete the course. Ideally, an obstacle course will be a trust exercise that builds your relationship -- not a game your dog will be penalized for “losing.”
Don’t try to put your dog through a taxing obstacle course if they are significantly older or if they are over weight guidelines for their breed. Check with your vet if you are unsure.
Don’t put up an obstacle course in a yard where there are holes, tripping hazards, or uneven terrain. (If your dog has dug some holes in your lawn, check out our guide to filling them in before you get started.)
Choosing the Right Equipment for Your Obstacle Course
The exact equipment that you use for your obstacle course may vary depending on the breed of dog you have. Some dogs love jumping, while others are naturally gifted at weaving back and forth. Keep your dog’s instincts and talents in mind before you make any significant purchases or start to DIY.
“Weave poles” are obstacle course elements that challenge your dog mentally as he or she weaves back and forth on a narrow path between them.
You can use holiday lawn decor, like candy canes, or PVC pipes placed firmly in the ground to create weave poles. If you want to avoid putting holes in your lawn, try using orange construction cones (of any size) staggered in a zig-zag to create a path your dog can weave through.
Tunnel obstacles are a great way to activate depth perception and spatial awareness centers in the brain while getting your pup’s heart pumping, too.
You can use children’s play tunnels as doggie tunnels, too, as long as they are the right size and adequately stabilized. Long tunnels aren’t the way to go with a beginner’s DIY obstacle course for your pup-- play tunnels of 2 feet long or less are a good place to start.
You can also create a tunnel obstacle using a large, pop-up hamper with the bottom cut out. If your dog gets claustrophobic by even the shortest of tunnels, try more of a simple hoop like an old tire or hula-hoop to hold upright and try to coax your dog through.
Jumps are a fun obstacle to keep your dog agile and work on obedience, too. As your dog gets older, their joints can lose mobility. Frequent jumping exercises can help prevent that from happening. On the flip side, keep in mind that an older pup might not have the same spring in his or her step, and be prepared to adjust jumps to their ability.
Jump hurdles can be built easily using PVC pipes and joints. You can also create a jump obstacle by holding a hula hoop off the ground, or even tying a rope so that it is taut between two strong poles.
Make sure that you aren’t making the jump obstacle too high up. Your dog can start with small jumps and work up to going higher, but should be able to build confidence and achieve the jump with minimal exertion at first. Start with a jump that’s about an eighth of your dog’s standing height. For example, if your dog is two feet tall from shoulder to paw (24 inches), start with a jump that’s about 3 inches off the ground and work up from there.
See-Saws and A-Frame Ramps
Going up and down a ramp or see-saw obstacle takes balance, focus, and stability -- all important skills for your pup to develop.
If you’re handy with a saw and some plywood, it’s incredibly simple to put together an A-frame ramp or a see-saw. If you’re not so gifted at carpentry, you can purchase a sturdy, adjustable ramp obstacle at an affordable price at most pet stores and online retailers. In order to prevent accidents, it’s best not to exceed take any chances with DIY here -- ramps need to be stable and safe for your dog to use them.
Setting Up and Using the Obstacle Course
Once you have chosen the elements that you’re going to use, you can set them up in any order that you would like! Consider setting it up like you would a personal workout for a person -- featuring a warmup, a workout, and a cooldown. Perhaps use the weaving element as a starting point to get your dog’s heart rate up and get them “in the zone,” moving on other elements like jumps, tunnels, and ramps.
Lay the course out in a way that makes intuitive sense, and don’t crowd the obstacle course together. Remember that you can do a lot with a little bit of outdoor space, and you don’t need to include every element in every course that you set up. Weaving through some cones and jumping through a hula-hoop might even be enough for your dog for one day when you’re first getting started.
Coax your dog through the course using small treats as rewards, and make sure to offer some free play to run around unstructured after you’ve put some practice time in together. Above all, make sure that your dog is having fun while doing the activities on the obstacle course.