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Athletes Unleashed

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— July 15, 2017

Athletes Unleashed

  • Are you and your dog bored with the daily walk? Agility might be the way to go.
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Be it a brawny Bullmastiff, a petite Papillon or your average mixed-breed pooch, dogs need exercise as much as their humans—and sometimes, like people, just can’t find a reason to get their butts off the couch. Face it, how many cattle are there to be herded or sleds to be pulled in your neighborhood?

Dog agility gives both people and their canine pals a fun excuse to get moving. In this sport, the human handler directs his or her dog through tunnels, over teeter-totters and around a dozen or more other obstacles placed along a course.

While the dogs are racing to complete the course in under 40 seconds, the handlers are often trotting alongside, giving the dog cues to accurately navigate the route. The course size and obstacles vary depending on the competition class, club and event organizers, according to Gail Storm, a senior agility field representative with the American Kennel Club.

Thousands of dog-handler duos compete in agility competitions each year. The United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), now 40,000 members strong, was started by canine fans from Dallas-area dog clubs in the mid-80s, about seven years after the first agility demonstrations were seen at the Crufts Dog Show in England. In the mid-90s the American Kennel Club (AKC) also began hosting agility trials. Today, these groups, along with the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC) and other organizations, conduct thousands of events each year in the US and abroad.

Winning teams at these events usually take home a trophy, ribbon or small cash award, and dogs accumulate points that go toward their annual club ranking. Some national and international competitions may pay as much as $10,000 to the top dog, but most teams simply compete for fun and bragging rights.

The Language of Competition

Handlers cannot touch the dogs or obstacles while on the course, but they do use verbal and non-verbal commands. The dogs are so adept at reading body language that some handlers can direct from a distance, Smith says.

However, any slight movement, even a dropped shoulder or missed step, can slow the dog or send the animal off course, says Dan Wolfson, who competes with border collies Stella and Piraat.

“Motion and body cues almost always override the verbal cues with any dog,” says Wolfson, a finance director from Palmetto, Florida, who became interested in agility in 2004 after watching his daughter train her puppy. “You really need to focus on what your body is doing. Ninety-nine percent of the time, mistakes on the course are a result of handler error.”

It’s All Good

In the end, no matter how the competition goes, every dog is a winner. “The best dogs are the ones who never know they set a foot wrong,” Storm says. Freeze-dried minnows, cheese or chicken bites are popular with the pets, along with toys and plenty of praise.

“I just love seeing the look on my dogs’ faces when we’re done,” Wolfson says. “I’m competitive and I want to do the best I can, but the dogs, they just want to go out and have a good time. They don’t know what ribbons are, they just think they are playing a game.”

Jumping Into Agility
Want to find your dog’s inner athlete? Start by watching an online video, then find an agility trial to visit in your area through the governing organizations:
>> AKC: akc.org/events/agility
>> NADAC: nadac.com
>> USDAA: usdaa.com
If agility looks like something your dog might enjoy, contact a local club and ask about trainers or try a self-training workshop through an online video, class or seminar. To compete you’ll probably need to register with one of the clubs and pay an entry fee, but fees are minimal and experienced handlers are generally willing to help newcomers.

Light training can begin early with simple games like laying a stick on the ground and teaching the puppy to walk over it, Wolfson says. Smith adds that interested older dogs can also learn agility.

Training sessions are usually short, fun, energetic affairs lasting 15 minutes or less several times a week, depending on the age and personality of the dog.

Weekend trials are open to handlers of all ability levels and any dog can compete. Border collies and other herding dogs seem to have an innate talent for agility, but mixed-breed dogs and shelter animals also do well, Smith says. She adds that some heavier dogs, such as mastiffs, may have a harder time, saying, “It’s like you won’t see Clydesdales running in the Kentucky Derby, they just aren’t built for it.”

AGILE CATS
Who says agility training is just for dogs? These courses have become a part of cat shows, too—cathletes even crashed this year’s Westminster Dog Show.
Like dogs, cats can be trained to sprint up ramps and leap over obstacles, and breeds that tend to be active—Bengals and Sphinxes, for example—are more naturally inclined to take on the agility challenge. Where the two species differ is in motivation: Dogs will run the course to please you, their pack leader, while cats will run the course to please themselves. Or not, if they’re just not feeling it that day.
Cat agility handlers use wand toys to take the cat through the course; in training, handlers use clickers and treats to let cats know they’ve done the right thing. If you’d like to get your kitty involved, visit International Cat Agility Tournaments at catagility.com. —Lisa James

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