Poised and confident, the runner waits at the starting line for his turn around the course. He’s been working toward this moment for more than a year, polishing technique on hurdles, improving stamina with wind sprints and eating well; now he’s ready. On a signal from his coach, he takes off on dead run, slowing only to maneuver over, around or through the 15 or so obstacles strewn about the field. Since he hasn’t seen the layout before, the athlete looks to his coach, who uses a combination of hand signals, voice commands and body language to steer him through the mazelike setup. He’s fast, and after less than a minute, he’s finished. Thrilled with the performance, the coach gives the runner something even better than a blue ribbon: a piece of freeze-dried liver.
Confused? Don’t be. The runner is actually a dog, and the sport is dog agility, which is taking the dog world by storm. According to the American Kennel Club, it’s the fastest growing dog sport in the United States, with a million entries in events in 2011. It works like this: directed by their owners, who use a language of special commands, dogs make their way through an obstacle course that includes several different kinds of jumps, plastic tunnels, weave poles, catwalks, a teeter-totter and an A-frame. As in horseback riding hunter/jumper events, the course must be run in a prescribed order. Unlike equestrian events, where horse and rider are physically together, dogs must be guided from afar. Points, which allow teams to advance to higher levels of competition, are awarded for time and, depending on the type of agility section entered, accuracy.
It’s quite competitive: times are measured down to a hundredth of a second. And while the agility ring can be intimidating for the owners, who must learn how to guide their dogs from point to point without touching them, “it should be nothing but fun for the dogs,” says Phyllis Beasley, a local trainer who competed with Laddie, her sheltie, off and on for more than eight years. “They have no idea when they mess up, so it should always be a positive experience for them.”
In Columbia, the Greater Columbia Obedience Club teaches agility and coordinates two AKC-sanctioned competitions a year, one in fall and the other in spring. Hundreds of dogs and owners come out for a sport that’s been called the Ultimate Dog Game. This year’s spring event will be held Easter weekend. “Our spring show is a great one for spectators because it attracts some of the best agility dogs in the Southeast,” says Thomas Owens, a USC professor who directs the club’s agility section, trains dogs for agility and competes with Jake, his 5-year-old border collie. Like many enthusiasts, he fell into agility almost by accident. “We were getting a border collie, which is a high-energy dog who needs a job, and knew we’d need something to keep him occupied,” he recalls. “Since I figured the neighborhood association wouldn’t be too keen on me keeping sheep in the yard for him to herd, I asked our puppy kindergarten trainer about agility. Although Jake was still a puppy — it’s usually best not to start until the dog is older and has completely finished growing — we decided that with his energy level it would be a good time to get him started.” Turns out they were right. Jake took to agility so well, racing over jumps and bridges without any of the fear that many dogs must work for months to overcome, that Thomas had to work at communication techniques to convince Jake to take direction.
And taking direction is key. Since dogs don’t know the layout of the course, their owners need to tell them, without slowing them down or confusing them. “We use every part of our bodies to tell them what do to,” says Diana Krause, who got started in agility about five years ago and now has three agility dogs, Guinness, Miley and Java, who is just starting out. “How you move your arms, turn your shoulders or run tells the dog something. It’s really amazing how they can pick up these things.”
Just to keep things interesting, courses are often set up with “traps” or illogical turns within the course meant to keep dogs and owners on their toes. “Traps are sneaky, and they really test your ability to communicate with your dog,” says Thomas. “They may have three jumps set up 20 yards apart, but you don’t go over the third one until after you’ve detoured into another obstacle,” he explains. “Since the dog has no way of knowing that, he needs to know to look at you after every jump instead of just going for all three.”
Like many agility participants, Thomas has found that the sport has helped keep his dog happy, tired (or, in Jake’s case, as tired as a border collie can be) and well-behaved in loud or busy places. “Done correctly, agility training is always positive for the dog,” he explains. “You’re asking your dog to try new things, like going over a jump or walking over a piece of equipment that moves, but since you’re going slowly and rewarding along the way, the dog learns that new environments are generally positive. You’ve just got to have loads of patience.” The results are worth it. Not only are “sits,” “stays” and “comes” remarkably reliable, but thanks to having learned to look to their owners for advice on how to behave in unfamiliar situations, agility dogs have the confidence to stay calm, no matter where they are.
If you’re interested in agility, the first thing to do is attend an event. Next, get up to speed on basic skills by taking an obedience class, preferably one that utilizes positive training methods like clickers. “Agility training is all about rewards and the relationship with your dog,” says Phyllis. Then the fun begins. Well, almost. “It takes a year of more from the time you start agility until you’re ready to compete,” she notes. “It’s very incremental because you don’t want the dog to have a negative relationship with a piece of equipment. They need to go at their own pace, with lots of love and treats along the way. But it’s so rewarding!”
But the dogs aren’t the only ones reaping rewards. Agility is a sport that anyone can enjoy, regardless of what kind of shape their in. “Your dog has to be an athlete, but you don’t,” laughs Thomas. It can also keep you busy: Diana travels to events about twice a month and spends a good bit of time perfecting technique. Even better, she lost 15 pounds when she started competing. “It keeps you moving,” she says.
The best part, though, is that working with your dog so intensely can enhance your relationship well beyond dog and owner. “They say it’s good to trust your dog, but great when your dog trusts you,” says Thomas. “Agility training, done correctly, teaches your dog that trust.”
To find out more about agility and the Greater Columbia Obedience Club, visit www.gcoc.net.
Photo Courtesy of Phyllis Ensley Photography