Gail Hubbard, of A Good Dogs Life in Asheville, knows this as well as anyone. She and her partner conduct about 15 dog agility training sessions a week. Their clients range in age from their twenties to their seventies. “We’re actually training people,” Gail says. ”Agility is definitely a team sport.”
Richard Jedwill agrees. He competes in agility regularly with his Border Collie, Switch. They train almost every day. Sometimes it’s at a special facility, but most often it’s on the equipment Jedwill has set up in their yard. “She enjoys it,” he says. “But I honestly think she’s doing it more for me than for herself.”
Switch is Jedwill’s second agility teammate. He started in agility in 2002 with Dulcie, an Australian Shepherd who was also a therapy dog while she was competing in agility. She is now retired from both careers, but reportedly still likes to run around a bit, though not as agilely as she one did. “First and foremost,” Jedwill says, “Dulcie and Switch are family pets – even members.”
When competing in agility, these family members have to run through courses that require them to negotiate A frames, teeter totters, chutes, tunnels, dog walks, weaves and jumps of all kinds. Even though it takes about a year and a half for dog and owner to gain enough proficiency at running a course to be ready for competition, most of those who start in dog agility stay with it. “It’s addicting,” Hubbard says.
Agility training is also a great way for person and dog to bond. Kay Loveland, clinical psychologist and Director at Camp Unleashed, a four-day camp for dogs and owners in Hendersonville, believes in agility’s value in strengthening the owner-dog relationship. She has made agility training one of the major activities available, although the focus is not on preparation for competitive events. As the web site says, “the emphasis at Camp Unleashed is on partnership with your dog and learning about your dog,”
Agility competitions are held in three ability levels – starter, open and excellent. Within each ability level, dogs compete within groups according to their height. The classification measurement, from the ground to the top of the withers (shoulder), is taken with the front feet on the ground. At the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) competitions, dogs in the championship division must be able to jump their height or higher. For example, 12” and 16” dogs must just their own height, while 21” dogs must jump 22”, and dogs over 21” must jump 26” or higher.
The winners in agility events are those with the fastest time through a course without faults, such as missing an obstacle entirely, knocking down a fence rail, etc. During the dog’s off-leash run, handlers are not allowed to touch either animal or obstacle, nor can they offer rewards as incentives. The dogs must respond only to voice commands, hand signals or body language from the handler, so good communication is critical to successful teamwork.
While the majority of agility competitors are purebreds, the American Kennel Club (AKC) supports having mixed breeds in sanctioned events. Dogs from the herding group tend to stand out in agility, probably because they have been bred from the inception to work with people. Think German Shepherds, Border Collies, Corgis. Sporting dogs, perhaps because they’ve also been bred to work with people, are also often successful at agility. And speaking of successful…
Ernie Bott, of Asheville, has been successfully competing with his Standard Poodle, Beau, for nine years at events all around America. The two work out often at Asheville’s Companion Dog Training School. President Carol Renton says that about a third of the school’s customers are there for agility training, which the school has been providing since the early ‘90s.
The Bott-Beau team has been together since Bott got Beau as a puppy from a Hendersonville breeder. Since then, they have traveled to events as far away as Scottsdale, Arizona. Beau travels in the car with Bott, not in a cage. And he doesn’t fly. Although Bott is retired after 26 years as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and a subsequent career flying and managing private aircraft, he doesn’t want to put Beau in a cage in a cargo hold. And when they travel to events, Beau stays with Bott in a pet friendly motel. Just as in all-human sports, dog agility teammates stick together.