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   The Truth About Agility

February 7, 2002-March 5, 2002

AGILITY - Page 1

Like an algae bloom in spring, agility fever has swept through dog lovers across the United States and around the world. In 2000, there were 261,000 dogs that competed in 877 agility trials.

Agility is an original piece of work by San Francisco artist Jack Lowry.

Order a full-color Agility t-shirt here!

Agility is a sport in which dog competitors of every size negotiate a complex obstacle course at top speed. Each dog has a handler who may give verbal commands, point, gesture wildly, and do most anything, except touch the dog, to get the animal to negotiate the obstacles in the correct order. Staying close enough to the dog to direct his actions requires considerable agility on the part of the handler also. Interestingly, agility has attracted participants who are commonly middle aged and, if not thick of ankle, at least no stranger to the term fibrillation. The combination of over-amped dogs and chunky, menopausal handlers negotiating courses of 150 yards in less than a minute clearly places agility near the top of the weird dog sports.

Agility has captured the heart and soul of dog trainers around the world. This is not difficult to explain. There are three reasons:

1. Competitive obedience training has ceased to be fun for many people. Somewhere along the way, obedience has become overly serious. The pall of tension hanging over the average obedience ring is palpable. For those of us whose daily life is fraught with tension, this extra dose of anxiety is not recreational.

2. Many agility competitions welcome mixed breed dogs. My Papillion regularly goes head to head with a terrier that traces his ancestry back to a street corner in San Francisco. This satisfied the American belief in equality and the leveling influence of democracy.

3. Dogs love agility. Since we love dogs, it makes us happy to see them happy. There is a sense of naturalness about agility. Dogs run, jump, climb, and scramble. They do dog work. Like kids, dogs love having an assignment and doing it well. Author Jane Simmons-Moake writes in her book about agility that it is, "…a visit to a doggy amusement park."


AGILITY - Page 2

The typical agility course, when seen for the first time, is an incomprehensible maze of obstacles. Each unique course is created by the judge who decides where the obstacles will be placed in the ring and the order in which the dogs must negotiate them. Some judges are more sadistic than others, creating tight turns and confusing patterns that require spectacularly precise teamwork. Racing against the clock, dogs dive through tunnels, jump through a tire, race across a teeter-totter, gallop across a narrow "dog walk", lie or sit on a table for five seconds, and scale a tall A-frame.

In competition, both speed and accuracy count as teams negotiate the obstacles. Dogs must complete the course in the required time, which is determined by the length of the course. Small dogs are given a few seconds longer than big dogs according to mathematical formula. However, on the climbing obstacles such as the dog walk and the A-frame, dogs must also clearly touch their feet inside a designated contact zone. This is a safety feature to keep excited dogs from using these obstacles as a runway to put themselves into a flight pattern. Despite this precaution, several dogs in each trial manage to exceed the Kittyhawk's first efforts.

Since dogs of different sizes compete in agility, the height of some obstacles is changed accordingly. Toy dogs may jump only eight inches while Border Collies may jump twenty inches or higher depending on their shoulder height. On the other hand, all dogs must climb the same A-frame. It may appear that a Chihuahua is ascending into thin air as they scramble up the steep incline, but virtually any healthy dog can learn to negotiate the obstacle.

In agility, dogs compete at a variety of levels from novice to international levels. The difficulty of the course and the number of obstacles vary between classes. Novice dogs run relatively straight lines between obstacles that are placed at some distance from each other. Advanced level courses twist, turn, double back, serpentine, and require dogs to discriminate between several obstacles placed side by side. One might equate the beginning levels of agility with high school graduation and the higher levels with doctoral work.

AGILITY - Page 3

Prior to the beginning of each competition, dog handlers are allowed to enter the ring without their dogs and memorize the course. This is called the "walk-through." The walk-through thrusts agility, unchallenged, to the pinnacle of dog sport weirdness.

During this activity, the agility ring is jammed with competitors with two purposes. The first is to memorize the order of obstacles. The second is to decide how they will move, point, turn, gesture, and talk to their dog to get through the course as accurately and quickly as possible. The result is a large group of adults wandering through obstacles waving their arms, turning in circles, and shouting, "Stay" to an empty teeter-totter.

To seasoned agility competitors, the walk-through has lost its weirdness. They walk and jog the course with arms flying, guiding an invisible pooch with a series of command that sound like, "OveroutclimbcometurnweavehereCOMEtabledown." For the innocent person who wanders by, there is a universal alarmed response: "What in the world are those people doing?"

At an agility trial, not only are the spectators alarmed. Many of the competitors enter a state of high anxiety. Memorizing agility courses is an art form, and it does not come easily to many competitors. In fact, getting lost during a run has resulted in many otherwise bright people brought to standstill in the middle of the course, completely befuddled and muttering, "I have no idea where I am." Normally, this type of behavior results in hospitalization. In agility, it results only in loss of a significant entry fee and public humiliation.

AGILITY - Page 4

Agility dogs can generally be separated into six groups by their approach to the sport:

The Driven Dog lives to perform a task. Every fiber in her being is focused on some job that might be herding the cat, chasing a ball, or running an agility course. These dogs are the Type A's of the agility world. With good training, the driven dog can win agility in the morning and hold down a paper route in the afternoon. In the agility ring, these dogs run with afterburners. The crowd hushes. They finish the course in half the required time. They compete with each other for tenths of seconds.

The All Business Dog is a generalist. This type of dog prefers a day with an equal mix of ball chasing, grass nibbling, napping, toy chewing, and a short agility training session. They approach each activity seriously and competently. When they enter the agility arena, they are no-nonsense performers. Dogs in this category make one think of briefcases and commuter mugs.

The Eager but Silly Dog would be selected as class clown if they were kids in school. They are exuberant and goofy. These dogs frequently spin between agility obstacles or bark wildly as they run a course. Occasionally, these dogs will see an old friend outside the agility ring or someone eating Chicken McNuggets and make a beeline for them from somewhere between a tunnel and dog walk. This type of dog is charming but hard to trust. They require that family friends view agility competitions from a distance that requires binoculars.

The Introvert is the type of dog who is simply uncomfortable with the showiness of agility. As the person, they would be intense and self-employed. In agility, they appear nervous and uncertain. They would probably be more comfortable in a solitary activity devoid of applause. These dogs can sometimes be lured out of their shell with a soft hand.

AGILITY - Page 5

The Mind is Willing but the Body is Challenging Dog generally falls on either end of the size continuum. Dogs that are the size of fullback or have very short legs are at a serious disadvantage in agility. If you pick a breed that was developed for entering narrow burrows or could be sold to the pony rides, you simply have less chance of going to the Super Bowl of agility. However, many of these dogs do overcome their challenges and earn a number of degrees.

The You-Can't-Mean-Me Dog comprises about 1% of the population. A few dogs simply do not see agility as their life's work. If you have one of these dogs, it is best to consider a second dog or borrow the neighbor's Border Collie.

Three organizations offer agility events. Each offers different agility titles from beginner to advanced levels. Each title comes with an abbreviation, as do obedience degrees. If one is successful in agility, one might have a dog with the following name and titles: CH. Matanzas Master Plan MA, MAJ, MACH, NAC, EAC, NATCH, EAC, MAD. Serious agility competitors need a wheelbarrow to transport their dog's name.

If you have a sound dog of any size with the energy to race around a field for a minute or two and an ego the size of a house, you have the right stuff for agility. Otherwise, stay home and practice down stays.



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