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By Peggy Helmick-Richardson
Those who doubt that dogs can really smile need only attend a dog agility event to change their minds.
On a recent spring Sunday afternoon, hundreds of dogs and their handlers gathered at the Myers Youth Park in McKinney to compete at a United States Dog Agility Association, Inc. (USDAA) event, sponsored by Dallas Dog Sports. Spectators watched as a multitude of dog breeds—including shelties, boxers, Labrador retrievers, Jack Russell terriers, poodles, Cairn terriers, Chinese crested, Boston terriers, Australian sheepdogs, border collies, Welsh corgis, as well as a variety of mixed breeds—strutted their stuff in the agility ring.
The USDAA defines dog agility as "a competitive sport that tests a person’s skills in training and handling of dogs over a timed obstacle course." The field includes hurdles to jump, ramps to scale, tunnels and chutes to run through, a teeter board to walk across, and weave poles to wind around.
Originating in England in 1978, the first sanctioned North American agility event was held eight years later. In 1988, the USDAA introduced The Grand Prix of Dog Agility, the first competitive series in North America. This organization has since added the Dog Agility Steeplechase and the Dog Agility Masters International Three-Dog Team Championship. The American Kennel Club (AKC) hosted its first dog agility competition in 1994. The AKC limits its agility competition to regis-tered breeds, but the USDAA welcomes both registered and mixed breeds.
At this Myers Youth Park contest, the level of proficiency for both dogs and their handlers varied from beginner to champion, but the support and enthusiasm extended to all. When a dog successfully maneuvered the complex course, everyone cheered
and applauded. And when another failed to clear a hurdle or skipped an obstacle, a collective sigh rippled through the crowd.
On this day, ten-inch tall Journey won first place in her size category in the Steeplechase competition.
Journey’s owner and handler Shelley Karber of Plano, declared, "I started out just to have fun with my dog. It never occurred to me in my wildest dreams to have a dog that can do what Journey does. She is cute, fun and sassy. The first time she saw a piece of agility equipment, she went nuts."
Another entry this day was seven-year-old golden retriever Kayla, owned by Donna Ward of Allen, who took second place in her division for the Steeplechase.
"I got Kayla from a golden retriever rescue organization when she was 18 months," Donna pointed out. "She hadn’t had much socialization and training and she couldn’t walk on a leash. Everything intimidated her and it took her a while to bond with us. Getting a ribbon and title is great, but the biggest thing is to see your dog happy, excited and having fun."
Although eight-year-old Skeeter, a black Labrador retriever owned by Julie Casey of Parker, holds a number of distinctive titles and awards, at this recent event, she did not perform at her top level. Julie shrugged it off, smiling. "That happens. That’s what makes it fun. Every competition is different."
After completing a flawless run through his course, Hemi, a six-year-old Pyrenean shepherd, high-fived her owner Elizabeth Evans of McKinney. She then bent forward and Hemi jumped on her back—a reward for a job well done.
Journey, Kayla, Skeeter and Hemi are only four of the 150 dogs that train at Best Friends Fun Farm in Mckinney. Elizabeth opened the training facility in 2000 and boasts 285 awards presented in 2008 to dogs trained there.
How Best Friends began
By the time Elizabeth got her first dog, Pepper, a Lhasa apso, she was in fifth grade and already an experienced dog trainer, having first practiced on her grandmother’s and neighbor’s dogs. "I had always trained dogs," Elizabeth points out, "but I never thought you could make a career out of it!"
A radio, television and film major at the University of North Texas, Elizabeth got her first post graduation job working in production for the Wishbone television program. It was here that she first observed professional dog training.
Elizabeth was introduced to dog agility in the mid-1990s and she started observing classes at Dallas Dog Sports. By that time, Pepper had grown blind and too old for strenuous physical activity. Within a few months, Elizabeth acquired Roxie, an 8-year-old border terrier with no previous agility training, to work with.
"We took her to the vet first to make sure she was in shape," Elizabeth emphasizes. In late 1996, she got a Polish lowland sheepdog puppy, Moseley, with the intent of training for agility once she was old enough. Elizabeth competed with Roxie for two years, until the border terrier’s vision began to fail.
By 1998, Elizabeth was also working as a part-time instructor for Dallas Agility Working Group in Murphy and had passed the requirements to be an agility judge.
During these years, Elizabeth and her husband, J.P., lived in Allen but dreamed of acquiring a home in the country with enough land to build a dog agility training facility. Although the couple found that suitable locations were out of their price range, they refused to give up. This determination paid off. Elizabeth and J.P. purchased their home and the property in southeast McKinney in 1999.
The following year, Best Friends Fun Farm was up and running with a 90-foot by 100-foot grass outdoor field. At first, Elizabeth worked part time as an agility instructor, while employed with the children’s television program Barney. In 2002, Elizabeth plunged headlong into making Best Friends a full-time endeavor.
The biggest hindrance at that time was rain, which meant canceling classes. So the decision was made to erect a 4,000-square-foot barn with a packed dirt floor and heat, lighting, ceiling fans and misters, allowing classes to meet, no matter the time or weather.
Today, Best Friends boasts both indoor and outdoor practice fields with the traditional agility props needed to properly train dogs. These include jumps of various heights, tunnels and weave poles to demonstrate flexibility, dog walks for balance, teeters and chutes to show trust, A-frames for strength and tables to establish control.
Racking up the ribbons
Through the years, Elizabeth and J.P.’s dog family grew.
In 1999, they adopted Haley, a border collie, now 11 years old. Before she retired because of age, Haley competed at the Excellent level in agility as well as in herding competitions.
Kiwi, now age 10, was adopted from a New Orleans shelter in 2000. In addition to her agility accomplish-ments, Elizabeth notes that Kiwi starred in six episodes of Barney as Bingo, the dog of Mr. Boyd.
Six years ago, Elizabeth and J .P. purchased Hemi, a Pyrenean shepherd. Hemi has already earned agility championships in both the AKC and USDAA categories, competed in the national AKC finals, qualified for the USDAA steeplechase, grand prix and team finals. In addition, Hemi was a regional winner in the 2008 Purina Incredible Dog Challenge and a finalist in the national competition. Because of this, she was been invited back this year to compete again at the summer event to be held in California.
In 2007, Hemi competed in the European Open in Italy and her team earned first place in team jumping. In May 2008, Hemi was selected as one of 12 dogs from the United States to compete as an International Federation of Cynological Sports (IFCS) world team member in Belgium. In addition to agility, Hemi has also earned titles in herding, confirmation, tracking and rally through the AKC.
By the time Moseley retired this past February, she had earned 103 titles in six different sports. "She is my heart," Elizabeth sighs, still missing competing with Moseley. "She is amazing. It is not the titles, but the time spent together learning new tricks."
For a beginning agility dog handler, Elizabeth estimates that approximately a year of training is needed before a dog is ready for competition. She advises that agility dogs train a minimum of one hour a week in class and two to three hours at home. Because of space limitations, most handlers purchase only one or two pieces of agility equipment to have on hand for at-home training.
Elizabeth emphasizes that people and their dogs can participate in agility training and classes and have no interest in entering contests. For them, agility training is simply a fun activity to do with their dog, and any dog that is healthy and not overweight can participate in agility activities. She also advises that dog owners would benefit from teaching their dogs basic obedience prior to joining an agility class.
Dog tricks is another training Elizabeth recom-mends. "Tricks are a great way to teach a dog body awareness, coordin-ation, balance and teamwork," she notes.
Elizabeth is not devoted to any specific training method, "I believe in flexibility and helping people figure out what works best for them and then teach them how to do it." She cites Shelley and her high-speed papillon, Journey, as an example. "Shelly has had to work a lot on verbal skills," Elizabeth notes, "because there is no way she could keep up with Journey."
Shelley concurs, noting her biggest challenge is "being able to think as fast as Journey runs."
Local dog stars
A program manager for Verizon, Shelley’s first tried agility training 12 years ago. At that time, her shih tzu, Tex, was having serious problems with shyness and a fear of inanimate objects that moved. A neighbor suggested agility training as a way to build his confidence. "I fell in love with the sport," Shelley exclaims. "It is absolutely the most fun, both physically and intellect-ually challenging for the handler and the dog." Tex was forced to retire early because of health problems.
Shelley then bought her first papillon, Sizzle, now age 10. "I have almost no yard so I wanted a small dog," she explains, "but I wanted one that was athletic, required little grooming, was tolerant of hot weather, and was smart, so I did some research."
Sizzle quickly proved Shelley’s choice was right on. He has earned Excellent level AKC titles, a Performance II level with the USDAA, and additional titles from
the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC).
Journey arrived four years later. This mini dynamo has achieved the designation of USDAA agility dog champion as well as championships in specific areas such as gamblers, jumpers, and relay. She has reached the USDAA bronze level in snooker and is a silver tournament champion. With AKC competition, Journey has risen to MX and MXJ level, which Shelley explains, is "the highest standard that can be achieved" in standard and jumpers for her division.
Last year Journey came in second place in the regional Purina Incredible Dog Challenge and fourth place in the national event. Another claim to fame that Journey can boast is being on the cover of Dog Fancy magazine.
Seven-month-old Race is the newest Karber papillon. Shelley points out that this puppy was selected primarily because it came from the same bloodline as Journey. "Journey is a once in a lifetime dog, and I wanted another dog with the same kind of drive and personality," Although Race is too young to begin agility training, Shelley is already seeing similar behaviors and attitudes.
Shelley trains at both Best Friends as well as another facility in Dallas. Because she does not have the space to set up equipment, at home she works with her dogs on "basic obedience and good manners." She also improvises, making practice equipment such as a wobble board from a plank of wood and big cans, "so they can get used to walking on something that is not stable."
Although Shelley recognizes the potential of bringing in many more agility titles and awards, she stresses, "I just want us to have the most fun possible, and wherever that leads us, that will be great!"
Donna Ward concurs. "Getting a ribbon and title is fun, but the biggest thing is to see your dog happy, excited and having fun."
A registered nurse working in wellness services for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Texas, Donna got involved in agility training after acquiring her golden retriever Sonora, now eight years old. "She was high energy and very smart," Donna explains. "We started training in obedience and she was bored with it." After watching a dog agility compe-tition on television, Donna decided to give it a try and signed up for classes at Best Friends. "Once we started doing it, we were totally hooked," she exclaims. Her now seven-year-old golden, Kayla, soon joined in the fun.
Although she still attends agility classes, Sonora developed health problems that affect her balance and limits her opportunities for competition. But she has achieved open jumper and novice titles through the AKC.
Kayla has earned her AKC masters standard title and masters jumper title and is now working toward her masters agility cham-pionship. For the USDAA, she has been awarded masters title in four of the five classes, needing only her gam-blers for her performance agility dog championship designation.
Now Donna is preparing her 13-month-old golden, Ruger, to follow in Kayla’s pawprints. "Ruger is in his beginner class and is very much in the learning mode," she notes. "It will be at least a year before I show him. But he has a lot of drive and energy."
She con-tinues, "It takes a while to get a dog ready to compete, but most of them really love it. And it is a great way to establish a strong bond with your dog."
Donna, who limits competitions primarily to local events, also has a great appreciation for the camaraderie of the agility community. "They are from all walks of life," she points out. "Kids as young as eight or ten, doctors, lawyers, PhDs and teachers all compete. I would encourage people to go out there and have fun. It can be a great family activity."
In addition to her dogs taking their own one-hour class each week at Best Friends, Donna devotes five to ten minutes, three to four times a week, with each dog on the jumps, weave poles and teeter in her backyard. "After a stressful day, there is nothing better than getting out there and playing with my dogs," she declares.
Almost-nine-year-old, Skeeter, is Julie and Terry Casey’s third agility Labrador retriever and they are now training two-year-old, Ticket, in preparation for entering the arena. "I got involved with my second lab, Dobber," Julie explains. "A friend at work was telling me that she was going to take her dog to agility class. It sounded like so much fun that I went to the class. That was back in 1996. We’ve been training and competing ever since." Dobber competed in agility events until she was over 12 years old, and earned her Agility Dog Champion designation, only the twelfth Labrador to earn this title.
The Caseys started training at Best Friends in 2003. That same year, Skeeter won several prestigious titles. Terry entered Skeeter in the 2003 ESPN Great Outdoor Games and the dog took the gold medal in the big air competition, defeating the record-holding champion in the process. To accomplish this, Skeeter jumped 23 feet, 3 inches from a dock into a pond.
"It was an unexpected and awesome win," Julie declares. In addition, 2003 was the year Skeeter set the national record for 60 weave poles in her height division at the Clean Run Alternate 60 Weave Pole Challenge.
Skeeter earned her Agility Dog Champion title in 2007 at the USDAA Dallas Dog Sports Agility Trials—she was the twentieth Labrador to do so. Although Terry and Julie place more emphasis on agility training with Skeeter, they have also had her compete in some hunt tests, where dogs demonstrate their skills in simulated hunting environments.
Julie, a software consultant for Texaco, takes Skeeter to agility classes at Best Friends once a week and also trains at home for at least 15 minutes, two or three times a week. Living on two acres in Parker, the couple has set up a complete agility course on the property for training.
They also opt to compete primarily in local events, participating in approximately 12 shows a year. "I just found that I enjoy the training aspect and the camaraderie with my classmates, so I decided not to show quite as much as I used to," Julie explains. "The most important thing is to keep it fun for you and your dog."
Working at play
Andretti, a Portuguese podengo pequeno, is the newest member of the Evans pack. Because of his age, Andretti’s primary job seems to be just looking adorable, but Elizabeth is already working with him to learn simple tricks that will eventually benefit his agility training once he is old enough. A hound originally bred to hunt rabbits, Elizabeth explains that her choice of this unusual breed was because "I like to have something different—a new challenge. I met one in October that I fell in love with. It had a great temperament and seemed athletic." She adds, "I also like having a dog small enough to travel in a duffle bag on an airplane with."
"I try to stress that everybody
who trains here has fun," Elizabeth emphasizes. "It is important that everyone who leaves the rings has had a great time with their dog. You want to have the best possible time with your best friend."
For more information about Best Friends Fun Farm, go to www.bestfriendsagility.com. If you want to see Moseley in action, select "Moseley enjoys retirement." For more infor-mation on dog agility, competitions, qualifications and equipment, go to:American Kennel Club www.akc.org; United States Dog Agility Association www.usdaa.com; Agility Ability www.agilityability.com.
Peggy Helmick-Richardson is a freelance writer.