A matter of course Agility keeps dogs, handlers on the run

Posted: Monday, April 22, 2002

So Fido can sit, stay and roll over on command, but can he jump through hoops, navigate weave poles and negotiate a teeter-totter?

If he's involved in dog agility he can, and chances are he loves every minute of it.

Since it's inception in the central Kenai Peninsula two years ago, the dog agility program has grown by leaps and bounds, giving dogs and owners a rewarding way to exercise, bond and learn handling and obedience skills.

"It's a sport where the dogs have fun," said Cindy Mildbrand, who teaches two advanced dog agility classes for Peninsula Dog Obedience Group, the organization that operates the local agility program.

"It's a sport where you interact with your dog, and it's physically and mentally challenging for both the handler and dog."

Put simply, dog agility is a sport where a handler must direct a dog through a course of obstacles, including jumps, tunnels, bridges, A-frames, weave poles and teeter-totters, without touching the dog or giving them treats during the run, explained Mary Dougherty, who teaches beginning level classes for PenDOG.

Agility can be done just for fun or as a competitive sport, where the dog and handler compete in judged and timed trials for titles.

There are two basic types of courses in dog agility -- standard agility, which is the full obstacle course, and a jumpers course, which consists of jumps and tunnels -- and three different competitive levels of agility -- beginning, intermediate and advanced. There are several agility organizations to compete in throughout the United States, although there are only two in Alaska -- the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC).

Dog agility has been gaining popularity in the United States since about 1995. It started on the central peninsula after Mildbrand watched an agility competition in Seattle in 1998 and decided the sport would be fun to have at home.

She went to seminars, read books and watched videos on the subject and started to put together a program with the PenDOG group, she said. It took about two years to order and receive all the necessary equipment.

The program started with one agility class a week. Now there are seven classes and between 50 to 60 students. The group had to add two new classes in August last year to accommodate the 20 to 25 new people who joined.

"It's addicting," Mildbrand said. "Once you get bit it's hard not to do it. It's the kind of sport where people watch and say, 'I think my dog could do that,' and if you do come out, you usually find it's fun and want to continue."

Any breed and size of dog can participate. PenDOG has everything from a silky terrier to a Great Dane involved in it. The only restriction on involvement is a dog's age. Both Mildbrand and Dougherty said it can be harmful for puppies to be jumping before their growth plates are closed, which is usually about a year old. But younger puppies can still start learning how to navigate the obstacles set at very low levels.

The adage of "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" definitely doesn't apply in agility. There are even veteran divisions in competitions so older dogs can continue to participate in agility, as long as it isn't harmful for them to jump.

"I haven't seen a dog that can't do it yet," Dougherty said. "Some are not so motivated and others get so excited they go crazy out there, but they all do it.


Cindy Mildbrand and her dog Tanker run through an agility course last summer.

"It's a great social sport, the dogs have to get along with other dogs and other people. It's just a really healthy thing."

Prior knowledge of agility techniques or obedience is not required. Beginning level classes teach the dog and handler how to navigate the basic obstacles. Obedience techniques like sitting and staying on command also are taught at this level.

The mid-level classes build on those skills and start putting the obstacles together in sequences. Advanced classes focus more on speed, accuracy and advanced handling techniques, like how to give accurate commands and positioning on a course.

The extent of involvement and amount of time spent in agility is entirely up to the participant.

"It depends on how (a handler) works with their dog and what their goals are," Mildbrand said. "Some people don't do much more than come to class and some of us try to do something every day."

Classes meet once a week. Competing in agility usually requires practice at least a couple of times a week, if not every day.

"It takes time and commitment, just like anything," Dougherty said.

Any time spent working on agility is usually beneficial for both the dog and handler because it focuses on positive training techniques, like rewarding a dog for doing well, rather than punishing it for performing poorly.

"(The dogs) enjoy running and playing," Mildbrand said. "They enjoy doing the activities they're doing, and it's a sport where harsh training activities don't create advantages."

Whether a dog and handler are in it to compete or just for fun, agility builds a positive relationship between the two.

"It requires a good relationship with your dog," Mildbrand said. "If you don't have one already, you end up developing one. You end up with a dog that wants to come to you and wants work and play with you. It makes the dog a more enjoyable member of the household."

Anyone interested in joining a dog agility class can call PenDOG at 262-6846.

There will be an agility trial July 12, 13 and 14 at Skyview High School and another one is planned for Labor day weekend in Kenai. Watching a trial would be a good time for anyone interested to see what agility's all about, Dougherty said.

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