Dogs dash through Labor Day agility trials

Posted: Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ice, a Sheltie, ducked between white poles. Heidi Vania ran past an A-shaped platform as her Sheltie scuttled over it. The canine sprinted off the A-frame and headed for a hurdle. The dog leaped and strands of fur pressed backward as it cleared the pole bar.

Photo By Tony Cella
Photo By Tony Cella
Heidi Vania catches her pooch, Ice, after a successful run through the obstacle course last Monday.

Last Labor Day weekend, central Peninsula dog owners participated in American Kennel Club sponsored agility trials. Dogs competed on two different grounds: a traditional obstacle course, and a serpentine hurdle-run with weaving poles.

Dori Lynn Anderson, a member of the club's Agility Committee, said that Shelties and border collies usually get the best times, but any breed can compete, including hybrids. The dog trainer said that some canines take to it naturally, but the club only accepts participants with mild temperament. Basic obedience training is a must. Agility classes, and watching other handlers run their dogs can help as well, she said.

Carri Noel took her advice. In addition to handling her Siberian husky Jade, the college student observed from the sidelines, and replaced felled jump bars. Noel learned about the sport through a friend, and begged Anderson to teach her when discovered classes were full.

Noel, a first time competitor, entered the 3 1/2-year-old into the Novice section this year.

"It's not only an adrenaline rush. It also strengthens the bonds between the dog and the owner," she said.

Trial judge Howard Etzel said that there are three different rankings: Novice, Open and Excellent. The last being the most difficult.

In each class, participants start off with 100 points. Judges subtract for each rule infraction. These include knocking down hurdles bars, running through the wrong obstacle, and un-authorized bathroom breaks. Judges subtract one point for each second over the standard time. Officials measure the course and multiply the distance by the required speed -- yards per second -- for the specific dog's height.

Beginning dogs can skip a maximum of two obstacles before disqualification, called a refusal. Five points are subtracted for each refusal. Beginning canines need a total of 85 points to qualify. If the dog bests three courses, they earn the title of Novice; the same goes for every other class. Canines competiting in for an Open ranking must score 85 or higher as well, but they can only refuse one obstacle.

Excellent, the top ranked dogs, must keep all 100 points to qualify. That means no refusals, rule infractions or slow poking during their runs. Once a canine qualifies in that category 10 times, they become a Master.

Vania is part of the 12-member team representing America at the German trials. Agility training is a work out for both man and man's best friend, according to the handler. The 18-year trial veteran said that she hired a trainer to improve her running and sticks to a diet. The Sheltie goes for jogs and works its core muscles with ball exercises, similar to the Pilates work out.

Before the trials, handlers walk the course. Vania likes to kneel on the ground to see what's in front of Ice after exiting obstacles like shoots and tunnels.

A dogs natural path may lead them to the wrong obstacle. Vania said that she points her feet in the direction of the next object.

"Body motion and body position over-rule what you're saying," according to the handler.

But dog owners use verbal commands too. Noel's Husky knows the difference between left and right. Other handlers lose their sense of direction during the race, and prefer yelling "twist," Anderson said. In either case, the words instructs the dog to go in the opposite direction of their owner.

Some trainers called out the obstacle's name as the pet approached it. Many handlers purred as their dog headed toward the weaving poles.

Dogs sprint between the poles in a criss-cross pattern. It's supposed to be one of the more difficult, if not toughest obstacle, devised by the Kennel Club.

"In the wild there's no reason they'd have to do that," said Vania.

To teach the maneuver, Anderson sets up poles for the dog to run through, then narrows the channel until the canine naturally bobs through.

Ice's paws touched the grass after a successful leap. The dog bounded over another platform then took a final leap into Vania's arms.

To keep the dog in shape, she travels to the Outside monthly for competitions. The big city crowds lack the intimate atmosphere of the Kenai trials, she said. However, despite the competitiveness, Vania believes that other handlers find novelty in working with an Alaskan.

She joked, "if you're from California, it's a whole 'nother story, but if you're from Alaska they'll love you."

Tony Cella can be reached at

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