Agility Outings are the Stuff of Which Doggie Dreams are Made

Escape Artist/DeAnne Musolf Crouch 7/8/01

News-Press Staff Writer

If there are two things that go together, it’s fun and dogs.

Mia Grant, Goleta Valley Dog Club trainer, couldn’t agree more. And one of the best ways to bring the two together, she feels, is through agility.

“Agility is all about fun,” says Miss Grant.

The Goleta Valley Dog Club started in February, 2001. Miss Grant has been teaching dog behavior for 10 years, agility for a year and half. After eight months of agility with Max, her border collie-Australian cattle dog cross, they’re already competing at the masters level in the United States Dog Agility Association.

“You could say we’ve been very successful,” Miss Grant says.

Agility itself has been going on for over 10 years in the U.S., longer in England, where it was originally inspired by equestrian stadium jumpers. The sport has since evolved its own additional obstacles, scoring systems and performance ideals. Agility made its debut as an entertainment for spectators at the Crufts Dog Show in 1979; it has since become the most rapidly growing dog sport in England, Western Europe and North America. Spectators at competitions get caught up watching the enthusiasm of the dogs and handlers in their athletic race against the clock.

But the main point of the Goleta group, says Miss Grant, is fun. “Some groups are really competitive. We’re here for everyone,” says Miss Grant. “We want to be a place where people come and have fun with their dogs and each other.”

With that in mind, Miss Grant pulls up to Girsh Community Park behind Costco in the club’s panel truck, filled with what looks like the makings of a carnival: colorful ramps, tires, jumps and poles.

It is instead the bones of introductory and intermediate agility (“none of us are really advanced,” Miss Grant observes).

Dogs and handlers have all taken basic obedience courses (“unless they’re naturally well-behaved,” adds Miss Grant). But no out-of-control nor aggressive dogs are allowed.

Once dogs and their people arrive for the class (which lasts about 50 minutes per session once a week for six weeks) they begin warming up, doing whatever the canine enjoys—playing ball or doing heel work to make sure handlers have the dogs’ attention. Most people come out simply because they love their dog.

“A lot tell me they’ve seen it on TV—on Animal Planet or ESPN’s ‘Incredible Dog Challenge’ and they think ‘my dog can do that,'” Miss Grant says, then adds, “and, you know, they can.”

The oldest dog she’s currently working with is 8 years old and didn’t learn agility until it was 7.

“That’s a senior citizen in dog years,” Miss Grant marvels. “Any dog can learn, as long as there are no physical ailments.”

There are also no size restrictions. In fact, the club’s star students range from a three-pound papillon to a rottweiler that clocks in at around 100 pounds, though large dogs are more limited (fitting into the tunnel gets difficult, for example).

Once the colorful obstacles are set up, the field has a festive atmosphere. Then the fun begins. The group starts with the jumps. The jumps were inspired by the grand prixes in show jumping events with horses (“you’ll find a lot of horse people doing agility with dogs,” Miss Grant notes). For this beginner class, a row of four jumps is set up at angles, at a height of about 10 inches (the top height is 26 inches.)

Miss Grant explains that each handler will line up outside the jump standards and run down the jumps, giving the dog the command “over” just before the jump so the dog starts to associate the command with the behavior. “You learn a lot with jumps in terms of handling skills,” notes Miss Grant. Ideally.

In reality, however, beginners often jump the jump with their dogs to get them started, to model the behavior. You can just see the dogs thinking, “if she can do it, I can do it” and then taking the leap.

Miss Grant consoles the handlers by telling them that her dog once stopped in the middle of a tunnel and she had to crawl through and push her out the other end. “It was a hot day and it was shady in there,” Miss Grant explains. “She’s a little bit of a diva.”

At a competition in Ventura, a dog once ran out of the ring, jumped in the ocean, then ran back and finished the course.

On agility courses, dogs “run naked,” says Miss Grant. That means no collar, no leash, no treats. Just dogs and handlers. For the beginning class, however, Miss Grant encourages owners to bring whatever the dog loves most. Smoked salmon? Tennis ball? A leash? Dog’s stuffed pumpkin? They’ll use it. A handler dangles salmon—like the proverbial carrot—to lure his dog over the jump. He does the jump and is duly rewarded. Another throws the tennis ball after several jumps. In no time, one can see dogs putting it all together: “If I just do this, I get it.”

And everyone gets into the fun of the sport.

“All the training is positive,” Miss Grant tells the group. “You want the dog to love it, so it’s got to be fun, so they’ll associate that with agility.”

Indeed, once a dog gets into it, all handlers have to do is tell the dog “We’re going to agility” and you get what’s termed “pre-agility whining.”

Miss Grant laughs, “My dogs recognize the tennis shoes I wear for it—now when they see them go on, they run for the door.”

Next, dogs take their handlers through the weave poles, which the dogs run like a slalom ski course. Today they are slanted, so dogs new to the poles can go straight down them. But one day, they’ll run ’em with their bodies hugging the race poles.

“The goal is to get a dog to go around an entire course at speed clean—making no mistakes,” Miss Grant tells the group. “There’s a common saying: run clean, run fast—for dog and handler, the team.”

With today’s slanted weaves, the novices walk down the center line, most following a lure. Miss Grant has the teams practice on both sides. “Dogs end up being left or right handed—just like handlers, so it’s important to practice on both sides,” Miss Grant explains. “They have a strong side. It’s … like a lot of sports in that regard.”

She admits the weave poles are the hardest obstacle, requiring a lot of practice to be good and consistent. But when the dogs figure out the weaves, they really enjoy it. Indeed, as the teams work the weaves, you see a little light bulb go off over their heads and then it becomes a lot of fun.

Meanwhile, points come off if they enter on wrong side (poles must be on the left shoulder for dog), and if they pop out and miss a pole. But at this stage, it doesn’t matter. Most are caught up in the fun or watching the dogs running. They clearly dig the new challenges presented to them in the obstacles, especially the working breeds such as border collies and Australian shepherds.

“A good handler is one who really knows the dog and can have enthusiasm no matter how frustrated they get,” says Miss Grant. “Some of the best handlers are the kids—’cause they have an affinity with the dogs, more of a rapport with animals than adults and have a sense of fun.”

Every now and then, the group experiences a flash of that affinity and sense of fun coming together, and sees the fluidity and speed. The handler and dog are operating as a unit, totally in sync with each other. Miss Grant smiles, “It’s a nice goal to strive for—you’re looking to have that kind of connection with your dog.”

Next, the dogs take on what are known in agility-speak as contact obstacles: the teeter-totter, the dog plank and the A-frame. They’re called contacts because the bottom of each obstacle has a contact zone the dog must get at least one paw into before exiting.

“It’s a safety thing,” says Miss Grant. “It keeps them from jumping off. We want people to have a good time and we feel better if they know how to do it safely—otherwise dogs can get hurt and people (can) too.”

The group starts walking dogs through it on leashes, with the A-frame lowered very, very low (though it can be raised as high as six feet). Each dog walks up one side and down the other, then comes to a stop at the bottom. Most also stop at the top to enjoy the view, though that’s not really part of the program. They also employ the favorite food or toy lure.

Handlers get psyched when the dogs achieve this one. “Oh. My. God—He’s going up the A-frame,” one woman exclaims.

Indeed, it’s impressive when it gets high and they’re flying over the thing. At the beginning, however, the goal is confidence building, teaching the dogs that everything’s fine. “That way, when it’s full height, it’s not a scary thing because they never had a bad association with it,” notes Miss Grant.

Miss Grant encourages handlers to take it slow. “A lot of dogs haven’t been the most active dogs in the past and you want to build them up—they’re little athletes,” she says. The dog plank is like the A-frame, but lower, with a longer walk in middle.

The tunnel is also made easier (it’s shortened and straightened so dogs can be called through it), though eventually it will be up to 17 feet long and twisted so they can’t see out the other end. The group quickly discovers, however, that dogs generally love the tunnel in any configuration. Miss Grant asserts, “It’s the obstacle they take to the best.” Dogs and handlers are exuberant, panting. “It’s definitely exercise—there’s a lot of running around,” Miss Grant points out. “It’s healthy for dogs and handlers.”

Next is the scariest of them all: the teeter-totter. Even started low, it moves and that intimidates some dogs. Miss Grant coaches handlers to walk next to the dog and issue the command “easy” or “steady” so they’re not surprised when it shifts. For some dogs, she assists in letting the teeter down by hand so it won’t be so fast and dogs won’t be afraid.

The final obstacle is the tire jump. Handlers sit their dogs on one side of the tire, hold the dog, put the leash through the tire and the dog jumps through, circus style. Pretty quickly, the dogs are jumping through without the leash as if they’ve been training for Barnum & Bailey all their lives.

Some dogs are now tired (“it’s brain work for them and it wears them out,” Miss Grant notes), though their owners are still having fun. Others go back to favorite obstacles to practice individually. Miss Grant stresses that patio furniture and garden tools can be used to set up practice jumps and weaves at home. She also explains that the goal of this beginning course is “to handle your dog off-leash on a low course.

“But the real goal is having fun with your dog, particularly for kids,” says Miss Grant. “We have a mother and son who come out and the mother runs her dog and the son runs the neighbor’s dog. And they all have a really good time.”

DeAnne Musolf Crouch, a Santa Barbara-based free-lance writer, may be reached at deannemc@aol.com.