By Jesse Wolfersberger
Through a tunnel. Over an A-frame. Weave through poles. Lay down on the platform. Jump the hurdles. Good dog.
Where dog shows are beauty pageants for pampered pets, dog agility is an Army obstacle course for man’s best friend. A dog maneuvers the course while its owner leads and instructs. Dogs are guided by verbal commands and hand signals.
Although the patrons say they just like giving their dogs exercise, the ultimate goal is competition.
Dog agility is a growing phenomenon in America. Albuquerque, Lubbock and Amarillo all host dog agility competitions and national competitions have been broadcast on ESPN.
Dogs are timed from start to finish with time penalties assessed for infractions.
“It’s a neat sport,” said Dr. Mike Rowley, who entered his dog Maggie, a border collie, in a competition New Year’s Eve in Amarillo. “My favorite part is just seeing your dog and you work together. Seeing her go through for the first time I was totally thrilled. Her only problem is her handler.”
Rowley, a Clovis radiologist, is among a handful of dog lovers who assemble Wednesday nights to train their dogs in agility at Rewards Dog Obedience School.
Craig Stark of Portales said he had been taking his dog, Daisy, a red heeler, to obedience classes at the dog school when he heard about dog agility.
“It’s a whole lot of fun,” Stark said. “It’s fun to see how you can train your dog and to work with your dog in concert.”
Instructor Dee Durland helps the dogs and their owners practice the course.
“I really like seeing the people succeed really well with their dog,” Durland said. “They are really committed to it. It’s not something you can do just now and then.”
Durland said the program, started a few years ago, has been trial and error.
“I think the weave poles are the hardest,” Durland said. “It took us almost a year. We tried a bunch of different methods because we’d never done it before. It’s very unnatural for a dog to do that.”
The course at the school is smaller than ones found at competitions, which generally have more than 20 obstacles.
Tom Merton of Clovis brings his two German shepherds, Heidi and Kaiser, to the classes every Wednesday.
“I like it because it’s active,” Merton said. “It’s good exercise for the dog and for the person doing the training too. You both get a workout.”
Of the six dog owners in Durland’s advanced dog agility class, only Rowley has entered a competition.
“The others were a little weary of starting and I finally said, ‘Let’s just go out there, I don’t care how we do, let’s just have fun,’” Rowley said. “And we did really well, and I think all these dogs are ready.”
Rowley said Maggie had the fastest time in three events at Amarillo.
Stark said he plans on taking Daisy to a competition in the near future.
“As soon as one comes within reasonable driving distance, we’ll sign up,” he said.
Durland said she hopes the sport catches on in the area so someday they can host a competition in town.
“It’s fun from the spectator’s point of view, it’s fun from the trainer’s point of view, and it’s fun for the dog,” Durland said. “I know there must be more people interested in it that just don’t know we do it.”
The U.S. Dog Agility Association was founded in 1986 and currently has 25,000 registered competitors.