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Agility: Running the course

by Ernie Mill


The worldwide sport of dog agility is one of the fastest-growing canine sports ever, being enjoyed by competitors of all ages, from young teenagers to competitors who could be their grandparents. Similarly, the athlete of the team is your canine companion, who could vary from the smallest Miniature Pinscher to the largest Great Dane—and every mix in between. So what’s the big deal . . .?   It is just a bunch of jumps with a tunnel or two, a teeter-totter, dog walk, A-frame, weaves, at times the table (which these competition dogs hate because they are required to stay on the table typically in a down position and not get up until the handler releases them 5 seconds later), and a couple of other pieces of equipment to keep you guessing. No problem. Just walk into the 100’ x 100’ open ring with all of this fun equipment, dogs, and people running on all sides of you, remove your dog’s collar and leash, and just run the course.

Well, let’s back up a little. If it were that, simple the sport would have come and gone a long time ago.  First of all, these agility competitions are governed by several sanctioning organizations just like any other sport.  They are looking out for the sport and their athletic competitors. Therefore, dogs are typically not allowed to compete until they are 18 months old.  Not a problem, being that it will take you at least that long to learn the sport and how to train your dog.  Believe it or not, for the beginning handler, it is you not your dog that will take the longest to learn the sport. With the desire to compete, the 18+ months of training, and the joy of having your teammate next to you trying to make you happy, you sign up for your first trial.

Now it is just a matter of stepping into that 100’ x 100’ ring and following the numbered cones and doing it as fast as you can, right . . .?  Yep, it is that simple. You show up to the trial site at around 7:00 a.m. to get your dog measured and checked in. The dogs are grouped and compete by jump height, not by breed. So the measurement process is important up until they turn three or have reached the maximum jump height of 26.”  You are there with another two hundred or so doing the same thing. The caffeine from the coffee you had for the quick breakfast is starting to kick in, adding to the couple butterflies that just showed up.  You complete the check-in and crate your dog, allowing him to relax while you go and pick up the course maps for the events you entered in. 
Typically, there are multiple events that you would enter for each day of the trial.  While you are hunting for the correct course maps, your nerves are starting to add to the caffeine and butterflies.  Finally finding the correct course maps, you start to review them for the first time. The courses are never the same, so you have no idea what the judges are going to throw at you. Just as you finally start to calm down, thinking these courses look pretty straight forward, they announce it is time for your walk-throughs. You have spent a total of about 15 minutes reviewing three totally different course maps, and now you are allowed to walk the course.  Walking the course is probably the most important aspect for the success of your agility run. 

While walking the course, you need to keep in mind that it is your responsibility to guide your very fast teammate through a maze of fun equipment in the correct order, knowing that if he likes the tunnel better than the jump right next to it, an “off-course” is an immediate disqualification of that run. 

Therefore, how you plan on handling some of the more difficult areas also needs to be locked into your memory bank during this walking process. The handler guides the teammate through the course by hand and verbal cues. Most of these dogs learn the names of the equipment, so names of the equipment will be called out while running, along with the hand ques. Making sure you know where you need to be, and when, for proper and clear handling signals is just one more critical aspect of the memorization process. Then the horn goes off notifying you that the eight minutes are up and you need to go to the next ring and try to memorize your second course before the walk-throughs are over. 

agilityGuess what? Those butterflies and nerves have now not only come back——they’ve brought their friends.  You have now spent eight minutes on each course and teams are being lined up teams for their runs. Now it is time to get your rested teammate out of his crate, get him loosened-up and pottied, ready for his run.  Yes, those butterflies have pretty much overtaken your nerves, and the adrenaline kicks-in as your dog’s name is called to line up as the next team in. 

You are going through the entire course in your head, watching where the other teams have had their problems and not wanting to make the same mistakes. Your teammate has now started to drag you into the ring, wanting to take his turn. You put him in his start-line stay and lead-out for your run, hoping to remember the course you walked an hour ago. You release your athlete and run!  Forget about looking at the numbered cones, forget about the lesson you had last week, forget about the party you went to last night; in less than 30 seconds, you will have finished your run, and your teammate will be looking back at you hoping for that big smile on your face for another successful run.
So “Running the Course” is just a simple matter of following those numbered cones and doing it as fast as you can with your favorite canine companion.

Ernie Mill is currently the president of SMART (Salinas-Monterey Agility Racing Team). His two Border Collies, “Shelby,” a six-year-old tri-color, and “Jazz,” a three-year-old, both compete at the masters level, which is the highest level within the USDAA (United States Dog Agility Association). Ernie is also one of the partners in the new Carmel Canine Sports Center currently being built at 8100 Valley Greens Drive in Carmel.


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