Photo by Heidi Dahms Foster Once they get the hang of it, dogs can be truly impressive on weave poles
I just spent a very enjoyable Saturday photographing a dog agility trial in Chino Valley put on by the Top Dog Performance Club and the Northern Arizona Australian Shepherd Association.
Agility is, simply, an obstacle course for dogs. A handler directs the dog through the course, which it must complete in a pre-determined time limit. The dog and handler also must negotiate the course in order. Which is really where the fun starts.
Saturday's trial was open to all breeds and mixed breeds, so it was a chance to see several different breeds and how they tackle the different kinds of courses.
The beginner's, or novice, courses contain all the elements of the advanced courses, but in a simple, easy-to-follow pattern and with a longer time limit. The obstacles include an assortment of jumps set to the height of the dog, tunnels, a narrow plank dog walk set several feet off the ground, an "A-frame" on which the dog scrambles up one side and down the other, a teeter-totter (just like you had as a kid, dogs love to race up one side, wait for the other to drop, and leap off at full tilt), and six weave poles.
Of all the obstacles, the weave poles, a set of six or 12 flexible poles set close together in a row, is the most unnatural and therefore the hardest for the dogs to learn. But once they do, some of them zip through with so much gusto that it's downright fun to watch. I love to photograph these, because the dogs all have this crazed look on their faces, as if they are yelling TOO MUCH FUN!
After the dogs complete their Novice titles, they move on to Open and then to Elite, and after that can compete for Agility Championships in several different venues, adding a satisfying bunch of impressive looking letters after their names.
As the levels advance, the course carries the same obstacles, but adds six more weave poles for a line of 12. This is when semi-psychotic course designers conjure up devious ways to confuse handlers and dogs. If you're outside the ring and you hear a handler complain that his dog got "sucked into" an obstacle, it's because a course designer set up two obstacles close together, or turned them in such a way that an out-of-control dog or one that is not paying attention to its handler's commands can go on auto pilot and make its own course.
One of my friends once entered a high level agility trial in the Gambler's Class. This is a fun event in which the handler enters the course and in the time allowed, directs his dog over as many obstacles as possible, aiming for higher point value obstacles. Then, in the last few seconds, the dog must negotiate a mandatory strip of obstacles, such as a couple of jumps and a tunnel or two, before time is called. My friend's dog was so excited that she took off and just began running obstacle after obstacle by herself, racking up the points as the time ticked away. Then she went and jumped in the timer's lap. My friend got her pup's attention just in time to complete the required mandatory obstacles and win the class!
If you have an opportunity to see an agility demonstration, take it, because this real fun between a dog and its handler, and a great spectator sport. Best of all, virtually anyone can enjoy it -- not just the athletes. I've seen handlers with walkers and scooters take their dogs through the courses. Old dogs have their own special veterans classes. Young, elderly, skinny or plump can all participate, because it's just about good old dog fun.
Agility is bound to supply some belly laughs. If you can't laugh at yourself and your dog, don't bother with agility. Handlers get mixed up on the course, dogs do crazy things (if you think you have control of your dog, try agility!), and if a distraction can happen, it will.
Agility handlers enjoy a good run, because they know what it takes to get there. When it all comes together, the applause is spontaneous.
If you want to enjoy some agility online, you might start with YouTube. I found this one, just for starters. It's one that illustrates the complexity of the weave poles. When a dog runs them well, it's a beauty to behold. Click here to view this video.
Some of the elite agility trials are now on TV, and if you have a chance to watch, check it out. If you would like to try agility with your dog, a number of local trainers offer classes. Send me an email and I'll send you some that I know. If you teach agility, send me an email as well, and I'll add you to the list.