Agility Competitions Provide Fun Outlet For Energetic Dogs
By ADAM RUSSELL
Torch, a steely eyed, red-merle Australian Shepherd, or Aussie, barks and squeals a high-pitched yelp in jealousy as Chigger, an 8-year-old, blue merle Aussie exits an adjoining kennel and makes his way to the agility course.
Torch and Chigger are owned and trained by Mike and Holly Press of H and M Aussies in Athens. Torch is the reigning Australian Shepherd Club of America overall and elite national champion.
Chigger's competitive days have passed. It's rare, Press said, that the dog gets a chance to run in a match environment. But, Chigger is showing signs he's up to the mark.
On a recent Friday evening more than 25 dogs and their owners gathered for a "fun match" prior to a sanctioned Canine Performance Events agility competition the next day. The fun match gives owners and pets an opportunity to practice, mingle with their respective colleagues, and as the name implies, have fun.
There are 16 dogs participating in the fun match. The dogs range from Press' Aussies, Border Collies, and a pure bred German shepherd, to a Welsh corgi, shelter/rescue dogs and mutts. The owners range from expert trainers who have been competing for more than a decade to owners just trying to get their dog some exercise and rein in bad behavior.
Terry Dyck, owner of the course and training facility CM Streek in Frankston, first became attracted to the sport after watching a competition on Animal Planet. She now trains about 25 dogs and works with their owners at the dual-course training center.
"It was scary as a beginner," she said. "Neither of you know what to do. The handler and the dog are learning."
Learning begins with one obstacle and adding others, she said.
Her dogs include three retired agility competitors, a Chihuahua, and a rescue dog, Chance.
Ms. Dyck said the fun match is a chance for owners and dogs to play and practice. She said some do what they know, such as jumps and tunnels. Others practice new challenges, she said, and dog control, such as instructing them to "check," or stop, on yellow fault spaces to teach focus.
"The name of the game is time," Ms. Dyck said. "The fastest time wins."
Awaiting Chigger is a 20-obstacle course featuring weaves, various jumps, tunnels, a see-saw and a 36-foot-long, foot-wide dog walk. The dog is excited but is attuned to Press' instruction.
When Press gives the signal, a wave of his hand and a shout, Chigger bolts from a sitting position toward six vertical poles lined up with room for the dog to rapidly weave in and out. In a flash Chigger is through the weaves, and Press motions toward a 20-inch jump resembling a hurdle.
Dirt and grass kick up as Chigger's paws dig toward the jump. Press circles with the dog and points to another jump, then a 20-foot flexible tunnel, which twitches and bounces as the dog speeds in and out and on to another jump. Chigger is then aimed at the see-saw. The see-saw is painted red with yellow ends. Each dog must touch yellow when entering and before exiting the obstacle or it is considered a fault. Faults add time.
As Chigger scampers full speed up the obstacle and its skyward end drops to the ground, Press instructs the dog to stop on the yellow. Chigger stops, sits and waits. Press digs for a treat, gives it to the dog, then gives a signal to continue. Chigger speedily obeys.
It takes the dog and its owner, who tracks the dog through the course to give direction and instruction, about 40 seconds to complete the 20-obstacle course which is spread over a 30-yard area.
After Chigger flies over the final two jumps the dog leaps into the waiting arms of Press who scratches his belly, receives a tongue lashing, and gives him some verbal praise before dropping the dog back to Earth.JUST FOR FUN
Stormy, an easily distracted, high energy, hyper vigilant 5-year-old Border Collie-Blue Healer mix, sits in the shade with her owners, Ralph and Marilyn Gruebel. The couple and their dog are "super beginners," Mrs. Gruebel said.
Mrs. Gruebel called Stormy a "problem child" and said agility training has been good to focus the dog's energy, improve her social skills and give some structure.
They've been working with a trainer for six months, Mrs. Gruebel said.
The Greubels rescued Stormy from a shelter. Before her stint in doggy-prison Stormy ran the streets with a pack of "wild" dogs, Mrs. Gruebel said. Stormy is great with people and children, she said, but she still fears other dogs. Stormy bristles at any assertive behavior from the surrounding horde of hounds.
They made the trip from Nacogdoches for the fun match and didn't compete in the sanctioned event.
Focus is not Stormy's strength. Stormy has yet to complete a full course without a fault or skipping obstacles altogether, Mrs. Gruebel said.
"We're just coming to play," she said. "I like to have fun and when she finally focuses she has fun and we have fun."
Stormy and her owners' "super-beginner" status shines during their first run.
Mrs. Gruebel concedes the weave and goes straight to the jump which Stormy obliges. But the next jump and the tunnel don't interest the dog who ignores Mrs. Gruebel's vocal and physical direction and takes off across the course -- her tongue and ears peeling back from forward momentum. The chain-link fence corrals her and she takes another run across the arena, giving little notice to the obstacles or her owner's orders.
By the time Mrs. Gruebel reins Stormy in, her time on the course expires.
Most of the fun-match competitors are not competing for championships and notoriety within the sport. Some came as far away as Houston to run their dogs and to meet new and old friends.
Several owners from a Houston agility club, Flash Paws Productions, made their way to the fun match and competition.
"It's addictive," said Susan Inger, a member of the club, who has been training since 1993 and competing since 1995.
Ms. Inger said she began agility training to "get control" of her dogs. She said it gives them a job. Her dog, Rudy, is a mutt she rescued from the pound. She believes he is a Labrador, Great Dane, Border collie mix.
Despite his humble beginnings, Rudy has won agility trials, she said.COMPETITION
There are several sanctioning bodies for agility competitions operating throughout Texas, including Canine Performance Events, the U.S. Dog Agility Association, and the American Kennel Club.
USDAA events are "big-time competitive," Press said. Dogs, breeders and trainers from all over the nation and world compete in varied competitions to prove their dogs have dominant performance genes. Dominant genes bring top dollar for breeders.
"We're after national championships," Press said. "We've got good bloodlines and everybody following Aussies knows our dogs."
The Press' attend two or three competitions each month and have traveled around the country to compete, they said. Press called agility competition an expensive hobby but added "if you don't have fun you don't do it."
Ms. Dyck said each organization has its own set of rules and games dogs and trainers compete in. She said there are several opportunities to compete in differing association events around East Texas throughout the year.
Fun and competitive events abound closer to urban areas such as Dallas, Houston and Shreveport, La., she said.
Press said his dogs do it all, from acrobatic catches of Frisbees and balls to herding cattle and agility courses.
The couple maintains training courses at their home.
Press has multiple competition dogs. Along with Torch and Chigger, he brought Stetson and Shiver to the fun match.
Torch has "high-drive" characteristics and a strong, award-winning herding ancestry, Press said. He purchased the dog to breed with high-drive females bred for agility. The result was Shiver, a 1-year-old red-merle that Press said has people in the sport talking.
"That is one killer dog," Ms. Dyck said of Shiver as the dog raced around the course.
Shiver is too young to compete but competition is in its blood and his potential is "off the charts," Press said.
To win the 2011 ASCA overall championship, which was held in Wisconsin, Torch made around 1,500 qualifying runs throughout the year and bested more than 250 Aussies from around the nation and world, said Sarah Jackson, an ASCA competition coordinator.
Any registered Aussie can go to the national competition but only high-level, high-qualifying dogs are eligible for overall champion.
"Dog people are very passionate about their dogs and what they do," she said.
Off the course, Torch's personality is the opposite of his on-the-course mentality, Press said. He's a lazy house dog, Press said.
"When he goes in the house he hits the couch and never moves," Press said. "And he won't move until it's time to play."