Overcoming Obstacles: Behind the Scenes at an Agility Dog Competition
I feel nervous even before my agility dog and I pull into the competition grounds. What if we're late? Will I forget the course? Will it be too difficult? What of the hundreds of things that can go wrong will go wrong at today's agility trial?
Pepe is unfazed, asleep in his crate. As usual.
I am not among the elite competitors in the agility world. I don't run a Border Collie, Papillon, Golden Retriever or any other traditional "agility" breed. I run my Saluki, Pepe, and although he's near the top in the Saluki agility world, that's a very small world.
But I'm also not unusual in the agility world. I'm one of many who run non-traditional breeds; I see a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Welsh Terrier, and a variety of mixed breeds already at today's trial. We will probably never earn a MACH (Master Agility Champion). We will not make any world teams. You will not see us on television. We aren't aiming to place first; we just want to qualify.
Prepping for Competition
7:30 A.M.: I walk Pepe, but as usual, he pretends to be devoid of bodily functions. This always sends me into an internal frenzy, as I envision him relieving himself in the ring, ruining not only his run but possibly that of dogs to follow. (He has never done this, but my imagination runs amok.) The clock is ticking, and he's still procrastinating. The course is built, people are walking around in the ring, and before we know it, time's up!
8:00 A.M. I begin the walk-thru, solo, which is a hugely important part of agility. Every agility course is different. You never know what it will be until you arrive at the trial and see the course plan. But to really learn the course, you have to walk it without your dog.
This first class is Jumpers With Weaves (JWW), which means it's made up of only jumps, weave poles and possibly tunnels. Pepe runs in the highest level, Masters, which means he has to be flawless to pass. One single mistake — taking obstacles in the wrong order, jumping the wrong jump, running past the correct jump, knocking down a jump bar, stopping forward motion before an obstacle, or missing just one of the weave poles — and he won't qualify, or "Q."
During the walk-thru, you want to memorize the course, identify areas your dog may be lured into making a mistake, and decide how to best guide him. To anyone who doesn't know what's going on, the walk-thru resembles a ring full of disturbed people talking to themselves and gesturing to invisible dogs while twirling and walking and running in random patterns.
Planning for Course Challenges
The courses are designed so you have to switch from one side of your dog to the other as you run. You can do this by running in front of your dog and twirling in what's called a front cross; or you can run behind your dog in what's called a back cross. Every dog runs differently; some are fast and like to run ahead of their handler; they do better with back crosses. Others run beside or even behind their handler; they do better with front crosses. The best teams do both types.
I walk the course first from the dog's perspective, walking between the jumps and looking ahead to see what he sees. For example, after jump 5, he'll see jump 13 ahead of him, and unless I cue him in time, he could jump 13 instead of 6. I can tell that going from jump 7 to the weave poles will be a huge challenge. Pepe will be on my right, a little ahead, and if I don't cue him quickly or turn toward the right, he'll take jump 1. If I turn too much to the left, he'll miss the correct weave entrance, which is always with the first pole to his left. I practice aiming about a foot to the right of the weaves.
And that's just the beginning. There are 20 jumps to hit, but I plan out where I'll cross, where I'll need to run fast, and where I'll need to give verbal cues.
Pepe knows a handful of directional cue words. "Here" means turn toward me. "Scram" means to turn away. "To me" means to turn sharply to me without taking any obstacle. "Go" means to keep going straight — but I'm not sure he knows that one too well. The better dogs know "Right" and "Left," but I've never had luck teaching it.
The buzzer goes off. Everyone must clear the ring. First dog runs in five minutes, and each dog takes about 30 to 45 seconds. Pepe is the 20th dog.
8:15 A.M. I realize I have a potential problem. Like most dogs, Pepe is entered not only in the JWW class but also the Standard class — the one with all the obstacles, such as a teeter, A-frame, dog-walk, and chute. But for the Standard class, Pepe is in a lower division (Open, the intermediate level), which starts at 8:30. There will be a walk-thru, then Pepe is fourth in the ring. I tell them I may have a conflict so I won't be marked absent (the equivilent of a forfeit). I might miss the walk-thru, but that's just the breaks.
8:30 A.M. I walk Pepe one more time, then jump him over the practice jump a couple of times just to get him limbered up. It's against the rules to set up any of your own agility equipment on trial grounds; the practice jump is the only obstacle you're allowed to use. Otherwise competitors would just set up the entire course and have the dog learn it before their run!
8:35 A.M. They're calling Pepe to get in line; two more dogs and it's his turn. The walk-thru has started in the other ring.
8:36 A.M. We're next. We wait for the dog ahead of us to clear jump 13, then we walk in. Once that dog has finished and has left the ring, I hear the signal: "Go."
I always feel like throwing up at this point.
But instead I remove his leash, tell him to stay, walk to jump 2, turn to him and say, "Hup!" We're on our way. "Hup!" to 2, "Here, hup!" to 3, "Scram, hup!" to 4 as I back cross, on and on through 7, and then comes the tricky part — the weave.
"Here! Weave!" He does it! Perfect entrance! I keep just ahead of him to urge him on. Perfect weaves! On to the serpentine: "Here, hup!" to turn to 9. "Here, hup!" back to me over 10. "Scram, hup!" to send him over 11. He's doing all the hard stuff! And then, because maybe it is simply too difficult to say "here" once again, I simply say "Hup!" and turn toward 12. Pepe does as I say and jumps straight ahead, over … 3. No Q for us this time.
We run the rest of the course perfectly. I messed up, but I hope Pepe doesn't know it. We party like we won.
One More Shot
8:38 A.M. I put Pepe back in his crate and run for the other ring, where the walk-thru has been in progress. I manage to trot around the ring once before the buzzer clears us all out.
Fortunately, Standard courses are never as complicated as JWW courses, plus Open is easier than Masters, so it's easy to learn. I just have to remember not to get to the teeter or table ahead of him; he doesn't like that and is more likely to stall in front of them. I wonder if there's any way to get to the downside of the A-frame and dog-walk before he does; Pepe fails most Standard courses because he jumps over the yellow, or contact, zone, on the downside of these two obstacles.
(The contact zones were created to prevent small dogs from hurting themselves by jumping before they neared the bottom; but for long-legged dogs, they're just silly, at least in Pepe's opinion.)
Once off the table, there's the big challenge of the course: He has both the dog walk and a tunnel side by side. He needs to go in the tunnel. Pepe strongly prefers the dog walk.
8:49 A.M. Our turn again! The start is super easy; two jumps and the weaves, all in a line. "Hup, hup, weave, go!" and all is going well until he pops out of the weaves near the end. What? He never does that. Sigh.
We do the next jump, on to a perfect teeter, when it hits me: At the Open level, you get two chances to do the weaves. Unless, of course, you've gone on to the next obstacle! I blurt this out loud, as though Pepe will understand my screw-up. Then, maybe to make me feel better, Pepe jumps out of order (2 and 1, instead of 7) while I just stand there and gawk.
I get him back to 7, the big triple which he makes bigger by jumping an extreme angle, then up the A-frame, and instead of his trademark leap down, he sits back on his haunches and scoots down, getting his contact! Since we've already lost, I take the time to celebrate and praise him. He goes on, through the chute, on to the table, then takes the tunnel just as he's supposed to, over the next three jumps, up on the dog walk, and again, he gets his contact! Another celebration!
In fact, we've taken so much time celebrating, the buzzer goes off telling us we need to leave the ring. Oops. But it's a straight shot out over the last two jumps, and we're done. Treat time!
We didn't get a Q, but I'm still psyched. He did all the hard parts. He just needs a smarter handler.
Our day doesn't end here, but instead of sticking around for a second day of agility, we pack up and drive to a dog show 80 miles away, where Pepe proceeds to win Best of Breed and then a Best in Hound Group (although a highly lauded Tibetan Spaniel goes on to take Best in Show). I have to wonder how many dogs have ever won a group after competing in a full agility trial earlier in the day! Certainly none of the other Salukis!
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