The covered dirt arena is teeming with dogs of all shapes, sizes and colors. In the bleachers, you see small gatherings of friends, family and curious onlookers. You close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize your strategy as you and your dog wait for your turn in the ring.
The constant buzz of dogs yipping, handlers yapping and spectators oohing and aahing fades away as you open your eyes and refocus on your teammate. Her eyes gleam with excitement and she does a little play-bow at your feet. The gate steward gestures for you to enter the course as the team ahead of you races toward the finish.
You walk to the start line, ask your dog to sit and stay, then remove her leash. The judge signals that he is ready. You walk out past the first two bar jumps and turn and look back at your dog, who is quivering with anticipation. Your eyes meet and calmly, you say, “Okay.” She bounds over the jumps to you and together you dance among tunnels, weave poles, the towering A-frame, the teeter, the raised dog walk and many jumps in between. In 60 seconds or less, you experience the climactic thrill of agility: being one with your dog.
Navigating the Course
The sport at its most basic requires you and your dog to successfully navigate a course of 16 to 20 obstacles under the SCT (standard course time), which is determined by the yardage of the course and the jump height of the dog. Beginner levels, such as “Novice” in North American Dog Agility Council, or “Starters” in United States Dog Agility Association, present fewer obstacles and a simple flow around the course.
As you progress from one level to the next, you will face more obstacles, tougher SCTs and complex courses that require more handling strategy on your part. You will be timed either manually or electronically. Each competitive venue has a different method of scoring based on “faults,” such as knocking a bar on a jump, missing contact zone or going over time.
If you and your dog run the course cleanly, without a single mistake, you earn a “Q” or qualifying run. (At beginner levels, you are mercifully allowed a few faults). These “Qs” add up to titles, whose value are determined by the team that earned them. For top competitors, top performances and titles can lead to a berth in an invitation-only national or international event. For average participants, titles are concrete proof of the time and effort you and your dog put into becoming a team. For people with rescue dogs who had to overcome issues to play the game, titles are a badge of courage.
Sport Shifts Perceptions
Introducing my rescue Dalmatian, Darby, to agility changed our lives. As a puppy and adolescent, Darby seemed to me to be a bossy, destructive diva who worshipped my husband and ignored me. In agility class, her intelligence and athleticism came to the fore, and for the first time, I realized how little I understood her. She had been a difficult dog to raise, always pushing the limits and constantly on the move. Though it wasn’t her fault, a chronic bladder problem that no vet could solve only added to my frustration. Climbing contact obstacles and jumping helped strengthen her muscles and Darby no longer has mishaps.
Most importantly, agility gave us a relationship where none existed before. The dog who used to shrug off my touch and run in the opposite direction when I called now cuddles with me on the couch. The spark in her eye when she looks at me at class or on the start line at a trial makes me insanely happy. We are a team.
“Doing agility is a relationship-builder,” says instructor Barb Scalise, who owns Canine Care, Inc., in Bartlett, Illinois. “The journey as you both learn is just amazing.” She has trained in agility a variety of breeds, most of whom were adopted from rescue organizations. Years ago, she started with her first dog, a Dalmatian, followed by a Greyhound. Currently, she competes with a Pointer, a Vizsla and two Labs. Her oldest Lab, Mocha, is a 12-year-old rescue who twice earned the American Kennel Club’s top agility title, MACH (Master Agility Champion), and continues to actively compete.