Lacey, a short-legged, longbodied dog with pert ears and soulful brown eyes, lopes toward the first hurdle, tail wagging as the crowd cheers her on. Sneakers and padded paws pound against the rubberized matting as the canine competitor dashes through a long tunnel, guided by her handler’s words and signals.
No, this isn’t a high-level agility competition, and the dog/handler duo isn’t what one might consider professional. Lacey is a seven-year-old mystery mix who, according to owner/handler Marilyn Stearns, “would run from her own shadow” until she began agility. Stearns, a 75-year-old retired Maine schoolteacher, had no idea what she was getting herself into when she signed Lacey up for her first “Dog Romp” class shortly after rescuing the little pooch. “She was just so afraid of everything and everyone, and I thought … ‘Well, now that I have the time, why not get her and me out of the house and see what happens?’”
Four years later, Lacey’s boldly bounding over hurdles, snuffling through tunnels and gazing adoringly at Stearns at the end of their runs. “I’d never done anything like this before — I didn’t even know there was such a thing,” Stearns says. “But she took to it right away, and I’ve had the time of my life.” Stearns is not alone. With dog sports as varied as tracking, agility, rally or dock diving, and sporting clubs offering classes and competition venues around the world, more and more retirees are choosing pastimes with a distinctly canine flair. “It challenges both mind and body,” says Melissa Johnson, a fellow septuagenarian who teaches agility at Wag It, Inc., a training center in Lincolnville, Maine. “Every course is a puzzle, so it presents an immediate challenge for both the handler and the dogs. Very few activities that people our age can participate in [offer] that.”
In addition to the mind/body appeal, dog sports provide participants with opportunities to bond not only with their canine companions, but with a larger community as well.
“I’d say over half my students right now are over 50,” notes Jean MacKenzie, owner of New Hampshire– based Tova Training and one of the founding mothers of agility in the U.S. “Part of the attraction is the social outlet it provides. Students come together with a common interest in dogs, and friendships grow from there.”
When talking about dog sports, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the physical benefits of canine competition. While agility is a highimpact activity that requires both dog and handler to be quick on their feet, others, such as rally and tracking, are less intense. Regardless of what activity a participant chooses, however, MacKenzie notes that her students invariably make an effort to get in shape once they get serious about their sport of choice.
“We already know people are more active when they have dogs,” says MacKenzie, “but once they have that goal of competing or trying to get their dogs to a higher level, they’re more apt to get on the bicycle or go for a hike — anything to improve communication and strengthen that human-animal bond.”
That human-animal bond, of course, is the real draw for dog sport competitors of all ages.
Marilyn Stearns, whose dog Lacey recently took third place at Wag It, Inc.’s very own Wag It Games, agrees that her deepened relationship with her pup is at the heart of her continued participation in agility.
“I look forward to it every week because Lacey has such a good time and we’ve gotten so close working together like this … I just love seeing her confidence grow, and being able to be out and active with people who love their dogs as much as I do.”
Whether you’re newly retired or an octogenarian with a four-legged friend looking for something to do, consider taking up one of the many dog sports available today. Chances are good that, regardless of your age or fitness level, there’s a sport just right for you and your canine companion.
Photograph © Apple Tree House