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Good dog, smart dog

Juneau dog owners put their pets through their paces - and both participants love it

Posted: Monday, August 01, 2005

Chicory Eddy has three dogs with three different personalities, and that means three different methods when she's training them to jump over 16-inch bars, weave through a series of poles, crouch through a tunnel or scramble up and down a see-saw.

At 10 1/2, Apollo, a Collie-Bernese Mountain Dog mix, is the most-experienced and most-decorated dog agility competitor in Juneau. His high drive and complete lack of fear are a good mix for the sport - a combination of speed, balance, control and handling.

Badger, a 7 1/2-year-old stray from the pound, doesn't like to work or race, but makes up for it with his eagerness to please.

Ajax, a 13-month-old Australian Shepherd, is too young for dog agility training. (Dogs normally don't start until they're 1 1/2.) But he seems to be the most natural competitor of all three.

"If you can train your dog to do basic obedience, you can probably train them to do this," said Eddy. She and Apollo were introduced to the sport eight years ago on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. "As long as the dog is healthy and fit, you can start them any time. It's a fun thing to do, and it does give a lot of dogs confidence when they do something right."

Sunday morning at Melvin Park, Eddy was one of about a dozen handlers at the Capital Kennel Club's weekly morning dog agility practices. The group meets nine months of the year - in Swampy Acres' barn in the early spring. Newcomers are always welcome.

The CKC (ckcoj.org) is preparing to host a four-day trial, Aug. 11-14. It will be the first time the club has held a "combined trial" of obedience (Aug. 11 at the Glacier Valley School covered playground), Rally-obedience (Aug. 12, Glacier Valley School) and dog agility (Aug. 13-14 at Melvin Park). The event is expected to draw dogs and dog-handlers from Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Whitehorse and possibly the Interior.

Any breed of dog can participate in dog agility. But their skill is as dependent on the handler's ability to motivate and guide them through a complex series of instructions as it is on the dog's raw athleticism and intelligence.

The sport has exploded in popularity in the last few years, thanks partly to ESPN's national telecast of the Outdoor Games. Trials in the Lower 48 can get particularly intense.

Handlers compete for the best time (total time to complete the course plus time-penalties for mistakes). But they also try to earn their dog different ranks. Dogs can win titles, such as "Novice Tunneler" or "Elite Jumper," if they prove they can consistently compete at a certain level.

"That's an accomplishment for the dog and the handler," said Judy Erickson, owner of McDuff, a corgi. "It shows that you have a smart, good-working dog. I don't really care about my dog having a title, because he's not pure-bred. I'm out because my dog likes this."

Indeed, the dogs in Sunday's advanced-level course seemed eager. Focus was the hard part. The handlers struggled with a championship-level course that instructor Jill Grose set up from a magazine diagram. The courses in the mid-August trial will be much simpler - that is, there will be more space between the obstacles.

"I think people really like the challenge for themselves as an individual, and it's something to do with your dog," said Vicky McLaughlin, owner of Tess, a Welsh terrier. "Tess was pretty wild at first. She can jump at a really good height, and she can run really fast. What I worked on was her staying with me and going where I wanted her to go."

"My 10 1/2-year-old (Mac) can run the course without me saying anything, because he's really focused on my body," Grose said. "The 9-year-old (Kenzie), she wants to know that what she's doing is the right thing, and she likes the verbal along with the body language. But most of the time, you really need to pay attention to your body. You don't realize how much dogs will follow your body, even around the house. That's how they communicate."

The first modern-day dog agility demonstration was organized in 1978 for the United Kingdom's four-day international Crufts dog championships. By the late 1980s, it was drawing throngs in England, but was still fledgling in the United States. It gained popularity in the mid-1990s here, as the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the United Kennel Club (UKC) sanctioned the sport.

In Juneau, the Capital Kennel Club bought $3,800 worth of equipment and started weekly dog agility practices in February 1999. Deb Gillis and Jill Grose were the first coaches. The first trial was Easter weekend of 2000.

The club has reached the point where there are 12 to 15 hardcore dog-agility handlers who show up every Sunday. Members get tips from books, videos and magazines such as Clean Run. Grose brings in a nationally known instructor each year for a seminar. Club members have also been traveling to trials in the Lower 48.

Though Juneau's dog-sports scene is relatively isolated because of geography, the Capital Kennel Club is actually more active than many in metropolitan areas. The CKC holds two competitive obedience trials a year and at least one agility trial. It was also one of the first clubs in the United States to host an APDT-style rally trial.

Rally-obedience, or Rally-O, is sponsored by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). Handlers run their dog through a numbered course in which the animals are prompted to follow a series of commands - halt, sit, leap over an obstacle, etc. Each competitor starts with 200 points, and a judge subtracts for mistakes. The sport is catching on among dog owners

"Obedience is really beautiful to watch. It's so formal, it's almost like a dance," said Kathy Hocker, owner of Magpie, a 5-year-old border collie mix. "Rally is a little more laid-back. Judges watch for the usual kinds of things, like sitting correctly. They can also give you points if you and your dog seem to be having a good time. The emphasis is on having a positive relationship with your dog, and getting out there and having fun."

Whitehorse has a good scene too, and there are also obedience clubs in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Wasilla and Kenai.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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