Now that the Winter Olympics have ended, it’s Fido’s turn to demonstrate athleticism.
Nearly 100 dogs and their owners from Western states will descend on Horseshoe Park and Equestrian Center in Queen Creek March 9-11 to begin a nine-month quest for their pet to earn the title of the world’s most agile dog.
The U.S. Dog Agility Association’s Wild West Regional tournament is the first of 15 qualifying meets in 10 American and four foreign locales in which the dogs earn points to be good enough to compete in the world dog agility championship Oct. 31-Nov. 4 in Scottsdale.
Guided only by voice and hand signals from their human partners, the canines will race against the clock, flying over hurdles and through hanging tires, weaving around poles, scuttling through tunnels and bounding off the see-saw. Obstacles are set according to the dogs’ height and experience level, allowing dogs of all breeds and sizes to compete.
The dogs must not only respond to commands but must run courses without guidance as well.
“It’s hard to describe how in tune you get with them,” said Kim O’Connor of Gilbert, who has competed in dog agility competitions with multiple dogs since 2001. “They are your partner in the sport, out there reading your body language and executing your commands. You just have an amazing bond together.”
O’Connor is one of several East Valley dog owners who will be in the competition. She competes with Kruz, a 7-year-old rescued Border Collie that had no human interaction for the first year of its life and had a hard time initially living with people.
Some other area owners whose dogs are in next weekend’s competition are Pat Liddy and Jubie Rueschenburg and her daughter Kama, all of Queen Creek.
Jubie said she’s been “obsessed with this crazy, fun sport” since 2002, when she began training her two dogs, an Aussie and a Border Collie, and began her own education in animal behavior.
She has been competing since 2004, and her dogs won a dozen awards last year alone.
Daughter Kama, who also won more than a dozen awards last year, has created CLUB-Doggie, an online program for training dogs. She also is a coach and certified agility judge.
“Obstacle focus is really big, and being independent and able to work on their own is important. If there are jumps or other obstacles out away from you, it’s not always easy. It’s a big difference in training,” said Liddy, who has competed in agility competitions for nearly 15 years and now competes with her dog Mic.
While the USDAA boasts more than 10,000 active competitors worldwide, regional competitions vary in size, typically involving 300 canines and 200 human exhibitors vying to elevate their position for the year-end Cynosport World Games.
The top dogs have undergone hours, days and years of training with their human partners, who usually begin teaching at a young age.
As important as winning and completing courses quickly, O’Connor said, the connection that owners and their canine comrades develop on and off the course may be even more meaningful.
Though Kruz was potty-trained and could live in a house, O’Connor said, her dog was still initially scared of people. She said agility training helped her and Kruz establish a bond.
“I started training him in agility because I’ve seen dogs gain confidence and become more self-assured because they’re around people, and they can tell they’re accomplishing things. They’re also around people who love dogs, so they start to associate positive things with agility,” she said.
Though training, both in classes and at home, can be rigorous and demanding and injuries sometimes occur, instructors know what is best for the dogs’ bodies. Just in case the dog gets a kink or two, most competitions even have dog massage therapists and physical therapists on hand.
Barb Karr of Queen Creek, who competes with her dog GinnyDoll, said that despite the competition, the owners tend to look out for each other.
“You have some people who might be overly competitive, but the social structure of U.S.D.A.A. is such that you’re always on display with your dog,” she said. “If they’re out there and appear lame, or appear downtrodden at all, the people are going to make you extremely aware that something needs to change.”
Looking down the year to Scottsdale, O’Connor said the chance for Kruz to win a world championship in competitors’ home state is a strong motivator for even harder training, noting:
“It’s a big draw, because it’s so close. And so many people would love to go to the national championship – especially because it’s essentially in their backyard.”
The competition is free for spectators. Gates open at 8 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 9:30 a.m. Sunday.