Few things in life are more natural than a dog at play. Humans and dogs share a unique bond in the animal world, serving one another with a fidelity unseen between other species. Humans are drawn to a dog’s ability to find joy in their work and in their unending enthusiasm for everything. A trip to the local dog park will demonstrate the ability of dogs to make physical and emotional connections with their human counterparts. Dogs connect us to the animal world, yet retain so many traits that we identify as human: strategy, loyalty, emotional intelligence and an ability to follow direction.
Few things about dogs are more impressive than their athletic prowess. Dog agility contests, in which dogs traverse an obstacle course guided by their trainers, allow owners to test the capabilities of their canine counterparts. The first agility trials were modeled on horse obstacle courses. Its popularity soon spread around the world, with thousands of contests now held across the world. Agility trials in the United States are sanctioned by many organizations, including the American Kennel Club (AKC).
Agility in OKC
Red Dirt Agility Club is the metro area’s AKC affiliate for agility trials. Founded in 2009, Red Dirt Agility Club holds trials at the Heart of Oklahoma Expo in Shawnee and Soccer City in Oklahoma City. “Hosting an agility trial is a complex process, and we rely on our dedicated volunteers,” explains Gayle McNish, the club’s President.
McNish is the proud owner and trainer of Alex, a border collie who loves competing in the agility trials. Border collies, like so many other breeds, thrive when given a task to accomplish. Agility trials are a wonderful way for McNish and Alex to bond and work off the incredible energy border collies are famous for.
A typical agility course guides the dog through jumps, weaves, and other obstacles of varying height and construction. “Each course is unique and is designed to meet AKC standards for the class,” McNish explains. Owners are allowed eight minutes to walk the course with their dogs before the competition and strategize. Once the event has started, the team moves through the obstacles in the class as quickly as possible, striving for accuracy and speed. The top accolade is the Master Agility Champion, awarded to teams who earn an “Excellent” title and continue to compete.
Although the club now runs several events per year, its early history was less certain. The AKC maintains rigorous standards for affiliate clubs and requires completion of a demonstration period prior to approval. “We did some AKC service events and seminars and were approved for an ‘A’ match, our first real test to prove to AKC that we were able to put on trials of our own,” explains Toni Toole, a founding member of the club. By March 2009, the club was fully operational and planning its first fully sanctioned event.
Dianne McFarlane, a veterinarian and longtime member of the club, had her interest piqued after watching an agility contest on TV. “My dogs and I train a little bit every day, weather permitting. Our sessions are very short, usually no more than 15 minutes per dog,” she says. “Having a well-qualified trainer, especially when you are new to the sport, is important.”
Training differs based on the needs and abilities of each breed, McFarlane explains. “Some dogs like to chase balls or toys. That can be used to teach a dog to run ahead of the handler. Others are very food-motivated and will train best for treats. Some dogs fear heights and may need a more gradual introduction to the obstacles.”
Dogs can get distracted easily, so variety is important in training. “We usually have a skill we focus on for a week or so, but we change how we practice the skill each day.” McFarlane’s three year-old bullmastiff, Nattie, has a flair for the dramatic. “She literally drags me to the start line. She loves when the crowd cheers and claps for her and can be a bit of a ham when the crowd is loud.”
Patrice Drummond, the club’s Vice President and member since 2011, first learned about the club at an obedience class for her dog. “I decided to check it out and I was hooked.” Like other club members, she spends a lot of time training. “Foundation skills are imperative. Training is an ongoing process, and you’re always working to perfect your skills. No dogs or breeds train the same—each dog has its own skill set, strengths and weaknesses.” Drummond trains and competes with Gabe, a three year old standard schnauzer. She’s training a 20 month-old standard schnauzer named Emma, as well. Drummond is always amazed by the sense of community at agility trials. “Most handlers are very supportive and willing to share advice.”
The process to stage an agility contest begins six month before the event, when the club submits its application to the AKC. Red Dirt Agility must obtain the services of an approved judge, select a venue and appoint a chair of the trial before it submits its application. Once approved by the AKC, the club forms a committee who oversees planning of the event. “At each trial, almost all of the club’s membership will assist with various volunteer jobs. Most competitors will volunteer for at least one more or of the 200 positions that must be filled during the trial,” she adds.
Red Dirt Agility Club holds three to four trials per year. Each trial typically attracts 100 to 150 competitors. Dogs of all breeds may compete—the club allows mixed-breed or “All-American” dogs to participate. Three levels are used to separate competitors based on skill: Novice, Open, and Excellent. The club will be adding a new top level this year—Premier—for dogs with prior success in the Excellent class. Becky Raines, who competes with her miniature schnauzers Dude and Jewel, says winning isn’t the only concern. “Some people take competing very seriously, but for me its about developing a bond with my dogs. They just want to please us, and nothing makes them happier than their owner’s pride.”
Red Dirt Agility Club is open to anyone with a passion for dogs and their capabilities. The club and its members are a close-knit community with a common enthusiasm for man’s best friend. While the trials are competitive, the camaraderie makes it feel like a team sport with a common goal of celebrating the profound connection between humans and the dogs they love. If dogs could smile, they’d be beaming during an agility trial.
To learn how to get involved with Red Dirt Agility, visit their website at reddirtagility.org. Be sure to check out their event on September 5th-7th at Soccer City in OKC.