Dog owners put agilityof their pets to the test

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 3, 2001

[10/1/01] Jac, a jet-black Labrador retriever, perhaps wasn’t listening, or maybe he just misunderstood. His owner wanted him to run over the 6-foot wooden A-frame. Instead, he jumped on the pause box, the last obstacle in the “Gamblers” series, and stopped the clock, effectively knocking him out of the competition.

But Jac wasn’t upset. His tail was wagging as he made a running leap into the arms of his owner, Charles Venable, who showered him with praise.

Jo Beth Britt, a fellow competitor, cheered them on from the stands.

“They love it, they really do,” said Britt, a Vicksburg school teacher, who took four of her 20 shelties to the three-day agility trial in Brandon.

She, along with an assortment of trainers and their dogs from dachshunds to Dalmatians to the ever-present border collies spent a weekend testing their talents at the regional event.

“It’s competitive, but also a friendly sport,” Britt said. “Everyone cheers for everyone and aches when someone drops a bar.”

Fashioned after horse jumping, dog jumping focuses on dogs navigating a series of obstacles from jumps to tunnels to seesaws while being timed.

The sport debuted in England in 1978, and its popularity has been growing since. The American Kennel Club hosted 23 trials in 1994, when it officially recognized the sport. In 1998, that number grew to 500.

Britt, active with Jackson Obedience Training Club and Brandon Agility Running K-9s or BARK, the sponsors of the Brandon event caught the agility bug four years ago. She had been competing in obedience trials with her Shetland sheep dogs, or shelties, for 10 years before training them on the nine obstacles required for competition. “You have to have obedience to do agility,” she said, showing off the sit, stay and come commands her small dogs follow impeccably. “You only have your voice and your hands, and you have to be able to communicate instantly with your dog.”

Her only problem, though, is lack of training facilities in Vicksburg. “If you’re not blessed with a local club which I’m not you either do it on your own, which doesn’t work for me, or drive.” So she makes a weekly trek to Monroe, where she takes classes at Ouachita Valley Dog Training Club. “That’s part of being competitive; I wanted my dog to get the best training to be competitive.”

Other enthusiasts, like Susan Burton, practice on the living room floor and spend a few nights a week on obstacles built in the back yard. “It’s a good hobby for people and dogs. The dogs like it as much as I do, and it gives my dogs a job,” said Burton, a Brandon dentist with 14 dogs, all but one of which are rescues. “We do training with all of them,” she said. “Not all are competitive, but all have fun training.” Burton is also a founding member of BARK.

“You don’t have to be independently wealthy or pay a lot of money for your dog,” Britt said. “You can make your equipment yourself for a reasonable sum.”

While the American Kennel Club restricts its competitions to AKC-registered dogs the United States Dog Agility Association welcomes mixed breeds and offers competition classes from beginning to master so that all dogs at all levels can compete.

“I had a border collie puppy,” said Kathy Mason, a member of BARK from Madison. “He needed a job because he’s hard to handle.” So instead of a problem dog, she has turned him into a beginning competitor and become a volunteer in the agility association herself.