Published in the Rains County Leader on June 27, 2017:
The world of training and showing dogs is a subculture that most of us never experience except maybe to watch the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show once a year. My introduction to the culture came when we moved to Florida in 2005 and I met Sue and Sophie. Sophie is a beautiful, pure-bred Miniature Schnauzer, and Sue was a fellow caregiver who had decided that dog training would be fun and might also relieve some of her stress. Sophie was better suited to racing around an obstacle course then to posing and strutting around a show ring, so Sue decided to pursue Dog Agility.
Sophie will soon be twelve years old, and she recently retired with seven MACH titles. According to the American Kennel Club, a dog becomes a Master Agility Champion when she earns “750 championship points and 20 double qualifying scores obtained from the Master Standard Agility class and the Master Jumpers With Weaves class.” I understood very little of what that meant until this weekend when David and I attended our first dog show in West Monroe Louisiana.
Towns, Sophie’s younger “cousin,” is working on his fourth MACH title, and he brought Sue and her husband Willard to West Monroe to participate in the Ouachita Valley Dog Training Club Agility Trials. Willard contacted David a week or two ago and suggested that we come over for a visit. It sounded like fun, so we planned a long weekend and split our time between dog trials and David’s sisters who also live in West Monroe.
We arrived around noon on Friday – perfect timing to see the second runs of the day. The show was a relatively small one, so we were able to go back to the area where the owners and the canine athletes warmed up and prepared for their runs. It was great to see Sue, but we didn’t want to disrupt her concentration, so we said hello and Willard took us to find a place in the stands. There were few spectators, so we had excellent seats. I could also ask Willard lots of questions without fear of disturbing people around us.
While we waited for Towns to run, I learned that the Standard Course includes obstacles like the A-Frame, the See Saw, and the Dog Walk – a kind of balance beam with a narrow ramp up one side and another down the other. The Jumpers with Weave Course is pretty self-explanatory – a series of jumps in various configurations with a set of weave poles and a tunnel or two thrown in. The weave obstacle consists of at least twelve poles placed approximately two feet apart. The dog negotiates the poles in a weave pattern like a slalom skier. On either course, the dog and handler must complete the course in less than sixty seconds with no errors in order to qualify. Completing two qualifying runs in one day is a “double q” and counts toward the goal of Master Agility Champion.
There was more, but I was more interested in watching what was going on in the ring than learning the technicalities. The course for each trial is set by the judge of that trial, so each run is a new challenge. Before each run begins, the handlers are allowed seven minutes to walk the course and prepare their strategy. It was fascinating to watch the mass of competitors making their way around the obstacles, planning the moves and signals that would guide their dogs through a course they had never run.
The dogs were divided by size, ranging from the largest who jumped sixteen-inch hurdles down to the minis who jumped ten inches. Some dogs were lightening fast, sailing over the jumps and dashing through the weave poles with their ears flying out like banners. Others were slower and more plodding, carefully picking their way between the poles. Some of the teams seemed more connected than others. They seemed to communicate almost telepathically – the handler drawing the dog through the course with unspoken commands and imperceptible cues. As the competition went on, I couldn’t help but see some life parallels.
These dogs know their handler’s voice. The first run we watched was on a very difficult course. The first two hurdles led almost straight into a tunnel, but the dog was required to by-pass the tunnel, jump a hurdle, and then double back. Even the handlers who relied mostly on hand signals began to shout commands as they approached the tricky turns, leading with words when they couldn’t use touch. It reminded me of John 10:27: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
After I watched the handlers walk the course before the run, I thought about how the dogs have to face unknown obstacles. Still, they run their races with confidence because their masters have been there ahead of them and will give them directions. That sounds a lot like Psalm 32:8 – I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.
It was obvious after watching all the dogs run that they were having a good time. Some dogs yipped happily every time they cleared a jump, and all of them, regardless of whether they qualified or not, ran to their masters and were met with love, acceptance, and a “well done” pat or treat.
It was a great weekend of reconnecting with friends and sharing experiences that are important to them. We watched Towns complete two of six qualifying runs as he earned more points toward MACH4. Next time we see Team Towns run, maybe it will be at Westminster.