He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion. ~ Unknown Author
Last night while most of the world watched the Olympics, I was wide-eyed, giddy, and on the edge of my seat watching the Westminster’s Masters Agility Championship live from New York. Yeah, I know, it sounds riveting. Let me explain.
For the first time in its 138-year history, the famous Westminster Kennel Club allowed mixed-breed dogs to compete in a brand new competition called the Masters Agility Championship. For nearly 140 years, the Westminster Kennel Club has closed its doors to mixed breeds, known as “All American dogs”, focusing only on the conformation, physical abilities, and skill of only purebred dogs. This inclusion allowed dog guardians from all over the world to show that everyday dogs can go nose-to-nose with their purebred peers.
I, along with many others felt that this was a huge step in the right direction of celebrating and recognizing all dogs, regardless of their pedigree. Many of these high-spirited, high energy dogs are all too often dropped off at shelters by people who just don’t know how to deal with their energy and enthusiasm. So it really was such a joy and pleasure to see the All American Dogs go paw to paw with the purebreds.
Reese, a four year young Papillon from North Carolina, is a great example of what this new sort of competition means. Reese was surrendered to a rescue organization as a puppy because his original owner thought he had too much energy. His new owner is an X-ray technician who doubles as Reese’s handler. They found a way to channel his energy by working with a qualified trainer, and Reese now competes in trials about twice a month. He even became a bit of a celebrity last week when The Charlotte Observer published an article about his appearance at Westminster. Another “All American Dog” named Emma is one more example of an incredible but true, underdog success story. Emma went from doggie death row to Westminster row! Emma was abandoned, found and taken to a 48 hour high-kill shelter, rescued, and then three years later, Emma was chosen to compete at Westminster!
As cool as all of that is, something else really moved me. Even with all the pressures of being at the very first Westminster agility championship, and being live on international television, the handlers (trainers of the dogs) praised the heck out of their dog at the end of each agility run, no matter how well or how poorly their dog did. Even if the dog stopped on the course, refused an obstacle, or performed less than desirable in any way, the handler treated the dog as if they had won best in show. It moved me to tears to see that kind of love, loyalty, and support from a dog trainer toward their beloved canine companion while under such pressure.
Let’s back up here for a bit so you can really understand why this is So Huge, and such an act of love and devotion. These expert handlers and dogs practice for hours on end, for weeks and months at a time to perfect these obstacles on the agility course. Many have been practicing agility training for decades, and some for only a few years. Regardless of how long they have been working together to master the obstacle course, they train day in and day out to get it right. The handlers and dogs go through rigorous (but fun) training to get to where they are so they can compete with the best of the best at the Westminster Agility Trials. About 225 dogs, including 15 mixed breeds, were entered in Saturday’s agility drills. They are given a map of the course to review (the people, not the dogs) and then they are expected to perform at their very best, having never run on this course before. Yesterday each dog and their handler took the ring twice for qualifying rounds, with the best performers moving to the championship round. The dogs, representing 63 breeds from 23 states, were randomly selected from a pool of 653 entrants. Eventually they are narrowed down to 50, and then as more are eliminated, the best of the best get their Game On.
Our dog, Hocus Pocus, and I are very new to the agility world. We started agility training in September of last year. I had no idea the bond that it would create between us, how much we would both love doing it, how amazing of a team we were together, and how additive it is! Once a week for an hour and a half we were both pushed to the max both physically and mentally. I always knew that training can be stressful for all animals, but during our agility training together is when I really started to understand and appreciate the phrase “learning can be very stressful” for you and the animal that you are training.
So when I watched the agility trails last night I was so amazed when I saw the love, pride, and joy in the faces of the handlers after the dogs finished the course, no matter how poorly or well they or their dogs did. They weren’t frustrated or angry. They were genuinely proud of the dog and they celebrated their dog’s success of just showing up and trying their best! They didn’t get mad or frustrated with themselves or the dog for making mistakes! They went with whatever happened, and not only accepted it, but also celebrated at the end, no matter what it meant! I was amazed at how genuinely happy they were and how much they lavished their dog with love and praise, even when the dog or the handler totally screwed up! It was a tough course and one that really challenged some of the best agility dogs in the world, but the dogs and trainers showed up and gave it 110 percent.
I could see this happening and I appreciated it because I knew the feeling. I knew what it was like to try so hard and want yourself and your dog to succeed. Every night that Hocus and I went to agility I was nervous. I wanted to have my timing right for her, because she is a wicked fast learner, so I knew that if I was tired or distracted, her results would suffer because of me. Before we went into class I would affirm that I wasn’t going to forget the cues, and I was going to do it right this time, for her. But the most important thing that I would remember was to say to her, “No matter what happens tonight I am so proud of you. You make me so proud every day. I love you. Now let’s go have some fun.”
Last night while watching the Westminster Agility Championship I was so moved to see every one of the remaining competitors give their dog the same love and respect that I gave to Hocus before every practice session. I really hadn’t expected to see that.at a world famous competetion. I figured that if I could be stressed and nervous before agility practice with no one there, they had to be out of their minds stressed beyond belief! I know that the handlers were stressed, anxious, and nervous. I know those dogs felt their anxiety, nervousness, and tension, but they ran the difficult and complicated course, accepted the mishaps and mistakes, and still celebrated their dog at the end. It was truly amazing.
This is what competition is all about. Showing up, having fun, accepting the results, and praising your partner! It’s not about the outcome, the finish line, the well behaved moments, the perfect timing, the correct cues and behaviors. It’s about the connection you have together. It’s about them trying. It’s about you trying. It’s about knowing you can lose, but giving 100 percent anyway. It’s about the bond you are strengthening. It’s about just showing up. That’s all that either of you have to do; just show up. Smile. Breathe. Just get out there. Have fun with your dog. Because that’s all your dog wants from you. And thank them for just showing up.
Purebred and mixed-breed dogs show off their grace and skills in the Westminster Kennel Club’s first agility competition. Handlers raced against the clock while directing their dogs through a complicated obstacle course with tunnels, jumps, weave poles, teeter-totters, A-frames and dog walks. Instead of being judged on appearance and temperament, they earn points for their speed, jumps, and turns through the obstacles.
You can view some footage of the day trials in the video below.
Note: This video was not footage of the final agility contestants. Video of the finals was on FOX Sports 1 last night. It was an incredible LIVE premiere of the Masters Agility Championship at Westminster in New York. If you missed it, check your local listings as it’s scheduled to replay again a few times this week! It was amazing!
Agility, particularly is exciting for spectators and for the dogs themselves, as that it’s a race over a number of obstacles and it gets great fan support and, in fact, is the fastest growing area of the dog world in terms of events. ~ Sean McCarthy, President, Westminster Kennel Club
- See video of an agility competitor with her dog showing the components of a dog agility obstacle course here.
- Watch a video of the “All American” dogs in training here.
“You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a dog for it to surpass your wildest dreams.”
If you want to learn more about the Westminster Dog Agility Championship trials, you can:
Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole. ~Roger Caras