Awareness of your own body cues and how to best communicate with your dog keep you thinking on your feet. Some people run their hands in their pockets to be more aware of their shoulders. Other people run “silently,” that is, without uttering a word, so as to pay more attention to their body. Often, they are amazed at how well their dog performs by reading just their body language. Patricia McConnell’s invaluable book, The Other End of the Leash, gives more insight into how we can better communicate with our dogs, both at home and on the agility field.
Donna Rock of Lacombe, Louisiana, was born without arms, and competes at the highest levels of agility with her Dobermans Annie and Quincy, using her shoulders and verbal commands to guide them. The sport appealed to her because anybody can do it. “I’m handicapped and yet I can still compete,” says Rock. “Young, old, fat, thin, abled, disabled—it doesn’t matter. It’s all about being the best you can be and doing it in a way that works for you and your dog.”
Wheelchair competitors also find success at agility classes or trials. Judy Guillot of Arizona was a stabbing victim at age 11, and in recent years, lost the use of her legs. When she saw agility on television, it didn’t even occur to her to question whether or not she could participate. “I would not be the person I am today if [the accident] had not happened,” says Guillot. “I have learned to adapt. That’s how I get that can-do attitude.” Now 58 years old, she and husband Dave play agility with five of their six toy fox terriers, stay active with their training club, and enjoy practicing and competing whenever they can.
Training Leads to Insights
While competition is the ultimate goal for many agility newcomers, some participants try the sport for different reasons. Beth Borchardt of Florida hoped agility would bring her fearful mixed-breed, Cheyenne, out of her shell. What she didn’t expect was how it would help her own shyness. “I had never shown an animal in anything and I was scared to death at my first show,” says Borchardt. “Chey did so well that she helped me get over my nerves. I was very introverted and shy and going to trials has gotten me over a lot of that. I’ll talk to strangers at shows and that has carried over to other aspects of my life.” Borchardt now participates with a white Shepherd, and has a puppy in training.
Spending extra time training your dog will teach you a lot about her personality as well as strengthen the bond between you. What motivates her most: toys, praise, food or a combination? If it’s toys, does she prefer tennis balls, squeaky stuffed animals or fleece tugs? If it’s food, does she favor dehydrated liver pieces or bits of string cheese? Is she so eager to please that an enthusiastic “Good dog!” will do? Getting to know your dog, which includes observing her physical structure and how she moves, is essential.
Lynn Sykes of North Carolina and her 14-year-old daughter, Bonnie, both do agility, which has strengthened their mother–daughter bond as well as their relationships with their respective dogs.
“Bonnie’s Sheltie is a rescue and very high strung,” says Sykes. “She’s come a long way … Agility has given my daughter a lot of confidence and taught her to finally trust her dog and to be happy with the effort of the dog. I’m proud she’s stuck it out with a difficult first dog that many people had written off. Agility has helped them both. We do other dog [activities] as well, and I’m hoping that dog sports keep her from the drugs and other horrors that waylay kids.”
The physical activity certainly promotes a healthier lifestyle. Dr. Heidi Loganbill, a neurologist in private practice in Oregon, was working extremely long hours when she and her husband decided to get a Standard Poodle puppy, Pogo. “I couldn’t make myself leave work for myself but I could for my dog,” says Loganbill. “We started doing agility and I couldn’t stand to have lots of people watch me run my dog when I was fat. I was 5’ 2” and weighed 215 pounds.” Over the next several years, she lost more than 80 pounds. She and her husband now have two more Standard Poodles, Winnie and 6-monthold Gabriel, who her keep fit.