How to turn your pet into a superstar athlete.

Pets and people.
Aug. 26 2005 7:23 AM

The Dogs of Track and Field

How to turn your pet into a superstar athlete.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

Admit it, your kids stink at sports. But just because Casey can't hit a T-ball and Brandon can't putt through a windmill doesn't mean your dream of becoming an overbearing sports parent has to die. Simply shift your attention from that ungainly preteen and focus on the squirrel-chasing collie in your backyard.

It used to be that only Frisbee-catching dogs could hope to snag sporting glory. But, mostly thanks to the popularity of ESPN's Great Outdoor Games, heretofore uncelebrated forms of canine athleticism are now getting the attention they deserve. In Big Air competitions, pooches jump off a dock into water—the longest jumper wins. But perhaps the best test of endurance is the agility competition, a doggie decathlon in which man directs his best friend through an obstacle course littered with tubes, tires, seesaws, and slalom poles. The dog with the best time and the fewest foul-ups wins. (Check out this page to get a sense of what an agility course looks like.)

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The sport of canine agility came to the United States from Britain scarcely 20 years ago, but the U.S. Dog Agility Association now claims 25,000 registered competitors. That number includes some bona fide celebrities. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that pet-product companies spend as much as $5,000 a year to sponsor elite athletes like Dilemma, a border collie.

Some good news for those who think they might be harboring a superdog: Champion agility dogs come in all different breeds and body types. While Labrador retrievers are usually the best long jumpers, Jack Russell terriers, border collies, Australian shepherds, miniature schnauzers, and keeshonds can be top agility dogs. The bad news: If you haven't been training Fido since he was a wee pup, you've likely already blown it.

On a recent weekday evening, I visited with Mirabelle Wrist, the director of agility at the Obedience Training Club of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, Fla. I marveled as Wrist directed Petie, a beautiful, calm English springer spaniel, over and around some low hurdles, occasionally rewarding him with hot-dog cubes from a sandwich bag. Petie and his cousin Tango, probably the most charming dogs I've ever seen, came from a lineage that Wrist has bred for six generations.

When Petie and Tango were 49 days old—dogs' developmental tabula rasapoint—Wrist administered personality tests for eagerness and vim as well as a few others that she insists novices not repeat. So, for God's sake, don't try the following at home. To test the puppy's pain threshold, spread the front paws and press a fingernail into the sensitive flesh between; ideally, the dog can withstand this for four or five seconds. To evaluate trainability, hold your dog supine for a few moments. If she overcomes the embarrassment and returns to you, she'll be a willing, forgiving student.

Top agility trainers say the one thing they can't teach is energy. Dogs who enjoy chasing a ball, cat, or sock for hours, and who respond well to a choice food or toy, are athletes-in-waiting. The dog also needs to have some brains in her skull. Champion trainer Stuart Mah recommends this test: Take a favorite toy, hide it, and ask your dog to go find it. When she succeeds, hide the toy somewhere a little tougher, and so on. Mah's dogs reach the point where they can flush out a tennis ball from a closed kitchen cabinet. To keep their minds active, he trains them to fetch documents from the fax machine.

Now, it's time for obedience school. After the dog learns basic commands (sit, down, stay, come) you can start getting her into fighting trim. Barbara Lombard, who runs an agility school in California, suggests jogging with the dog. She also plays catch with her brood for 20 minutes, five days a week. "Their thighs," she says, "are quite amazing."

Your strong, attentive pooch should now be ready to learn more difficult skills. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that most dog athletes need six to 12 months to hone an act as seemingly instinctive as jumping. Inexperienced dogs tend to jump using their weaker forelegs. This wears them out and doesn't get them proper lift, in the same way you'd struggle if you tried to vault over hurdles with your hands. Stuart Mah says that one way to teach a pup to use her back legs is to lay PVC pipes across the floor and have her clamber over them. At first, your dog will stumble, but gradually she'll learn to pick up those back feet.

Once your dog is bounding back-leggedly around the house, you'll want to start building your backyard obstacle course. A typical course includes various hurdles and balance beams, and maybe a suspended tire—sort of an equestrian jumping setup bred with a Chuck E. Cheese's playground. Do-it-yourself types should be able to build passable hurdles with PVC pipes or plywood. There are also suppliers who will be happy to sell you an adjustable tire jump and a "six-pole weave set." And if you need help arranging the equipment, there's canine agility design software to help perfect the proportions.

In competition, dogs not only have to race their tails off, they also have to heel at the appropriate time. Professional trainers say amateur handlers should be unflaggingly positive and spend at least an hour a day of quality time—jogging, playing, etc.—with their pupil to build a strong dog-trainer bond. Once your dog starts to flourish, the professional trainers recommend—surprise!—that you send her to work with professional trainers. An academy like Mah's charges $75 an hour for private lessons. Most champion agility dogs are anywhere from 3 to 7 years old, so get cracking on those application forms!

By now, you're teaching your pooch commands, rewarding him for doing your chores, and feeding him high-end, protein-rich food. She can weave through an obstacle course, jump 20 feet, and all but crack a wall safe to find a tennis ball. But what if she turns out to be an athletic bust, just like your other kids? At least she'll be fitter and happier. The USDAA's Heather Smith says her miniature schnauzer gets the same social benefits out of the sporting life that a person might. "I know my little dog. He has his little agility classmates, and his fly-ball teammates, and they recognize each other, and know each other," she says. "I think they do. I'm sure they do."

Sam Eifling is an itinerant freelance writer and editor.

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