When the American Kennel Club first began allowing mixed breeds into agility events, Lisa Tibbals welcomed the chance to compete with Sadie, a scruffy female terrier mix rescued from dire straits in Kentucky. But she was miffed by the reaction from some owners of purebreds.
"One woman asked me, 'What is that?'" recalls Tibbals. "I said, 'That is mine, and she is a Kentucky Gull Terrier.' Someone else asked me, 'Is that one of those new designer breeds?'"
There is no such breed as a Kentucky Gull Terrier. But if anyone posed such an impertinent query today, Tibbals could truthfully reply that "she" is a contestant in the inaugural agility event at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, one of the most prestigious canine events on the planet.
Americans love stories of breaking down elite barriers, and Westminster has already scored a public relations bonanza by adding an event open to mixed breeds. From morning television talk shows to The Colbert Report, everyone wants to showcase mutts bound for Westminster.
The 138th Westminster Dog Show, to be held Feb. 10 and 11 at Madison Square Garden in New York, remains an elite purebred province. But during the First Annual Masters Agility Championship at the Piers on Feb. 8, the spotlight will fall for the first time on both mutts and purebreds.
Not that Westminster would avail itself of so common a term as "mutt." The official designation is "All-American," which covers mixed breeds and also breeds not recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC).
Tibbals, who lives in North Haven, has two dogs entered: Sadie, and her White West Highland Terrier, Castle. Dogs will compete in a standard class with A-frames and seesaws and a jumper class with weave poles to determine 50 finalists. Only the finals will be televised.
Thirteen of the 225 dogs entered are from Connecticut. Fifteen of the total are All-Americans. Viewers hoping to see a Connecticut All-American win big can root for Sadie or Pace, an American Farm Collie (unrecognized breed) owned by Mary Champagne, another Guilford resident competing with two dogs. Her second is a rescued Australian Cattle Dog named Bug.
Champagne, who teaches agility, hopes Westminster will emphasize the preparation as well as talent that agility demands. "A dog racing across a dog walk at full speed has to know where all four feet are at all times," she says. "And their bodies have to be properly conditioned just like any other athlete."
At a January agility trial held at Paws 'n' Effect canine training facility in Hamden, trainers extol Sadie's gumption and ability after a clean run. "And she's stinkin' cute, make sure to write that," intones trainer Shoshana Dos.
Tibbals found Sadie five years ago via the Petfinder website, where the dog was estimated to be 2 years old and billed as a Tibetan Terrier mix. "There's definitely some kind of terrier in her," says Tibbals, and likely some Havanese.
Whatever the genetic make-up, when Tibbals saw Sadie's picture, "There was something about her face that just grabbed me."
"I wanted another agility dog," says Tibbals, who already had one "Westie" in the game. "But I promised myself that I wouldn't put any pressure on her. She would have a job. We would find something that she wanted to do."
It soon became clear that what Sadie wanted to do was run fast, jump, weave around poles and scuttle through tunnels. At least, says Tibbals, "she wanted to humor me. She's very game, and she'll try anything that I ask her."
Westminster's elitism has lost some of its luster in recent years, and adding agility, which the AKC had already opened to mixed breeds, is a way to both bolster the show's image and raise new revenue. But fans are thrilled.
Trainers are grateful that Westminster is highlighting the lifelong health and recreational benefits of agility for dogs and humans, and demonstrating that any breed or mixed breed of dog, as long as the dog isn't obese, can do this.
Joanne Anderson, a Westminster spokesperson, says the oldest dog in the agility event is 12 years old, and three Papillons from the same litter are 11 years old. "What does that say to you about exercise?" she asks.
Agility is a team sport, and while anyone with any breed of dog can play, don't ever imagine that all it takes is pointing your dog in the right direction. That would be akin to thinking anyone could pick up a baton and conduct a symphony.
The agility line-up at Paws in January is a kaleidoscope of breeds and mixes: Chihuahua, Picard, Dalmatian and German Shepherd, to name just a very few. Granted, some breeds tend to shine more at agility than others.
"In general, the herding breeds and the sporting breeds - dogs that were bred to work as a team with a human - are going to be a little easier," says Dos. "A lot of dogs have drive, like terriers, but they often have more of their own minds, so they can be a bit more of a challenge," to which Tibbals nods agreement.
Agility is the fastest growing canine sport around the world, says Dos, who will compete with her three-and-a-half-year-old male Border Collie, Glance, at Westminster and also at the 2014 World Agility Championships in Italy in May. "Glance is a brilliant, wonderful teammate that gives 100 percent every time he steps to the line, and he makes me look good," says Dos.
Tibbals says she expected that Westminster, in keeping with its brand, would limit agility to purebreds. But Dos was not surprised by open admissions.
"In the agility world, my experience is that there isn't a big divide between mixed breed and purebred," she says, "so if you're going to welcome agility you have to welcome mixed breeds into it."
To be eligible for agility at Westminster all dogs must have achieved AKC excellent or master status. Because there were at least twice as many applicants as spaces, the 225 admitted were chosen by lottery.
"A lot of us who were eligible didn't get to go," says Paws facility manager Shari King, who has three Shetland Sheepdogs ("Shelties") in agility. But she predicts the event will expand in years to come.
There's yet another way in which Westminster's agility championship is more a showcase of talented dogs than a pure competition.
Fifty dogs will make it to the finals: 10 from each of five height groups, including the top three fastest finishers with a clean run. But while the top three will make it regardless of breed, the next seven, as long as they have a clean run, must include six different breeds and one All-American.
For example, if the top three dogs in a group are Border Collies, and your Border Collie comes in fourth, you are out of the finals.
Westminster doesn't want to risk having nothing but herding dogs in the televised finals, says Dos, because it might be boring for the public to watch, and could lead viewers to think incorrectly that only certain dogs can do this.
For Christine Scruggs, a Niantic veterinarian with a practice in Deep River, competing at Westminster with her Standard Poodle, Caitlyn, has special resonance. Caitlyn's father was among four finalists in his breed in 2006 at Westminster. Caitlyn is too small to compete in composition, but size isn't crucial in agility.
Scruggs says Westminster's inclusion of agility is important not just for mixed breeds. It demonstrates that purebreds can do more than just strut around a ring.
"It's the talent portion of a beauty pageant," she says. "It's fun to watch, and shows that purebreds aren't just pretty faces."
Editor's note: This story has been edited from an earlier version to correct Lisa Tibbals hometown. She lives in North Haven.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun