Howard County's Cynthia Horner and Stephanie Fleming will be taking their dogs Spice and Diego, respectively, to the Westminster Dog Show to compete its first-ever agility competition. (Jon Sham & Thomas Harrelson/Baltimore Sun Video)

In the den of Cynthia Hornor's spacious Ellicott City home sits a tall trophy honoring her border collie, Spice, as the U.S. Dog Agility Association's 2013 national grand prix champion. Down in the basement, most of a long wall is covered with hundreds of colorful ribbons that Spice and other of Hornor's dogs have won over the past 15 years.

It's an impressive collection, a testament to Hornor's skill and dedication as a handler. And this weekend, Hornor is hoping to add what could be the crowning achievement of her years of training dogs: Finishing as top dog at the first-ever Masters Agility Championship at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club All Breed Dog Show, in New York City.

It won't be easy. Hornor and Spice will be competing against 224 other experienced handlers and their quick, well-trained dogs — including another duo from Howard County, Stephanie Fleming, of Columbia, and her 8-year-old black miniature poodle, Diego. 

The two county women, and their dogs, know each other. They recently traveled together to a competition in North Carolina and will travel together to New York.

If they have a rivalry, it's friendly and respectful. During a recent joint interview in Hornor's house, Fleming raved about how good a handler Hornor was and what a "superstar" Spice was, and Hornor talked about how "amazing" it was that Diego had become so proficient so quickly.

That's what passes for trash talk in the sport of dog agility.

Casual fans think of dog shows as genteel beauty pageants for impeccably groomed and well-behaved dogs. Agility competitions are something else entirely.

They are athletic events, more akin to horse-jumping contests — on which, in fact, they were modeled — than traditional dog shows. During the contests, owners guide their unleashed dogs through an obstacle course of jumps, tunnels, ramps and poles. The dog with the fastest time, and no mistakes, wins.

The sport began in Great Britain in the 1970s and is big in parts of Europe and growing in popularity here, thanks to groups like the American Kennel Association and the U.S. Dog Agility Association, which sponsor events across the country.

"When we first started, I didn't realize how much there was to do, even in Maryland," Fleming said. "I was worried I'd have trouble finding a place to compete or finding an instructor. But now that I'm into it, I know that if people want to compete, there's a lot in this area."

In love with agility

Despite the growing popularity of agility competitions for dogs, this is the sport's first appearance at the Westminster Kennel Club All Breed Dog Show, arguably the best-known dog show in the country.

"Westminster is really a celebration of dogs in our lives, and we thought it would be fun and interesting to add something new," said Westminster spokesman David Frei, explaining the new addition. "And agility is the hottest new sport in the world of dogs. "

He said 653 qualified dogs applied to compete, and the 225 invited were chosen by lottery.

"We love agility," Frei added. "We hope [the sport at Westminster] will become annual. It's good for the sport of agility and good for Westminster."

Of the two Howard women going to Westminster, Hornor is by far the more experienced. She started in the sport in 1998, when she was looking for ways to socialize a then-new Shetland sheepdog puppy.

"I took him to a competition that was local," Hornor said. "I used to ride horses competitively. I just fell in love with [agility training], and it started from there."

Over the past 15 years, Hornor, 46, and one of her dogs have competed in hundreds of events in about 20 states. The stay-at-home mother of three, whose children often attend the local competitions, also occasionally trains and competes with other dogs.

By comparison, Fleming, 43, is a newcomer. The Columbia woman, who works fulltime in pharmaceutical sales, began training Diego about two years ago and started competing a year after that.

"I'd seen a show on TV and it looked interesting," she said. "And I'm athletic, and I thought it would keep me in good shape.