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Pair of Howard canines to compete in Westminster Dog Show

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.

"So we went to some classes, and I fell in love with it. … Westminster will be our 11th trials, and we've actually done real well to be at the master's [level]."

Both women share a love of agility competition that is rooted in their love of their dogs, competition and a sport they find both challenging and welcoming.

"I get the joy of having a special bond with my dogs," Hornor said. "And I love it when we ace a course. It's not just an athletic endeavor, it's definitely a mental endeavor."

Hornor said competing on a course is "a bit of a puzzle. You have 18 to 20 obstacles, and you have to figure out what's going to be the best way to have your dog run it. It's much harder than it sounds. And when you have that perfect run, where everything just falls in place, it's magic."

Fleming called the sport competitive but friendly.

"For me, the sport is very addictive," she said. "I like the competition, but you can be as competitive as you want to be. It's a very friendly atmosphere. My first trial was here in Maryland in September of 2012, and I had no idea what I was doing … as far as the formality of the competition. I was nervous about it, but people were very welcoming."

'Bragging rights'

The finals of this weekend's agility contest in New York City will be televised live on Saturday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m., on Fox Sports 1. And while its TV ratings won't rival those of the Super Bowl, agility fans say the Westminster contest will be good exposure for what already is the fastest growing dog sport in the country.

"It's exciting that the public will get to see this sport up close and personal," said Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club, which is sanctioning the Westminster event. She said the number of AKC-sanctioned agility events has increased by 52 percent in the past five years.

"This is a sport that anyone can get involved in with their pet," Peterson said. "Dogs love it, owners love it. … And it's really a fun sport to watch."

Agility contests are open to all dogs, whether purebred or not, she said, and Westminster will be no exception. That means the show's agility competition will be the first time Westminster will be open to anything other than purebred dogs since the 138-year-old show's early days.

While there's no cash prize for the Westminster winner, there's still plenty of incentive to win. After all, the winner will get, as Hornor put it, "a big trophy — and bragging rights."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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