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North County pet owners bitten by canine agility trial bug

Kahlua, a 7-year-old miniature poodle, is led by Cindy Hill of Parkton up a see-saw obstacle during a dog agility competition at Branchwater Border Collies training facility on Aug. 30.
Kahlua, a 7-year-old miniature poodle, is led by Cindy Hill of Parkton up a see-saw obstacle during a dog agility competition at Branchwater Border Collies training facility on Aug. 30.(Staff photo by Brian Krista)

Even those who already have healthy and frisky dogs might want to increase their pets' athletic prowess with agility training.

At least that's what a whole slew of area folks are doing, considering the crowd of people and pets attending a United States Dog Agility Association-sanctioned event last month.

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Included among them was Parkton resident Cindy Hill, a strong proponent of the canine sport who reacted to her daughter's leaving for college by ramping up the "camaraderie" with her miniature poodles, Kahlua and Moxie, through agility training.

To that end, Hill and her dogs began taking instructions from Sally Zinkhan at Branchwater Border Collies, a 45-acre farm just off Falls Road in Worthington Valley and the site of the recent dog agility competition.

"I wanted something to do," Hill said.

The clinical coordinator for an orthodontist practice had a void to fill, and her previous experience with show dogs reminded her of how rewarding such an experience can be for dog and owner.

That's how Zinkhan came into the picture.

"I train her how to train her dog," said Zinkhan, 43, a Hereford High grad who has been a trainer for 20 years and currently mentors 70 students.

The idea is to mold master and dog into a finely tuned unit, one that will transform the canine's basic hunting instincts into a healthy competitive activity.

"It also strengthens the bond between you and your dog," said Zinkhan, noting that her fee is $20 per hour in a class format and $65-$75 for one-on-one instruction. "We try to take the pet owner to a new level with their dog."

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That new level means that dog and owner spend a fair amount of time training together.

And while owners enjoy getting good exercise, dogs benefit as well.

"We work on things at home, too — they run full blast, they don't walk," Hill said.

Dogs, which have to be at least 14 months old to be registered into an official introductory program, are timed while jumping, weaving, climbing and running through and around a variety of obstacles with their owners right beside them, making it a good workout for both.

Because scoring is "based on faults similar to equestrian show jumping, dog agility has become an exciting spectator event," according to the USDAA website.

Moreover, dogs learn how to react to other dogs in a positive and nonthreatening manner during competition and classes.

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There's also a bit of socialization for owners, who can pick up ideas from other owners on what works best for their dogs.

"I've shown dogs before, but agility is the most fun. Everybody cheers for everybody else," added Hill, who in February competed with her poodle Kahlua in the Westminster Kennel Club's first-ever agility trial.

The sport can also require a serious time commitment. For instance, one of Hill's recent sessions lasted three hours for one dog and 90 minutes for the other.

Even so, according to Lucille Maczis, it is time definitely well spent.

"I was hooked years ago," she said. "I started out with obedience [training] and then found out there was agility [training] as well."

After her Shetland sheepdog died, Maczis welcomed a border collie — Cory — into her home. That's when she knew it was time to learn how to deal with a dog bred for speed.

"He's always a step ahead of me," Maczis said. "I had to learn how to handle him."

There are several varieties of activities for dog and owner to run through together during competitive events — with "run" being the operative word.

Basically, owners, or handlers, lead the dog on obstacle courses that must be followed in proper sequence. Some of the courses are more complicated than others and take awhile to master.

One that appears to be the most difficult is snooker, an event based on the billiards game that follows a strict pattern of garnering points by pocketing different-colored balls in order. In agility competition, dogs must be led over different-colored jumps in a similarly proscribed sequence.

When a snooker course is set up by judges, dog owners only have a few minutes to figure out their strategy before the competition begins.

Then owners glide solo around the course with arms outstretched, looking somewhat like dancers without partners practicing an odd minuet.

The proprietor of the local gathering place for all the canine activity, Doreen Suchting, of Branchwater Border Collies, became enamored of the sport after her dogs no longer had cattle to herd.

After Suchting sold her livestock, she said she "needed another activity" for her dogs, which ignited her interest in agility training.

She also boards and breeds border collies there, fetching as much as $3,000 for the most coveted offspring of a litter.

That said, the competition is open to most any breed — from a long-haired bearded collie to a Portuguese water dog — and everything in between.

"People think that they have to have purebreds to compete," Suchting said. "But that's not true. We have all-Americans (mixed breeds), too."

Dogs range in size from 12-to-21 inches measured from the withers — or shoulder blades — to the ground, although a message on the USDAA website proclaims "any dog with good physical agility and energy is a strong candidate for the sport."

The dog's size is "unlimited, although it's desirable for them to be a little smaller," Zinkhan clarified.

Towson Deli North owner John Clifton noted that there's another breed in short supply among the competitors, namely men, in a sport that typically boasts 75 percent women.

"Men don't usually have enough patience," the Dulaney grad said. "They have to release a certain amount of control, and they aren't willing to do that."

Still, Clifton, 49, said the events are very competitive.

"It's a completely athletic sport," he said while watching dogs and owners navigate the snooker layout on which he and his American Eskimo dog were disqualified for making a wrong turn. "You see them cutting, running and backing up. And you have to think and plan while you're doing all that."

Clifton could not imagine that he would embrace the hobby.

"I never thought I'd get bitten by the bug," he said. "But my wife and I had a really athletic first dog, and when we got our second one, we knew had to compete."

Suchting has similar feelings.

"People get hooked on alcohol and drugs, but this is just as addicting," she said. "It's a sport you can start when you're eight (years old) and keep going."

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