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Canines, owners team up to compete in dog agility contests

When a friend suggested to Stephanie Keene that she might want to try dog agility training for her West Highland white terrier, Finnegan, the idea intrigued the longtime West Towson resident.

Once the daytime bartender at Souris Saloon received contact information for trainer Sally Zinkhan, the fast-growing sport/hobby has become a big part of the lives of Keene and her canine.

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Together, they are preparing for a United States Dog Agility Association-sanctioned event in Millersville, Oct. 4-5, by practicing weekly at Branchwater Border Collies, a 45-acre farm near Hunt Valley off of Falls Road.

"I thought, well this will be fun — I took him that first weekend and it was fun," said Keene, 50, married with a son who attends Dumbarton Middle School. "It was good mental and physical exercise for us both."

Even so, Keene figured she and Finnegan, now 7, would never compete like so many other dogs and their handlers do.

That aspect of the sport was not for her, she reasoned, although she did try it just to see what it was like.

Finnegan, though, was not enamored with the idea at first.

"He did horribly," Keene remembered. "He was just running around, and didn't do anything I asked him to do. He's one of those dogs who either loves it or hates it."

Happily for Keene, Finnegan's love-hate toward agility has shifted to the love side of the equation, because he's all in now.

"He loves it and does really well," Keene said. "He's  happy to be the center of attention, and we've moved up (in competition levels). We even compete against Sally, my teacher, now."

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

The excitement is not limited to spectators. Owners and dogs enjoy the competition, yet a sense of camaraderie is a pervasive component to the events, where, as one owner, Cindy Hill, put it, "Everybody cheers for everybody else."

Athleticism — coordination, rhythm, flexibility and quickness — also counts.

"It's a completely athletic sport," said lifelong Timonium resident John Clifton earlier this month at a USDAA trial earlier this month at Branchwater. "You see them (dogs and handlers) cutting, running and backing up. And you have to think and plan (how to navigate the course) while you're doing all that."

The Towson Deli North owner could not imagine that he would have ever embraced the hobby.

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"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 we had to compete."

Clifton now competes with Dakota, a 7-year-old American Eskimo dog.

Part of agility training's charm is that dogs learn how to react to other dogs in a positive and non-threatening manner during competition and classes.There's also a bit of socialization for owners, who can pick up ideas from other owners on what works best for their dogs, said dog agility competitor, Abby Copelan, of Reisterstown.

Zinkhan said she trains owners how to train their dogs.

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. "We try to take the pet owner to a new level with their dog."

Zinkhan's fee is $20 per hour in a class format and $65-$75 for one-on-one instruction. 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.

Keene, who has a part-time gig as a cardio instructor at the Towson Y, said that for Finnegan, agility training helps him stay in shape.

"For him, it's a really good exercise," she said.

Other benefits are just — if not more — rewarding.

"It's a quirky thing, but it's more satisfying to train with your dog," she said. "Practice for us is more about the bond between handler and dog, trying to get him to remember all the commands. It makes him a better listener and a better dog. It's hard to explain, but a human and an animal have to work as a team."

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 based on pocketing different-colored balls in order. In agility competition, dogs must be led over different-colored jumps in a proscribed sequence.

When a snooker course is set up by judges, 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 dainty 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, latched onto the sport after her dogs no longer had cattle to herd.

However, after Suchting sold her livestock, she said she "needed another activity for my 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 its desirable for them to be a little smaller," Zinkhan clarified.

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."

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