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The City Journals

Dogs, owners race their way out of 2019 at agility trials

Jan 13, 2020 11:54AM ● By Jordan Hafford

Dog and handler Shania Kentlee race through agility course (Randy Gaines/Gaines Photography)

By Jordan Hafford | [email protected]

If you know anything else about dogs, it is that they possess an exorbitant amount of positive energy. 

A slew of local dogs of all breeds and sizes, along with their owners, are putting this excessive amount of canine gusto to great use by entering the American Kennel Club dog agility trials, put on by the Salty Dogz Agility Club of Utah.  

“Dog agility is a sport that has been growing in popularity across the US and in Utah since the late 1970s”, said Salty Dogz member Sheryl Hohle. “It is actually quite similar to the equestrian sport of horse show jumping.”

The first recorded instance of dog agility was in 1978 at the Crufts dog show in the United Kingdom for the purpose of entertainment. The first exhibitions in the United States occurred in the early 1980s. 

The sport not only offers exhilarating exercise for both dog and handler but also tends to serve as a bonding experience between the two. 

Salty Dogz Agility Club of Utah is a nonprofit 501(c)4 that puts on the trials in Utah. It is one of several local dog clubs that hold events at the Salt Lake County Equestrian Park and Events Center in South Jordan throughout the year. 

AKC dog agility trials are competitive events where dogs and their handlers team up for a chance to race for both time and accuracy through a series of intense obstacles. The dogs go through the obstacles, while the handler runs full speed along with them, directing them through the course. Dogs in these trials rely heavily on cues and body language from their handler. 

An AKC-approved judge designs unique obstacle courses for each class, which the course builders create according to the judge’s specifications. Each day of the trail, there are 10 to 12 classes, so the judge needs to design about 35 different courses for the three-day weekend of trialing. 

The handlers, however, do not get to see the course maps until the day of the event. They are only given a short period of time to study the map, walk the course and then decide on their footwork and handling strategy for each separate course. 

The handlers have 8 minutes to practice their choreography without their dog on each course before the “first dog on the line” starts the class. Once the class begins, each dog is timed from the first obstacle to the last. 

At the highest level of the sport, any mistake will disqualify the dog from gaining any points, but when a dog makes it through the entirety of the obstacles in the correct sequence, and within the designated time limit, they will qualify in that class. 

At the lower levels, dogs can make some errors without being eliminated, but they earn fewer points than the dogs that get through the course without a single mistake. 

Qualifying dogs are awarded ribbons for placements for that day’s class, and the number of seconds that they beat the clock adds up for bigger awards over a period of many trials, eventually leading to a Master Agility Champion award from the American Kennel Club. 

Spectators love the sport due to how fast and passionate these dogs are about the competition. The public is always welcome and encouraged to attend, free of charge, to witness the talent these dogs display at the trials. 

The Salty Dogz Agility Club of Utah puts on four events per year, but the November and February events exclusively are held at the Equestrian Park. During May and August, the events are held at the Davis County Events Center in Farmington. 

The Intermountain Kennel Club holds an event in May at the Equestrian Park as well. 

The Salty Dogz Club has a number of handlers and dogs in Utah. One of these is Keith Highley and his dog Cisco, who was a rescue from the Sale Lake Humane Society. The team has competed internationally, as well as having been featured on the nationally televised Purina Incredible Dog Challenge numerous times. Highley is also on the board of the Salty Dogz Club. 

Donna Housley, also on the board, is another handler highly respected in the industry here in Utah. She and her dog Kismet have placed or won at a number of national events. Sadly, Kismet passed away recently, and Housley along with the Club are deeply saddened by the loss. Housley is now in the process of training her next agility superstar, Kymera. 

Several of the Club’s members are American Kennel Club agility judges, who travel all over the U.S. to judge agility competitions. A few of these members include Tracy Mazur, also on the board of the Salty Dogz club, Danielle LaGrave and LaVar Griffin.

“Hands down, the most important objective of the sport is for participants, both human and canine alike, to have a good time,” Sheryl Hohle said. “Agility isn’t for every dog, but for those that love the sport, it is a game of pure passion.”

Dogs and their handlers need to develop the ability communicate with rapid fire and intense accuracy on the course. 

Top handlers and their dogs need to be fit and athletic. The trials require tight turns, acceleration, deceleration and 25- to 40-second spurts of extreme energy from both handlers and dogs. 

For humans, agility is also about a community of like-minded friends. They support each other unconditionally and bask in each other’s successes. 

On the occasion that a dog ears a Master’s title, it is considered a huge feat. 

Although any breed can be an agility dog, some are better suited to the task than others. Border Collies happen to be the most common agility dog breed because they are known to be extremely intelligent and athletic. 

For those interested in getting started in agility, there are many trainers in the Salt Lake Valley. You can find information the FAQ section. 

Salty Dogz Agility Club of Utah contributes funds to local dog rescue groups to support and save their fellow canines. 

The club will be holding another agility trial at the Equestrian Park again at the end of this coming February. Club members and encourage the public, especially families, to come enjoy a free showcase of the talents and abilities of man’s best friend.