Poised at the start line, 8-year-old Darby intently watches for a signal from her owner, Julia Kamysz Lane, who launches the eager Dalmatian on a sprint through a 19-part obstacle course at a dog agility competition in Crystal Lake, Ill. (pop. 40,743).
With an electronic timer recording the seconds, Darby effortlessly clears three jumps, and then weaves left and right through a series of 12 poles as Lane trots alongside. “Go, go, go!” says Lane, 38, clapping encouragement to her canine companion.
Through tunnels, up and down an A-frame barrier, and crossing a narrow, elevated plank, Darby is clearly focused on her teammate, who uses her voice and physical cues such as eye contact and hand signals to direct her spotted dog. At one point, the Dalmatian reaches a table where she must sit still for five seconds before proceeding to a teeter-totter and more jumps. The course ends with Darby airborne and gliding through a tire hoop.
“Good girl!” says Lane, extending a liver treat to her panting partner just past the finish line.
“I’m still in awe that Darby and I have this communication that can be wordless,” says Lane, of South Elgin, Ill. (pop. 16,100), now in her sixth year as a dog agility trainer. “I can run her through this course without saying a thing, and she’s still with me (and) choosing to play this game with me.”
More than a game, dog agility is an increasingly popular team sport that tests a person’s skills of training and handling a dog over a timed obstacle course. Far beyond teaching a pooch to sit, stay or roll over, the training helps dogs of all sizes and breeds become fit, obedient and comfortable around other dogs while forging bonds of friendship and trust with their human handlers.
Rescue and redemption
Darby wasn’t always a “good girl” when she joined the Lane household while the family lived in New Orleans. When Lane’s husband, Brian, found the dog in 2002 in a vacant lot, she was a filthy, wormy puppy with a penchant for chewing furniture, charging at other dogs and barking for attention. She ignored Lane’s commands and even chewed up a cherished antique trunk.
“I didn’t have a clue how to handle her,” says Lane, who took Darby to an agility class two years later “out of pity and exasperation.”
Surprised by how Darby liked the sport, Lane began to enjoy it, too. Together, the unlikely teammates learned to be more patient with each other and to celebrate small victories such as the first time Darby cleared two consecutive jumps. “She had so much fun and so much focus for the obstacles that she started to forget her concern for the strangers and the other dogs in the class,” Lane says.
Today, Darby is one of two Dalmatians to earn a United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) Championship title. Meanwhile, Lane has opened her own dog training business in South Elgin to help other owners see the potential in their pets. She credits Darby and the sport for prodding her to become a public speaker.
“Because I’m so passionate about agility and how it can change ‘problem’ dogs into dogs we love and adore and couldn't imagine not being in our lives, I'm no longer afraid to speak in public or walk up to a stranger and strike up a conversation,” Lane says. “Who knew a dog sport could do all that?”
A sport for all dogs
Dog agility first was demonstrated in 1978 as entertainment presented in between events at the famed Crufts dog show in Birmingham, England.
Witnessing the event firsthand in 1985 was Kenneth Tatsch, a Dallas, Texas, businessman and dog lover, who became so captivated by the relationships between handlers and their dogs that he began to explore agility training in earnest. The following year, he formed the Dallas-based USDAA and began promoting the sport across America.
“Obedience training was always limited to a few basic exercises and then boredom sets in; whereas with agility, the course is ever-changing and you have to learn to have really good communication skills with your dog,” says Tatsch, 56.
Today, the sport includes more than 25,000 registered U.S. competitors representing more than 200 dog breeds. The USDAA boasts more than 150 agility training groups conducting hundreds of events annually and culminating with the Cynosport World Games, which draws nearly 4,000 spectators and handlers each autumn.
Often referred to as the “sport for all dogs,” agility is open to pure and mixed breeds, both large and small, though physically fit canines with lots of energy generally are the best candidates. Their human handlers put each animal through its paces without a touch or a prop. Scoring is based on faults, and some of the most competitive courses can be completed in less than 35 seconds.
Ashley Deacon, 43, of Redwood City, Calif., knew nothing about dog agility when he began the sport in 2003, and he now holds consecutive World Championship titles in the USDAA’s Dog Agility Steeplechase with his 8-year-old female Pyrenean shepherd, Luka.
Deacon says bonding with his dog is important to him, but he also enjoys the sport’s social aspect. “It’s just a fun activity to get you up and out early in the morning to go to a competition and meet good friends,” he says.
“It’s something you’re doing with your dog instead of just watching them,” adds Rosemary Nero, 58, of Barrington Hills, Ill., whose 4-year-old miniature poodle, Remy, is her first agility dog. “It literally is like an invisible thread that connects us.”
Inspiration and success
The sport seems to bring out the best in both dogs and people.
Mocha-Jo had a missing left eye, a limp in her left front leg and fear-based aggression toward moving cars and other dogs when the Australian shepherd began training with her owner, Nancy Fantuzzi, 44, of Sparta, N.J.
Then, in 2007, Fantuzzi was diagnosed with cancer on the same day that their training bag was packed for Mocha-Jo’s much-loved agility class.
“She’s looking at me and looking at the door and I just thought, ‘She loves to do this, and having one eye and a fused wrist doesn’t stop her, so (cancer) isn’t going to stop me,’” Fantuzzi remembers.
Throughout her treatments, Fantuzzi and Mocha-Jo continued to train and attend classes “because it made me feel that if I could keep moving, then I was winning the cancer war,” says Fantuzzi, whose cancer now is in remission and whose dog gradually has overcome her own aggression.
“Now,” she says, “Mocha-Jo and I can face anything the world throws at us, including weave poles and A-frames!”