Sport bonds dogs and human handlers
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?”
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