Source: CochraneToday (Extract)
Posted: July 26, 2020

Paws eagerly prancing back and forth, nose to the air and tail wagging furiously with joy 13-month old lab Marvin is excited to set off and race his way through his custom agility course.

Marvin’s owner and agility enthusiast Kathy Ellert said the sport has proven to be the perfect opportunity to play and bond with her dogs. Ellert has been “hooked” on agility ever since she first gave it a go with her dog Alex 18 years ago.

She currently practices agility with Marvin and her retired athlete Dawson, 11.

“I love watching the dogs get it, the starting of the training when they figure out the game,” Ellert said. “It’s fun and they learn that they can race around courses safely— You develop a bond.”

Agility is a sport where a handler and their dog work together to make their way through an obstacle sport. The dog performs the obstacles safely and if they complete the course cleaning with no time faults they get a qualifying score. Teams can earn ribbons, titles and awards for agility, she said, but money is never involved.

Ellert said handlers can start with simple tasks like low jumps or small tunnels and slowly build a dog’s confidence using positive reinforcement, treats and toys.

“They just love it,” Ellert said. “They pick up on your emotional happiness.”

She added that it is the perfect sport for a high energy dog breed who needs stimulation, but it can be played by any size or shape of canine.

Classes are broken down based on height and jumps are set accordingly.

Ellert added that the community is eager to see new athletes join the game.

“All the people that are there competing had to start somewhere and they will help, they will offer suggestions, they will offer help, they will offer information. If you don’t know something you just ask any of the people that are there,” Ellert said, explaining that they want to see teams succeed in the agility ring.

There are several different organizations to join including the North American Dog Agility Council, the Agility Association of Canada, the UK Agility International and the Canadian Kennel Club. For the most parts the organizations have similar course setups, Ellert said, the biggest difference being the amount and type of equipment used.

Ellert said the agility scene is growing in Cochrane and the Calgary Canine Centre began using the Cochrane & District AG Society building to host trials last year.

“It’s beautiful for it. It’s great it’s close to home,” Ellert said.

The Cochrane & District AG Society building has been a great setting for agility trials, said Calgary Canine Centre owner Janet Ooms.

“Agility is a wonderful outlet for people and dogs. It’s a good physical, mental outlet for both,” Ooms said. “You have to have a really good relationship with your dog to be successful in agility because it’s teamwork. It’s all about the two of you working together as a team and having fun.”

The Calgary Canine Centre serves as a training facility and visits different horse arenas in the Calgary area, including the Cochrane AG Centre.

They began holding North American Dog Agility Council agility trials at the Ag Centre in 2019, Ooms said, and they hope to once again return to the area in October if public health measures allow.

Ooms said it is the perfect respite after facing the challenging reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sport has been growing in popularity during the pandemic, Ooms added, explaining that she has seen an increased demand for training over the summer.

“Everybody was just so happy to be back,” she said.

Some agility groups have started outdoor trials but the number of classes and people has been limited to adhere to public health protocols.

Ooms said the first indoor trial of the year is scheduled to take place in Cochrane in October.

“Our big concern now is that it’s very different mitigating circumstances when you’re outdoors as opposed to when you’re indoors,” Ooms said. “It gets very crowded which we know we can’t do.”

Ooms said teams are excited to get out, run and reconnect with the agility community.

“We really miss it— It’s great for the runners and it’s great for the dogs,” Ooms said. “It’s something that is very addictive and so it’s hard when you can’t play it.”

It has been challenging for those who are unable to practice at home because the majority of facilities and classes remain closed due to COVID-19. Ooms said she began hosting limited classes at the end of May with social distancing in place and students wearing masks.

“It’s all about being creative,” Ooms said with a laugh. “We’ll figure it out, it will just take some time.”

She added agility is the perfect sport for social distancing, because when in competition it is only the handler and their dog in the ring with a masked judge in place.

“It’s all about safety for the animals,” Ooms said. “Because of the criteria for the dogs, it lends itself to social distancing.”

Prairie Seashell Pet Care owner Shannon Chester said agility is an excellent way to grow one’s relationship with their dog while enhancing their obedience training because it serves as a physical and mental challenge for canines.

Chester began practicing agility with her dog Soren, a rescue from the Cochrane and Area Humane Society, last year. The team has a unique bond because Chester fostered his mother and Soren was born at her house along with seven other puppies.

“Not many people get that opportunity,” Chester said with a chuckle.

The Humane Society describes agility, “as the most fun a dog can have. To a dog, an agility field is like a doggy amusement park. It provides them with enrichment, the opportunity to burn off some energy while having fun and is also great to strengthen the bond between you and your dog.”

The non-profit has adapted its agility courses to incorporate COVID-19 recommendations. This includes limiting class sizes to six dogs, maintaining social distancing, allowing for a 15-minute break between classes and ensuring students sanitize their hands when arriving at the building.

Two agility courses are available. For teams that are new to the sport, the Get Started Agility Class is available for $225 for six weeks. For those looking to continue the sport the More Fun Agility class is available for $225.

Currently, no date has been set for the classes, but a wait list is available.

Ooms said she and Soren were advancing from basic to intermediate agility when COVID-19 arrived in the province. The duo created a modified practice session using pylons in her basement but this proved challenging because Soren could not satisfy his need for speed in the restricted area.

Agility and obedience work in tandem she said, because the sport teaches dogs to follow the commands from their owner.

Obedience can serve as a baseline for agility, but when coming to agility classes instructors will help teams conquer the course.

“If you don’t really have the groundworks of your basic obedience like “sit, stay, heel” and things like that the first time you go to let them off-leash in the agility ring, they’re going to ignore you and they’re going to run around and have fun on their own,” Chester said with a laugh. “The more basic obedience you have at home, obviously, the faster you’re going to progress in agility.”

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