In Barkley’s world, weave poles, crossovers, tire jumps, broad and panel jumps, collapsed tunnels, teeter-totters, pause boxes, and A-frames are as commonplace for him as that giant bagel we seem to covet for breakfast–maybe more often than we should. As a finely-tuned Shepherd mix, 5-year-old Barkley has been competing in agility trials with Carol Brown, his owner, for much of his life, with a shelf of ribbons and trophies as shining testimonials to his motivation and prowess.
But what about Brown? A writer in her early 50s with no prior interest in sports or athletics, Brown inherited Barkley as an older puppy from her son who moved to NYC for a job in finance. “He’s an active breed that needs an outlet,” she said. “Spending eight or more hours a day, five days a week, confined to a studio apartment was not the life for him.”
Though the idea of agility training appealed to her, Brown’s concerns about keeping up as Barkley’s handler were daunting at first. “There’s a lot of training and handler coordination involved,” she explained. “You’re essentially running an obstacle course with the dog, and they’re complicated enough that human interaction is a requisite.”
For Karen Moureaux, owner of Contact Point Agility in Fillmore, California (www.dogagility.net), acquiring her first border collie in 1989 segued into a business where the precise, split-second interaction of dogs and humans produces winning results–for both!
“My own daughters learned to do it as young kids,” Moureaux said, speaking of a sport where for the most part age is not a liability– for either human or dog. “It’s largely middle-aged women that I see doing it in the U.S., and people at any fitness level can do agility training with their dogs. The nice thing is that in wanting your dog to succeed, it motivates you to get more fit and coordinated yourself.”
In some instances, in addition to working the course with their pets, Moureaux has seen newly engaged dog owners (called handlers on the course) enroll in gym and running classes and the like. Training involves acquainting the dog with the ins and outs of an array of obstacles on a course made of grass, dirt, matting or rubber, with skill and speed paramount in the mastery process. “There’s a strategy in what kind of footwork you’re using as well and you have to be somewhat fast and coordinated to do certain types of crosses,” she explained, upping the ante on fitness.
Where agility classes are typically an hour, participants have been known to purchase their own equipment to practice on off-days in their backyards, adding to the training regimen and exercise benefits. “They’re highly motivated because they love their dog and they want to get out and do better–not hold the dog back,” Moureaux said, adding that sometimes people inadvertently lose weight simply as a byproduct of the course workouts.
Acknowledging one doesn’t have to be a “stellar athlete” to do agility, and most people aren’t, improving on what you already have is a manageable goal, according to Moureaux, who has seen men and women in their 80s running their dogs in agility trials.
For a so-called couch-potato dog, Moureaux indicated you want to start out slowly, just as you would for yourself, until both parties are better conditioned. She also notes agility training is not breed-specific. Almost any breed from Pomeranians to Great Danes can do it.
“It’s no different than deciding to shape up with a good friend,” Barkley’s owner Carol Brown said.
“Only in this case, it’s your best friend.”