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It’s a ‘ruff’ life
PORT GAMBLE — It was a dog day afternoon in Port Gamble, as Australian shepherds, Shetland sheepdogs and even Yorkshire terriers showed how well they’d trained their masters.
“The person who typically needs the most training isn’t the dog,” said Bob Grass of Lake Bay, who, for the last 13 years, ran his sheepdogs in agility competitions.
“The dogs learn pretty fast. It’s you who typically mess it up.”
This weekend the two dog trials — Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) and North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC) — were hosted by the Muddy Paws Agility Club of Kitsap (MudPACK).
More than 200 dogs competed over the weekend taking multiple runs through jumps, weave poles, teeter-totters, tunnels and A-frame board-planks to obtain as many points as possible.
“It’s just dog, dog, dog, dog, dog, all day long,” said MudPACK volunteer Cyndi Norlen, who came from Issaquah to compete with her two dogs.
According to the American Kennel Club, agility competitions are the fastest-growing dog sports in the United States. Just don’t make eye contact with dogs in the competition arenas.
“If they look at you, look away because they’ll run right up to you,” Norlen said, adding it messes up their timed run.
With the cost at $20 each run, that’s not exactly the way to make friends with other dog owners, she said.
Many owners are determined to attain new titles or the ability to compete in national competitions.
“It’s a big deal, some people can be pretty competitive,” Grass said. “But really the goal of this is to have fun with your dog.”
Only 40 dogs compete at nationals and need points to qualify, explained Laurie Smith of Samammish.
The top dog can have anywhere between 75-100 points and the lowest-ranking dog can have as little as 12-15 points, she said.
“It varies greatly. There’s not a lot of ASCA trials around here to gain points so we are really thankful for this one,” she said.
Smith said she first started agility competitions as a fun alternative to obedience training.
“That’s boring, but they learn obedience through this training too.”
From novice to elite, the dogs are motivated not by titles or competitions but by food or toys.
“It’s their ‘button,’” said Julie Raymond from Bremerton who was competing with her Australian Shepherds.
“It’s what you push to make something work. For some dogs its toys, others it’s food. That’s her button,” she said pointing to her dog playing in a kiddie pool filled with water.
Raymond and her friend Jill Wolfard, also of Bremerton, both train in Purdy, the closest agility training grounds in the area, they said.
“It’s lots of training, patience, perseverance and just the love of your dog I think,” Wolfard said.
Sitting out by the kiddie pool and playing in the sprinklers between courses, Raymond can see why the sport is easily one of the fastest growing in the nation.
“It was something fun to try with the dogs. It’s addicting once you start. That’s how I got my second dog,” she said.
Each dog/handler team has its own pep talks and handlers experience ranges of emotion from “really hyper” to “really nervous.”
All in all it’s a sport that combines the love of dogs with communication, skills and bonding, or just an excuse to play in the sun with other dog lovers.
“It’s a lot of fun because it’s a definite team sport,” Grass said. “It’s you and your dog.”