Agile Dogs, Agile People
BY ALEX CANTATORE
One day, way back in mid-90s, Mary Van Wormer was clicking along on her television when a strange new program came on.
The screen was filled with images of happy, barking dogs. They jumped over gates, ran through tunnels, wove between poles, and climbed teeter-totters.
“Dog agility,” the TV announcers called it. Van Wormer was transfixed, unable to change the channel. It was an instant connection, bringing back memories of raising guide dogs as a child.
“I said, ‘Some day, I’m going to do that sport,’” Van Wormer said.
So she did.
She took lessons, and eventually became a prominent figure in dog agility.
Today, Van Wormer is sharing her love of dog agility with scores of passionate locals at Nunes Agility Field in Turlock – the only place between Fresno and Sacramento to learn about dog agility.
The field, built by John Nunes, opened in 1999 on land owned by the neighboring Veterinary Medical Center of Turlock. Van Wormer and two other dog agility aficionados took over the field in 2001, where they train dogs and hold competitions under the Great Start Dog Agility banner.
On this crisp winter day, the field is hosting a “Fun Match.” Dogs run through a complicated course of twists and turns – at their owners’ direction – while Van Wormer times their performances.
“It’s like a practice for the real deal,” Van Wormer explains. “Look at it like a scrimmage.”
That practice comes in advance of the big show: the United States Dog Agility Association trials held at Nunes Agility Field. The trials attract competitors from across the state, in search of byes at regional championships.
But competition is just one aspect of dog agility. It’s one heck of a workout, enjoyed by dogs and owners who have no intention of competing.
Of course, agility dogs get physical exercise as they run, jump, climb, and weave through the agility field. More importantly, Van Wormer says, dog agility is also a mental workout.
“That’s usually the missing component with the dogs,” Van Wormer said.
Simply throwing a ball in the backyard isn’t enough to keep most dogs mentally stimulated. They need some sort of task, something they can think about and work on.
It’s even more important for the working dogs, bred for tasks like herding sheep, guarding property, or pulling sleds.
Marsha West knows the importance first-hand. She sees the difference in Danica, her Australian Shepard, now that dog agility is part of her life.
“This one was crazy,” West says. She pauses, then corrects herself, “How about ‘driven.’”
Now, “Dani” is a content, happy dog. She has an outlet for that drive.
Tammy Dominico, a USDAA coach and trainer from Visalia, agrees with Van Wormer.
“Dogs need a job,” Dominico said. A dog with a “job” – doing dog agility, in this case – feels fulfilled. They become a happier, healthier dog, Dominico says, and owners build a stronger bond with their dogs as they work alongside them.
Those owners get a great workout, too. They run the agility course alongside their dogs, twisting and turning through the maze of obstacles with fancy footwork.
And once again, it’s not just physical exercise that humans receive, but mental training as well. Van Wormer cites research that suggests moving your body through space – as you do in dog agility – is the number one brain workout, more effective than Sudoku or crosswords.
It takes a sharp mind to succeed in competitive dog agility, she says, as competitors don’t know the course before they arrive. Each contestant has just a few minutes to memorize a course before they run it.
It’s like solving a puzzle in real-time, optimizing a route to move both yourself and your dog through the course. It’s no surprise that engineers thrive at the sport’s top levels, Van Wormer says.
But here in Turlock, few competitors in the “Fun Match” have dreams of becoming dog agility professionals. They’re here for the fun, the camaraderie, the workout.
And most importantly, they’re here because of their dogs.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, call 209-484- 2174, e-mail [email protected], or visit greatstartagility.net.