Dog Sports – The True Cultural Divide

Wonder Agility Dog - Bo Marshall

My wife Kate wrote this one:

It’s hard to just dabble in dog sports. Once you step up to the start line and lock eyes with your canine partner—your fun-loving and hardworking teammate—you’ll be hooked. I started Agility just to keep myself and my dog fit. Now I say “Hello, my name is Kate. I am an Agility addict.”

Under cover of early morning fog, I join a small weekend army of mini-vans with bumper stickers like “My Poodle’s Smarter Than Your Honor Student,” quietly slipping out of cul-de-sacs everywhere to partake in various dog sport trials. We addicts often drive for hours for a chance to compete in Obedience, Agility, Fly Ball, Tracking, or whatever our dog sport of choice may be. We share passion and respect for dogs, but each sport has its own rules, vocabulary and culture.

Trials for herding, hunting, water sports and disc sports not only have different tasks for the dog, but also different atmospheres for the human. The happiest dog-handler teams have found the sport that both calls on the dogs’ natural talents and has the right vibe for the handlers.

On a typical Saturday morning, a canine obstacle course is erected in a park in Dixon, California for an all-day Agility trial. A judge from Arizona carefully watches a manic, barking Australian Shepherd whirling through the course.

“Jess, here… over… weave!”  Erica, the dog’s spandex-clad handler, chirps out directions and quick praise as the Aussie leaps and shimmies through the correct sequence of jumps, tunnels and weave poles.

After the last jump, sideline supporters give a rowdy hurray. They know this successful run has earned Jess her Open title. The dog leaps into the elated owner’s arms, ready for victory play—and liver bits.

On the same morning, fifty miles away in a park in Walnut Creek, an Obedience trial gets going. A woman in a polka-dotted sweatshirt releases her young Dalmation from a “sit stay” across the ring by firmly calling “Max, come!”

The handler nervously holds her breath until the dog comes. He correctly sits squarely in front of her, awaiting the “finish” command. So far so good, but she doesn’t want to jinx a qualifying score by relaxing until the last test is done. If they succeed, the dog can add a CD (Companion Dog) title to the end of his name and start trying more difficult tests.

Jigs, a golden-eyed border collie, enters the ring with Sharon, his strawberry blond handler, for the “Long Sit” portion of the Obedience test. Jig’s white paws and Sharon’s trail running shoes swish in lock step through the damp grass, which is extra long and sweet from recent rains. His keen eyes and erect ears freeze on Sharon as she unclips his leash.

“Jigs, sit,” she calmly commands. Jigs pops his bottom down and waits for the next command. Perfect.

“Jigs, stay.” As Sharon steps away she holds his gaze, but sees his nostrils flare.

Her eyes flash “Don’t even think about it,” but it’s too late. The intoxicating sweet grass has overwhelmed Jigs. Down he goes, face first into the grass, rubbing its sweetness onto his snout, then neck. Now fully inebriated he flounces down, belly up and starts high-

speed wriggling to work as many good grass smells as possible into his black and white coat before getting busted. The judge excuses Sharon and Jigs from the silent ring.

If this happened to you, would you a) immediately groom the grass stains out of his white blaze; b) plan hours of quiet, dignified retraining; c) howl in amusement at your break dancing canine; or d) be amazed your dog even sat when you suggested it?

Your response likely depends on whether you participate in a dog sport and if so, which one. [Answers: a) Conformation, b) Obedience, c) Agility, d) None of the Above]

Sharon has been involved in all of the above dog worlds, but at heart Sharon and Jigs are an Agility team that does Obedience on the side. Taking initiative and having fun makes Jigs a smarter, faster Agility dog. So yes, she laughs heartily about his untimely roll. Plus it was darn cute.

“Oh man, was he in heaven,” Sharon chuckles as she tells the story to another mostly-Agility person.

“Geez, Sharon. Don’t you know you’re not allowed to laugh in Obedience?!”

But the difference between Obedience and Agility cultures pales in comparison to the divide between Conformation and Herding worlds, especially with border collie lovers. Here the split goes beyond style, with passionate debate over whether breeding towards a physical standard rather than herding talent is good for the breed or bad. Confessing a preference for a certain ear carriage or coat at a working border collie herding trial is a serious faux pas.

I decide to test the mood at the AKC National Championships, where my daughter and herding-reject turned agility-star border collie are entered in Agility. There is no Herding event there, but many Agility people I know who have border collies dream of living on a farm with sheep some day, so I use them as a proxy.

A 50-foot high metal curtain strategically divides the Long Beach Convention Center into Agility and Conformation worlds. I venture over to the Conformation side in time for the border collie gathering. I don’t need a passport to cross the border, but I immediately feel underdressed in my cargo pants and “In Dog We Trust” t-shirt. I am glad I left my un-bathed dog on the other side.

“Gosh, I’m surprised by how different the show collies look from the ones over in Agility,” I say, testing the waters with a spectator whose allegiance I have not yet determined.

“Oh, you mean the Coyotes?” I can’t tell if she is joking so I hastily retreat.

“Did you know that show people call these border collies coyotes?” I ask on the other side of the iron curtain.

“Oh, you mean the Barbie Collie people?” This time I stay long enough to see the smile.

About the Author: Kate Marshall is a writer living in Moraga, California. She is married with two children. Her border collie is by far the better half of their Agility team. Kate is the co-author of four fill-in journals: The Book of Us: A Journal of Your Love Story in 150 Questions (Hyperion, 1998), Words to Live By: A Journal of Wisdom for Someone You Love (Broadway Books, 2005), and What I Love About You (Broadway, 2007), and the 2007 E-book: The Life of My Dog. Over 150,000 copies of her journals have been sold. www.marshallbooks.net

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2 Responses to “Dog Sports – The True Cultural Divide”

  1. Ron Watson Says:

    Great stuff, Kate.

    I play Frisbee with our dogs and have the same understanding you do about the cultural divide between both the sporting disciplines and the dog and non-dog people.

    We do dog sports and pet training as a full time business in Western Michigan. We’re also working on books about discdogging and positive training.

    Thanks again for the great read!

    Cheers,
    Ron Watson
    Pawsitive Vybe
    K9Disc.com
    Art of K9Disc: a VideoBlog

  2. Claudia Says:

    This was so well written and so true. When others are getting ready for church on Sundays we “dog people” are getting into our cars with directions in hand heading toward our respective dog sports. We DO pray on Sundays, right? Only it is during the long stays in obedience. God must love Border Colllies because he allows them to keep us so happy!
    Thanks for making me laugh at your witty comments. Good job.

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