Dog Agility – Life in the Fast Lane

Tackle, the Basa’s Golden Retriever, competed at the 2019 AKC National Agility Championship where he was a finalist in the 24” class.
by Nancy E. McCarthy

Agility is not just a fun, competitive dog sport for Joel and Lori Basa, it’s their shared passion. Through the sport, they’ve connected deeply with their dogs – and with each other. And true story: The couple actually met at a dog agility training class in 2006! This fortuitous encounter turned romantic after Joel mustered up the courage to ask Lori out. “Our dogs liked each other, too,” says Lori.

They married in 2010. In 2016, after teaching agility for several years and competing with their own pups, the Basas opened Five Points Training, their training facility in Rush, New York.

What is Agility?

Dog agility is a sport where you direct your dog through an obstacle course within a certain time limit using verbal cues and body language. In competitions, also called trials, points are given or taken away for speed and performance.

Agility made its unofficial debut at an English dog show in 1977. Rules were later defined by The Kennel Club in England in 1980. Its popularity spread worldwide, and in 1986, the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) was founded to promote international standards for dog agility, patterned after the British rules. Other similar agility organizations in the U.S. followed suit. In the Finger Lakes Region, agility competitions hosted by local dog clubs tend to be sanctioned primarily by the American Kennel Club (AKC) and Canine Performance Events (CPE).

While rules vary slightly depending on which agility organization is involved in a competition, the course obstacles are standard to the sport. It is the variation in equipment placement that presents different challenges to handler and dog (referred to as a “team”). Obstacles include jumps, weave poles, tunnels and more. Equipment is stationary, with the exception of a teeter totter that tips when the dog sprints up the board and down the other side. Speed counts, so herding dogs such as Collies and Shelties, and sporting dogs like Golden Retrievers or Labrador Retrievers typically excel at agility. However, any breed and mixed breeds, regardless of size or age, can successfully participate because competing dogs are grouped according to height, class and skill levels.

“At the core, any dog sport, but especially dog agility can be such a relationship-building activity for you and your dog. It’s very enriching for dogs that love to work or play,” says Joel. “There’s also such a rush when you run a course without error and fast with your canine teammate. It’s almost like a choreographed dance when you run totally in sync.”

While running with your dog requires a level of human athleticism, the sport attracts dog owners of any age or ability. You can learn to direct your dog without running alongside of them at all.

Getting Your Show on the Road

Three-and-a-half-year-old Macie is a busy, high-energy mixed breed who loves learning. Erik and Kathryn Baker of Webster adopted Macie as a puppy, and it was their obedience class instructor who saw the pup’s potential for agility. Erik and Macie started their agility training as a team with Helene Juice at Chance of a Lifetime in Honeoye Falls. In 2021, they began working with Five Points Training. It’s commonplace for dog owners to cross-train or work with different instructors. Joel refers to this as getting “your show on the road,” as in preparing your dog to compete in agility trials. He also recommends practicing in different environments and competing in various venues. If a dog achieves titles, multiple trainers or handlers may have helped along the way, but it’s the dog that earns the titles.

Erik and Macie take weekly group classes to keep fundamentals and handling skills progressing. Kathryn comes along and will substitute as Macie’s partner if Erik is unavailable. A monthly private lesson with Joel focuses on specific course obstacles. “Joel’s advice and constructive criticism helps to better guide my handling,” says Erik. “Dogs understand body language, so Joel teaches us how to communicate with our dog via body language and verbal cues.” Erik’s goal is to start competing with Macie later this year.

Training and Trainers

Five Points Training attracts new clients mainly by word-of-mouth and from other owners at agility trials who see Joel and Lori compete with their own dogs. The Basas currently have a pack of five, although their Golden Retriever Bomber is almost 12 and retired now. Their training credibility is based on how they – and their clients – perform at competitions.

Julie Symons, owner and trainer at Savvy Dog Sports (SDP) in Honeoye Falls, is also a Five Points client with her two-year-old Belgian Tervuren, Moxie. At SDP, Symons trains clients and also competes in a variety of dog sports, including nose work, herding, tracking and agility. “Going to Five Points has helped keep me relevant and competitive, specifically in the area of handling,” says Symons. “Joel and Lori have a good eye for handling and provide clear instruction for a variety of teams and skill levels. They seek out continuing education, which is a critical part of all training growth.”

Symons says that agility remains popular, but doesn’t feel as intense as it was when it exploded in the 1990s. Joel acknowledges the sport’s growth has slowed somewhat due to a glut of other options such as rally, barn hunt and nose work, which requires less training time.

Looking to promote the sport by introducing younger dog owners to the joys of agility, Five Points Training offers clients who are 18 years old or younger a 50% discount on group and private lessons. Because once you start training and bonding with your high-energy pup, “it’s addictive,” says Lori. “Most people get hooked right away.”

That’s a win-win for any team.

Upcoming Local Agility Competitions

September 4-5 – CPE – Ithaca Dog Training Club
Groton, New York – Paws for Thought Farm
September 18-19 – USDAA – Happy Tails Agility Club
Walworth, New York – Sherburne Road Park
September 30-October 2 – AKC – Finger Lakes Kennel Club
Romulus, New York – Sampson State Park
October 15-17 – AKC – Syracuse Obedience Training Club
Syracuse, New York – Central New York Family Sport Centre
November 5-7 – AKC – Dog Obedience Training Club of Rochester, New York
Webster, New York – Webster Soccer Association
November 6-7 – CPE – Paws for Thought Farm
Groton, New York

Competitions are generally open to the public but check ahead with the local dog club host for more information.

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