A portable fence wraps around a dirt infield. On the other side of the barrier lay folding chairs, crates, tables and wood chips. There were dog – and human – treats, raffle giveaways and the one thing no community event can be without: a CBD vendor.
The smell is best described as, well, all of the above. Every five or 10 minutes, my nose catches a new fragrance wafting through the arena. So who knows what it must have been like for the competitors?
“This venue is particularly hard,” explains Patty Mott, the Helena Kennel Club’s publicity chair. “It has four open sides. Most venues are up against the walls of smaller facilities.”
The multipurpose building of the Helena fairgrounds hosted over 200 dogs Friday through Sunday for the Helena Kennel Club’s Fall Agility Trial. Agility trials – in addition to raising funds for kennel clubs – offer a fun and challenging outlet for people and their dogs who wish to take their obedience training to a more competitive level.
“It’s like my daily crossword puzzle,” adds Mott, whose dog Sally competed in the agility trial.
Agility trials reward persistence and those willing the travel. A common goal for handlers is to reach MACH (Master Agility Champion) status.
This is done by accumulating points which are awarded based on the dog’s performance navigating the “jumpers” and “standard” courses within the “excellent masters” division (or higher). The jumpers course is a series of jumps – with a weave – and the standard course is made up of obstacles. A course will be given a time. When a dog completes the course under said amount of time, it receives a qualification that is worth up to 30 points. When the dog qualifies in both events on the same day, it receives a “double Q.”
In order to become a MACH, a handler and their dog must earn 750 points and 20 double Qs.
Stan Thyberg of Pocatello, Idaho, and his miniature schnauzer KatyJo earned their MACH on Sunday. Thyberg has been coming to Helena for the past 15 years to compete in agility trials.
Thyberg, 77, guesses he enters roughly 24 meets per year. In January he and four-year-old KayJo traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the American Kennel Club national championships.
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“It keeps you in shape mentally, physically,” he says. “It’s a blast. It’s an awesome sport. I was in ski racing when I was younger and liken it to that quite a bit, only a little harder.”
Each dog and owner have a different style. Some dogs ramp up the energy as they work through the course. A few dogs are so thrilled to be out there, they let out yelps the entire run. Certain dogs take on obstacles with vigor while dreading others.
A common nuisance is the weave.
There were a few dogs who slalom through the posts with ease. Some dogs are eventually coaxed through with enough encouragement and hand signals. Some dogs trot or walk in a straight line and wait for their owners to give up and let them move onto more jumps – a double Q is not atop their to-do list.
Handlers are given eight minutes to walk the course and create a plan. They want to plan what signals to use, and how to pivot or turn as they guide their canine.
“You’re trying to be on the proper side to control your dog,” explains Thyberg. “If you’re not, then you misguide them. So, where you cross – from one side to the other – is really important.”
A common feeder into agility trials are obedience classes. According to Mott, agility trial training is discouraged until a dog is around two years old. It is important for a dog’s growth plates to fully mature before they start jumping and running through obstacles. Some dogs show promise as pups, but generally border collies, labs, and dogs with the brain capacity for a larger vocabulary are the dominant breeds.
There are exceptions.
“I think Sally understands two words,” Mott says jokingly of her yellow lab who had just fallen victim to the weave. “’Food’ and ‘squirrel.’ But these (agility trials) are all about having fun.”