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Dogs and owners share joy of agility competition

September 10th, 2003, 04:25 PM
By GAIL SCHONTZLER Chronicle Staff Writer
It was hard to say who was more excited about competing in Saturday's dog agility trials -- Quark, a beautiful copper-colored Welsh springer spaniel, or his owner, Judy Strom.

Quark stood up on his hind paws and gave 10 to Strom. Then they stepped into a grassy ring and were off, running together through an obstacle course in a race against the clock.

Led by Strom's hand signals, body language and voice commands, the 8-year-old spaniel jumped over hurdles, scooted through a tunnel, zoomed up an A-frame ramp, walked up one side of a seesaw and down the other, weaved through 12 slalom-style poles and jumped the final hurdles to the finish line. The crowd of about 100 dog lovers applauded.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah!" Strom said, patting Quark. "Good job!"

Quark was one of 66 dogs competing in this weekend's agility trials at the Bozeman Pond, sponsored by the local Galloping Dog Agility and Flyball Club. Trials continue Sunday.

Owners came from as far away as Wyoming, Washington and Calgary, Canada, to enjoy one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.

"The dogs love it," said Strom, a freelance writer and photographer from Whitehall. "There's a very nice connection between dog and handler. You and he have to be on the same wavelength."

When handler and dog get in that "zone," she said, "it's like the dog is running off your fingertips. ... When the dog is just having a blast, you're hooked, too."

Stuart Hall, 43, an associate psychology professor from the University of Montana, competed with Jessie, his 3-year-old miniature Australian shepherd.

"When she's running really good and we're really in sync, it's just magical," Hall said. Of course, things don't always go perfectly, and then it's important to laugh at mistakes, he said.

The sport originated in England, inspired by horse show jumping, Strom said. It has grown rapidly in the United States. In Montana, the first agility trial was held about four years ago, and it has grown to a dozen trials this year.

The Bozeman club, affiliated with the North American Dog Agility Council, is open to all dogs, not just purebreds. Saturday's event attracted King Charles spaniels, a corgi, Jack Russell terriers, malamutes, coon hounds, German shepherds, a Lab cross and other breeds.

The emphasis is on being positive. You don't blame the dog for mistakes, said Nancy Creel, 41, who sparked formation of the local club. A stay-at-home Bozeman mom, Creel also trains dogs.

Creel's Border collie, Kili, which she rescued from the Humane Society, was the first dog in the state to win the agility trial champion award. Since then, Quark and three other Montana dogs have achieved champion status.

Creel also competed with Saales, a Pyrenees shepherd she imported from France. Saales had a severe heart defect, but instead of putting the dog down, Creel spent $1,200 for a heart operation.

Saales may not run the course as perfectly as her other dogs, but Creel said her speed is "thrilling."

"Her joie de vivre is over the top," Creel said.

For more information about the club, contact Debbie Jamieson, treasurer, 582-7424.