Westminster dog show agility contest grows by leaps, bounds

NEW YORK (AP) — Chrys may be an old dog, but Cindy Kumpfbeck is happy to lead her through her old tricks: darting, climbing and leaping through an obstacle course, with what hair she has flying.

Twelve years old and recently recovered from spleen cancer, the Chinese crested dog was one of the rarer, and older, contestants in Saturday’s Westminster Kennel Club agility contest. And to Kumpfbeck, Chrys shows that all sorts of dogs can master the sport — including hairless toy breeds that most people consider delicate lap pets.

“A lot of people don’t do much with them, but they’re actually very athletic little dogs,” said Kumpfbeck, of Ronkonkoma, New York.

Some 330 dogs entered the agility competition, a recent and fast-growing addition to the nation’s premiere canine event. The roster grew more than 45 percent from Westminster’s first agility contest last year, even though the club made it tougher this year to qualify, requiring hopefuls to have a higher level of agility titles.

The competitors span 74 breeds and varieties. While many come from herding or sporting backgrounds — border collies and Shetland sheepdogs made up more than a quarter of the entrants — less obviously athletic breeds such as pugs and French bulldogs also compete. Half the 330 entrants are at least 7, middle-aged or older for most dogs.

Some 15 hopefuls are not one breed at all: The agility event allowed mixed-breed dogs to return to Westminster last year for the first time since the show’s early years, a development hailed as a gesture of inclusivity toward everyday dogs.

Stanley, a 5-pound, wiry terrier mix, soared over jumps as though he’d been bred to do it. But when Stephanie Thies of Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, adopted him from a shelter organization four years ago, he was so nervous he’d barely go outside, let alone compete in front of an audience at the Piers in Manhattan.

Their teamwork in agility helped Stanley learn to trust that Thies would always look out for him, and now “he’s very confident, very outgoing,” she said as he licked a visitor’s hand.

Fans say the sport also can help excitable dogs channel their energy. It builds a bond between the animals and their handlers, who use voice and body signals to guide the animals through a complex route of jumps, tunnels, ramps.

“It’s an interspecies communication,” says Dr. Colleen Copelan, who was preparing for the contest with her Labrador retrievers, Maggie and Lacey. Besides training and competing in their favorite sport, the Labs put in 50-plus hours a week as therapy dogs with Copelan’s mostly child and adolescent psychiatry patients in Camarillo, California.

For Gus the Maltese, the event Saturday was a highlight and a swansong in an agility career that featured a heap of championship titles. He turned 10 on Saturday, the day of his last competition.

“He’ll miss the excitement of it,” says owner and handler, Maggie Schoolar of Austin, Texas. “When we’re done for the day, he runs with his paws in his sleep.”

The all-day contest’s championship round was set for Saturday evening. Parts of the competition will be televised from noon to 2 p.m. Sunday on Fox Sports 1.

 

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