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Speaking of age-related things

I originally pitched and sold this magazine article about 18 months ago. The idea sold right away. I researched and wrote it. I even got paid (quite well, actually), but it never ever got published by the big-name magazine that bought it. So, I recently asked for and got my copyright back. Now, I could try to sell it somewhere else and maybe I will, but for now, all of you will have to be my audience for a piece on the growth of new agility handlers 40 and 50+. I even wrote different versions of the story, using quotes from handlers in their 60s and even 70s, but this is the original version. My thanks to those who took part. My apologies that it never ran as planned. I work in a tough business. It happens. You may recognize a few of the folks quoted.

No Doggone Obstacles

Canine sport
improves agility of the mind and body

Karen Early
says just one word — “Free” — to turn her 5-year-old border collie, Oliver,
into a blur of fur on the agility course. With his long, aggressive strides, Oliver
clears two jumps before Early takes a single step from mid-course to join their
synchronized sprint. Oliver then rockets through as many as 20 obstacles,
including bar and tire jumps, tunnels, weave poles and contact obstacles, such
as a teeter-totter, an A-frame and an elevated, foot-wide dog walk. 

Early, 51, executes
some fancy footwork throughout the course, signaling for Oliver to clear an
obstacle then change direction — 90, 180, 270 degrees. She turns. He turns. She
points. He goes. Oliver mostly watches Early’s feet, but she also uses verbal
commands, her hands and the tilt of her shoulders to tell him where they are
headed. Because of Oliver’s speed, Early often crosses behind him, giving the
appearance of steering him through magic.

Driven by
participants over 40, who represent 63 percent of the market, agility is the
fastest growing canine sport in the United States. “It’s never been a
young person’s sport,” says Monica Percival, managing editor of Clean Run, a monthly magazine for
agility enthusiasts. “Entry fees in this country are pretty steep — easily $100
or more a weekend per dog. You need some amount of disposable income to be able
to travel and enter events.”

Percival adds
many participants came to the sport after years in other dog activities. “Dog agility
is one of the few sports in which an older person can compete on equal ground
with a younger person,” she says. “If you can train your dog to move through
the course without you being beside him, then you compete with the best of
them.”

Sharon Anderson,
captain of the American Kennel Club world team, says people over 50 often
dominate the U.S.

contingent. They simply have the time and patience to make agility their new
occupation.

At agility
competitions, handlers get 10-20 minutes to walk around, memorize the course
and make a plan for directing their dogs as quickly and cleanly as possible. The
process looks like a gaggle of mimes gone mad, as owners practice their hand
gestures, crosses and commands with imaginary dogs in tow.

Participants
compare agility to dancing, the best Christmas present ever or better. “I got a
hole in one once,” says Sue Horn, 52, who along with her 60-something husband
runs seven dogs. “And, I think I get more excited by a good run than I did that
hole in one.”

The rush of
success comes from communicating so well and forming such strong bonds with
another species. “It’s a lot like achieving a ‘Vulcan mind meld’ with a live
entity, who happens to be your best friend,” explains Cathy Lester, 52. “You
and the dog have to be thinking the same thing at the same second. When it
happens, it’s so exciting. It’s like solving a riddle every time I go in the
ring — solving it at top speed.”

Agility
training requires positive rewards — access to special toys, high-value food
treats and praise from owners. Dogs quickly learn that good things come from
this structured form of play. Many go ballistic in anticipation, expressing a
love of the sport known as “drive.”

Agility attracts
not only long-time dog enthusiasts but also regular pet owners, who take
entry-level agility classes available at training centers in most major cities
or visit agility events at county fairgrounds to find local trainers. Agility isn’t
just for pure breeds, either. Mutts, dubbed “All Americans,” also compete.

Weekly
classes, social connections and event travel make it more lifestyle than hobby,
with hardcore handlers competing most weekends.

Agility
dictates other decisions too, like what kind of car or home to buy. “When we
were looking for a house, I kept telling my husband that what we wanted was a
yard with a house attached,” admits Lester.

Most teams
train 12-18 months or more before they compete. The impatient need not apply. “If it looks easy,” Lester warns, “it’s being done really well.”


Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.