One Eyed Jack tends to get himself into trouble.

The red heeler mix is fast and agile, bred to herd. He “has a chase tendency,” explained his owner, Anna Adams. She guessed he was bolting after stock when he was sprayed with buckshot in his face and rear.

“If he’s let loose he will always make improper decisions,” Adams said.

He was found as a stray in Teton Valley, Idaho, several years back and ended up at the Teton Valley Community Animal Shelter. The lead was removed, along with his eye, and he was put up for adoption. Adams, a volunteer at the time, remembers seeing Jack and thinking, “that … is an interesting animal.”

She took Jack into her Teton Valley home when he was about a year old. Unlike other dogs, the walks, runs and hikes weren’t enough to tire him out.

“This one, he would be like, ‘Now what?’” she said.

That’s when she started playing mind games with him. It started with a Canine Good Citizen course, a class that puts pooches through a series of obedience tests. Graduates of the American Kennel Club-sanctioned course successfully demonstrate a series of obedience trials, such as walking through a crowd, staying in place, and remaining focused on the owner while distractions are present.

“He was exhausted because he had to think,” Adams said.

When the class was over Adams signed Jack up for the annual beginners’ agility class taught by the K9 Athletes of the Tetons, KATS for short. Classes turned into trials, both around Wyoming and in neighboring states, which turned into building “the agility yard,” an at-home course she constructed in her backyard.

The two can be found on the course, which includes an A-frame, tunnel, handful of jumps and set of weave poles, for at least a few minutes every day.

“It really does form a bond,” Adams said. “You’re the owner, yes, but now you’re a teammate.”

Mental workout

In addition to weekly practices, set up inside the Heritage Arena or outside on the lawns of the Teton County Fairgrounds, most KATS members participate in agility trials. Most of the competition pits the dog against itself, though a few events have canine athletes competing against one another. The most popular trials for club members are AKC-sanctioned events, which are common around the country and growing in the Mountain West, AKC Director of Agility Carrie DeYoung said.

The sport originated in 1970s England, when handlers were charged with coming up with an entertaining interlude to the Crufts Dog Show. The AKC started hosting trials in 1995, and the sport has grown since. Over 4,000 agility trials were held nationwide in 2017, with over 1 million entries, she said.

“Agility is a puzzle,” DeYoung said. “But to be able to solve the puzzle the dog and the handler have to be able to work together. That is when the bond really comes.”

Canine agility is a popular sport for that reason: It naturally fosters a bond between master and dog. It also offers a type of workout all dogs need: mental exercise.

“It exhausts them, which is fabulous,” KATS President Allison Neeley said. “You can wear a dog out mentally.”

At a practice last month Neeley brought her 9-week-old puppy, Finn, to meet the canine crew. He’s too young to participate; most dogs can’t really join in on the fun until their growth plates have closed, something that typically happens around 1 year. But even just being out on the grass, meeting other dogs, sniffing, being handed from one person to the next is “highly stimulating for him,” Neeley said as she pulled him off a pair of sunglasses he would learn were not for chomping.

When not playing with the pup the older dogs — some new to the game, some veterans — took turns running through the course set outside the Fair Building.

“If they have to think it’s tiring,” said Carolyn Auge, who joined the club 20 years ago after reading an ad about it in the paper. Then, she said, she “got bit.”

Keeping it fun

Participants describe the sport as an addiction. Dogs who take to it may even guilt their owners into continuing from the sheer happiness they express leaping over the vertical jumps or racing up and down an A-frame.

Pippi, a year-old border collie/heeler/ “Idaho Falls mutt mix” took to agility as soon as her owner, Stina Richvoldsen, brought her to the intro class in January.

Richvoldsen remembers a bit of panic setting in watching her dog frolic around the course, taking to short games of tug, her reward for a job well done.

“I hope I love this,” she thought, “because she’s going to be pissed if we don’t come back.”

It’s a sport she fell into, too, joining the club shortly after the course ended. She has since built a collection of agility-only toys, rewards that get Pippi both excited and focused on the course. Her favorite one to see is a big, fuzzy purple “ridiculous looking thing.” Richvoldsen isn’t sure what it is, exactly.

While many dogs love toys — either games of tug or balls — others are food motivated. As is the case with Jack, who is rewarded with a Zuke’s dog treat if he’s tried, poached chicken if he’s done good and “liver crack,” a baked beef liver treat made from a recipe commonly shared among KATS members, when he’s a star.

The 9-year-old heeler is not always the best listener. It took a year and half — maybe two years, if she’s honest — to train him to not fly off the top of the A-frame “like a rocket ship.”

Canine athletes are expected to run up and down the two-toned A-frame. At least one toe is expected to hit the yellow zone at the bottom of the obstacle.

“We had such a pickle of a time,” she said. “He would go to the top, and he would fly off.”

The judges at a few trials were “horrified” by his “enthusiastic” bounds from the peak, she said with a laugh.

Whether he nails a perfect round or was “an absolutely stinker” on the course, he “never does anything wrong in agility,” she said. “He gets a treat no matter what.”

Dogs are never punished for messing up. And they all have their weaknesses. Auge’s pup, Subi, a 6-year-old with a slight underbite and three toes on the right front foot, often chooses the wrong side of the tunnel to enter. When that happens, Auge said, “you don’t win.”

Positive reinforcement is a popular route to success in the sport, and also what keeps the fun in what can be a frustrating challenge. It’s not easy, for example, to teach a dog to zigzag through a dozen weave poles.

“There is nothing natural that a dog does on their own that is anything like the weave poles. I’ve never seen a set of those when I was out hiking my dogs,” DeYoung said. “This is a completely trained obstacle.”

To keep pets interested in the sport, owners back off when their dog communicates he doesn’t understand the task. The sport is meant to be a mix — a mix of training and fun, of mental stimulus and focus.

“Jack is very mouthy,” Adams said. “When we’re out doing something and he doesn’t get it, he’ll just start barking at me. If I’m training something that’s kind of hard and I can see he’s getting frustrated, I’ll send him through the tunnel and give him a treat.”

Any dog can do it

Coming in at 10 pounds and hitting jumps only 4 inches off the ground, Casper isn’t the typical agility athlete. At least, not what one may imagine. His owner included.

“I never knew you could do a sport like this with such a small dog; I always thought it was for border collies,” said Eliska Garcia, Casper’s owner. “It wasn’t me that chose the sport. I’ve been just tagging along.”

The 7-year-old Chihuahua/Yorkie mix showed an interest in agility since he was 6 months of age, when, while on a visit in the Czech Republic, Garcia tagged along to a puppy class her mom was attending. An agility course caught Casper’s eye, and with permission from the instructor, the little dog went for it.

“He was just so natural that the instructor was asking me how long we had been doing agility,” she said.

Casper didn’t start formal training until he was almost 2 years old, starting out in the Heritage Arena with other beginners. Once the runt of an accidental litter and so scared of both people and dogs he’d shake in his mom’s arms, he became confident. Emboldened, even.

“Now when we go to agility he wants to go and mug other people,” Garcia said. “He knows everybody has a treat there. His little ego has grown quite a bit from ‘I’m so afraid’ to now he’s the boss of everybody. He’s very confident, his tail up all the time. We make fun of him a bit for that. He definitely does have Napoleon syndrome.”

In 2016, Casper went to the United States Dog Agility Association national trials in Arizona and placed middle of the pack, an accomplishment for a first-timer at nationals, Garcia said.

The transfer of confidence from the agility arena to the outside world is a common one for the sport, DeYoung said.

“Agility is great for the shy dog, the young dog, the ones that are just beginning to figure things out,” she said. “Maybe they are new to your home. Maybe it’s a dog that you have picked up at a shelter.”

As the dog builds confidence working alongside his owner, he builds confidence that shines in the outside world, she said. It’s something club members have witnessed as well.

“You’re training your dog to be a problem solver,” Auge said. “You’re training them to be independent.”

While the most common breeds of dogs that lean toward agility are the cattle types — “I think the herding breeds have a desire to do it because they need a job and not everyone has a flock of anything,” Neeley said — the sport is open to all breeds.

Handlers can hail from any background as well. AKC trials have featured junior members as young as 3 and seniors older than 90 in the ring, DeYoung said.

The only real requirement is the dog and owner are looking to build their bond.

“We can all play ball with our dogs and we don’t have to think about it. The dog gives us a ball, we throw it,” DeYoung said. “With agility or any other type of dog training you have to think it through together. You’re reacting to your dog’s reactions.”

But even experienced handlers like Adams keep realistic expectations for their canine companions. No matter how experienced or well trained, dogs are dogs.

“He’s not an angel at all,” Adams said of Jack. “He barks at the UPS man, and he chases things. He’s still a dog.” 

Contact Melissa Cassutt at 732-7076, valley@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGvalley.

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