“This is as close to the real deal as you can get,” Melinda Gains, a Bernese mountain dog handler, said as she surveyed the Show-N-Go Dog agility course during the Teton County Fair.
Barks and whines filled the arena. It was go time.
The first dog, a Malamute, was off. Ellen McKee, organizer of the event and an obedience and agility teacher for more than 15 years, nimbly guided the dog through the arena with short commands like “Jump!” and “Over!”
The friendly Malamute, aptly named Mr. Grayfoot, kept with McKee through high-speed twists and turns, bounding along while drawing claps from other competitors and coos from audience members scattered around the perimeter of the pavilion.
Agility competitions consist of courses with obstacles like tunnels to scoot through and A-frames to scamper over. In addition to more basic-looking jumps, there are poles to weave through, “dog walks” where dogs walk high off the ground on a narrow platform, and seesaws, similar to a teeter-totter, the dog must be comfortable riding down to the ground.
The show Saturday morning was considered a trial — practice for both dogs and their handlers in a similar environment to actual American Kennel Club agility competitions. The atmosphere is friendly and supportive, with volunteers running in between rounds to change jump heights, competitors cheering for each other’s dogs and the occasional pup straying into the stands toward a particularly delicious smelling corn dog or fair food treat.
“The nervousness, the excitement; it’s all here for the dogs,” McKee said.
In addition to Mr. Grayfoot, who’s 11 years old, McKee owns four other Malamutes and two border terriers. One of the terriers, Pewter, is a national champion and 16 years old — very old in dog years.
McKee was drawn to agility competition for many reasons.
“It builds confidence,” she said. “They have a good time, and it really builds on the bond the dogs have with their handlers.”
Any dog can do it, she said.
“It helps if they love to run and please you,” she added. Border collies and other herding dogs are especially prevalent in agility competitions for their high energy.
In addition to completing the course in full, the dogs have to clear every obstacle cleanly to earn the maximum amount of points. The height of the jumps varied from 24 inches for bigger dogs to 8 inches for the smaller breeds.
Points are docked for refusals, choosing the wrong course or knocking down a bar — a doggone shame. Each error takes off five points, with 100 points to start the competition.
There were three levels of competition: excellent, open and novice. In the excellent class, dogs can’t make any mistakes or have any time faults. The rules become increasingly more lenient in the beginner classes.
No treats or toys are allowed on the course, so handlers must guide purely through training, voice and their bond with the dogs.
The event, co-hosted by the Grand Teton Kennel Club and K9 Athletes of the Tetons, is one of the few events at the fair that has participants outside of Teton County.
Gains is from Pocatello, Idaho, where she now exclusively trains Bernese mountain dogs like Alvin, a gangly 19-month-old puppy who leaps around in a blur of fur, jumping up to give hugs and kisses to willing spectators.
Dogs must be at least a year old to start competing.
“We wait until their growth-plates are fully developed,” McKee said.
Another one of Gains’ dogs, Sweet Pea, is one of the top five Bernese mountain dogs in the nation. She’ll be competing at the AKC Agility Invitational.
At the end of the day, McKee said, the dog agility and obedience community in the area is tight knit.
“We really care for the dogs. We all know each other, we all party together,” McKee said.
“I’ve even baked cakes for dogs’ birthdays,” she said.
Definitely not a dog-eat-dog world. Competitions are a good time, judge Christie Bowers said.
“It’s got to be about fun,” Bowers said. “I usually play music while I’m in the ring, I crack jokes. I saw judging becoming too serious, and I wanted to do something about it.”
Bowers is racking up frequent flier miles right and left — she’s traveling 42 weekends this year to judge all across the country.
“I was in Texas last weekend, and I’m going to Baltimore the next,” Bowers said. “I’ve judged from Alaska to Hawaii, and my calendar is booked with competitions until 2023.”