NEW YORK (AP) Over 300 dogs from dachshunds to Doberman pinschers are scrambling for the Westminster Kennel Club’s agility trophy. But will any breed – or even a mixed-breed – get past the border collie?
The swift sheepherding dogs are widely seen as the breed to beat in Saturday’s competition, having all but swept the seven-year-old Westminster contest except for an Australian shepherd’s win in 2016.
Border collie Trinity, for one, arrived Westminster-ready – so ready that she had a few streaks of Westminster purple in her fur.
Her owner, Dr. Roger O’Sullivan, previously handled a Pembroke Welsh corgi named Keebler to wins in her height class at Westminster. He later decided to go with the sport’s go-to breed.
“Once you’ve had a fast dog, you want another fast dog,” says the chiropractor from Gahanna, Ohio.
To border owners, their Westminster streak is no surprise.
“They’re very focused, and they love to work and learn new stuff,” said Westminster competitor Jim Koras, who has three border collies.
But dogs that aren’t quite such naturals at the sport “actually teach you the most,” says Koras, of Weathersfield, Connecticut. “You have to learn more about them, and it’s harder to build that teamwork, but it’s really satisfying to do.”
He was at Westminster on Saturday with his first and so far most accomplished agility dog, a husky-border collie mix named Cote.
While the popular canine sport draws its share of professional dog trainers, Koras and many other handlers say they got into agility to help a shy pet master unfamiliar situations, to bond with a pet or to give a super-energetic dog something to do (instead of wreaking household havoc).
For handlers, the sport is a physical and mental workout. Using verbal cues and body language, they guide their dogs through tricky turns, jumps, ramps, tunnels and other obstacles.
Scores depend on both speed and accuracy. At Westminster, the champion is crowned after a 50-dog final round Saturday night.
“You have to memorize. You have to strategize … It’s a delightful challenge,” says Marcia Lyons of Seattle.
She started with a mixed-breed rescue dog and now competes with Liberty, a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever that has also competed in Westminster’s traditional breed judging in years past.
“Even though border collie’s the default” for agility, Lyons says, “I like to be a little different.”
If Liberty is a little different, Niner is a lot. She’s a pug.
Her breed might be better known for snuggling than for speed, but a bystander spotted her zipping around a dog park some years ago and suggested agility.
“We said, ‘OK — what’s that?’” recalls one of her owners, Cindy Pichotta. She and her partner, Dan Webster, found out and figured the sport would be good indoor exercise for the pup during their Minneapolis winters.
“She is fast, she is agile – for a pug – and we saw how much she liked it,” Pichotta says.
Now, with Webster as her handler, 7-year-old Niner made her Westminster debut Saturday.
“People are surprised when they see her,” Pichotta allows. “You don’t expect to see a pug.”