By Josette Keelor
The Blue Ridge Dog Training Club Agility Trials at the Sportsplex Indoor Sports and Event Center south of Winchester was in full swing Friday with breeds of all kinds and mixes represented.
Despite its delayed start Thursday following the snowstorm that canceled the flight of one of the event's two judges, planners jumped through some logistical hoops before getting back on course at 10 a.m. So far, they've kept pace.
Chris Eicher was there Friday on the second day of the four-day event with her 13-year-old yellow Labrador Gryphon, who's retired now after 10 years competing, and her other yellow Lab Bolt, a 4-year-old rescue.
As Gryphon nibbled at Eicher's fingers, she spoke about her passion for dogs.
"I've been doing agility for 16 years," said Eicher of Harrisburg, Pa. She got her start after a neighbor's Lab inspired her to adopt a dog of her own.
"You don't make money," she said. "You spend money." But to her it's worth the cost and time. She travels up to three hours from home for any given trial, spending about 36 weekends a year on the road.
"I love it," she said. "I like to come to this trial every year because they have a great trial."
Kaindais Miller of Haymarket started showing her poodle Mia about three years ago after adopting the 17-month-old from a couple who abused the dog. The husband was very mean to Mia, Miller said, and the wife, not knowing how to handle the dog, kept her in a cage most of the time.
"She's a good girl," Miller said. "She really has turned out to be a great dog, considering."
Now a therapy dog, Mia works with people in assisted living homes, but it wasn't always like this.
"She was so afraid of everything," Miller said. Mia wouldn't let people, especially men, come near her at first. Miller began taking the poodle to dog trails in an effort to help her learn to be around people.
Miller loves it as much as Mia does. Her dog training experience started with a black poodle she had years ago.
"It exploded from there," she said.
No matter how many times the trainers and their dogs run a course, it's different every time.
The course is a secret to participants until they arrive, said judge Scott Stock of northeastern Pennsylvania.
"They have no idea what the course is until they show up that day," Stock said. Then they have eight minutes each to run the course with their dog and memorize the order of the obstacles.
Stock is co-officiating the BRDTC Agility Trials this weekend with Dave Hirsch of Columbus, Ohio.
A standard course has contacts, like a seesaw, an A-frame and a dog walk or bridge.
The jumpers and weaves course consists of jumps and weave poles that the dogs must not touch if they're going to place high in the rankings or hope to title in their event. The top four dogs place, but dogs don't have to place to earn a title. Titles are based on aptitude, and an unlimited number of dogs have the opportunity to title, Stock said. Depending on the course, dogs have to earn between 80 percent and 100 percent accuracy in their event, he said.
On Friday, Stock was judging the jumpers course, and Hirsch was judging standard. The two drove in together after the snowstorm canceled Hirsch's flight from Ohio to Dulles International. Instead, he flew into Newark, N.J, where Stock picked him up on his drive down from the Delaware Water Gap.
Stock said they both have judged in Alaska, and Hirsch has judged in Hawaii.
Stock judges 15 to 20 weekends of the year. He also shows his own dogs -- a border collie and German short-haired pointers -- another 15 to 20 weekends. Hirsch, he said, has golden retrievers.
In addition to sponsoring the four-day March agility competition, the BRDTC also organizes four days in July and three in December, said John Defillippi, club president and chief course builder.
Club members are not all into dog agility training, he said. Some train their dogs to visit nursing homes or read at local libraries, among other jobs.
Teresa Manchey of Strasburg has trained her 3-year-old blue heeler mix Cowboy as a therapy dog to help with the Books and Barks program at Samuels Library in Front Royal.
Cowboy is a rescue, having survived being abandoned on a dog rescuer's doorstep with his sister during a snowstorm three years ago, Manchey said. The two puppies huddled together for warmth under a bush until someone spotted them the next day.
"If they hadn't been together, they probably would have died," she said.
Cowboy's sister was adopted by another family and now Cowboy has joined Manchey's other blue heeler mix, 8-year-old Abby, as an agility competitor. Both are competing this weekend.
Though the American Kennel Club once allowed only purebred dogs in its agility trials, Defillippi said the AKC now allows mixed breeds to compete as well.
When the rules changed, Manchey, an 18-year BRDTC member, started running her own dogs, previously helping with events.
"When I was a kid I had purebred cocker spaniels," she said. "I like mixed breeds now. They have a lot of personality."
Each day of the four-day agility trials has 450 runs, a turnout that's typical for a one-ring competition of this size, which allows for 660 runs, Stock said. AKC rules dictate that each judge handle a maximum of 330 runs, he said.
Larger competitions, he said, can line up 990 participants with three judges each day.
Dogs are entered into categories based on skill level, Stock said, and each offers a standard course or jumps and weaves course. A novice course is the easiest, with 18 to 20 obstacles. The open course has 16 to 18 obstacles, and the excellence has 14 to 16, he said.
Miller's dog Mia has a novice title and open jumpers title from previous competitions.
Her other two dogs, 6- and 7-year-old toy poodles named Zoe and Penny, have been running for five years.
"Each dog runs different," Miller said. Adapting to Mia was a challenge for her because Miller was used to the smaller dogs.
"I have an eight-inch jumper and nine-inch jumper," she said. And then there's Mia, who can jump 24 inches high.
Agility trial officials "measure from the floor to their shoulder," she said.
Manchey said the trials are fun for the dogs and their trainers, and after joining the BRDTC she was hooked.
"You so build a relationship with your dog that you don't have otherwise," she said. "The training is bonding."
Miller has enjoyed getting to know other trainers.
"You meet the most wonderful people," she said. "Everyone is so nice and always willing to help you. We help everyone with everything."
Being around other people who love dogs as much as she does makes the experience that much more enjoyable, she said.
"You truly meet lifelong friends at these trials."
The Blue Ridge Dog Training Club Agility Trials will continue from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Sportsplex Indoor Sports and Event Center, 221 Commonwealth Court, Winchester. For more information about the BRDTC, visit www.blueridgedogtrainingclub.com.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org