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Putting dogs and humans to the test

Betsy Metcalf guides Sundew over the teeter-totter at an agility event in Moses Lake.  Photo by Les Korcala, Dog Action Photography

By Katherine March

Ask your friends what they want to do when they retire, and it would be rare to find any that tell you he/she wants to teach people how to put their dogs through tunnels, over teeter totters and jumps, and through weave poles.

Betsy Metcalf is one of those rare ones.

Every Thursday afternoon and evening she is doing just that at the Wenatchee Kennel Club (WKC).

To prepare for this volunteer dream job Betsy spent her childhood showing horses and dogs in 4-H, and later followed with a career in physical therapy with school Special Education students. She started teaching agility in 2002, when the WKC opened its training center in East Wenatchee.

Betsy’s passion grows with the sport she loves: “Teaching agility is a fun challenge,” she said.

“This includes figuring out how each dog learns and what rewards that dog so he is having as much fun as we are, teaching people to understand their body language that the dog is reading, taking into account each handlers physical abilities, making sure each dog and handler are working within their abilities, learning new skills, and improving their speed and accuracy.

“Different breeds have different strengths and weakness that must be considered,” Betsy added.

Increasing mental and physical challenges as well as the associated expansion of skills make the sport more exciting all the time. Betsy finds it easy to get excited when she sees a team she has schooled doing well.

Any dog can do agility, especially if it likes running and eating.

My first agility partner, Bobbie Jo, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon now retired from the sport, taught me well, and I now run with Coulee (aka Beast Mode), another Griffon.

Training starts slowly and gently, first with focus that allows the dog to work off-leash, then with simple obstacles that increase in challenge as the dog progresses. Students come to class with pockets full of treats and toys —anything from manufactured goodies to liver, which some of us can’t carry around without gagging.

Betsy emphasizes positive reinforcement, which is rewarding correct work, and gently trying again if something needs more work. Most dogs are eager to “play” on the obstacles, and the rate of learning can lead one to believe that soon dogs will be doing arithmetic. In class we find that mistakes are most often “pilot error.”

Every dog-handler pair progresses quickly, by leaps and bounds, to the point that a dog will turn tight corners, learn the names of obstacles and take cues from the handler’s body language.

The training greatly firms up the bond between the two, and influences behavior outside the kennel club training room. We all enjoy a dog that comes when called, and stops when we stop.

Running a dog in agility, whether it is in training or in an agility trial, does requires a sense of humor.

There are dogs that get so excited they make up their own courses, hunting dogs that know their jobs are to search out the pigeons, cats and geese that frequent an arena, and of course you have to laugh when your male dog marks an obstacle as “his” or picks up the obstacle number cone to play with.

Dogs are also forgiving when the handler runs into jumps, falls down and forgets the pattern of a course at a trial. We are then reminded why dogs have been top-notch domestic companions for centuries and no matter what happens, we are still best friends.

My sense of humor has passed the agility trial test well.

Coulee went off course once, jumping the fence to go to our tent near the ring where we competitors park ourselves with our dogs, their treats and crates during the trial.

Some of his buddies had been visiting him there, and he found it necessary to check on things. He determined that his den was OK, so jumped back in and finished the course in spite of an unquestionable disqualification.

Coulee is a gifted bird dog, and any nice arena or park is attractive to birds, and maybe rodents and cats.

One of many times his hunting instincts have floated to the top, he was seriously snorting around the edge of the ring instead of showing his athletic skills and hours of training, when the judge came up beside me and laughed saying, “He’s hunting.”

I am not one to say words that are socially unacceptable, plus foul language gets the pair excused from the ring, but in some circumstances one speaks in the vernacular. To the judge I said, “So, I can say $%$# now?” By this time Coulee had done a great job of disqualifying, so she said, “Sure.”

Later that day as she judged Coulee and me in another run, I did not have to ask her what I could say while Coulee again went into his bird dog act. Just like, without permission, you can say that word when your dog takes a bathroom break in the ring because that activity is a disqualification anyway.

Betsy has  her own stories. “My dog was on the dog walk and suddenly goes into warp speed — toward the rabbit that has just entered the ring, but the rabbit escaped under the cyclone fence just before my dog gets there. When my dog saw the rabbit was not coming back, she finished the course with me.

“Then there was the time I crossed in front of the A frame climbing obstacle with my eyes on the dog… opps I was not where I thought I was as I splattered into the A frame.”

Some handlers come to work with Betsy for a weekly play break, and others work for competitive agility trials.

Some do both, such as Lynda Phesant who started her rescue Australian Shepherd for fun, then went to a trial, then another and wanted to get one title, then the next title was so close and ended up with the highest agility title of Master Agility Champion, which means Lynda and Annie love to play together.

Betsy and her sister, Suzanne, share the family horse ranch just outside Wenatchee where they often invite students for agility play days. Their four Rhodesian Ridgebacks are the descendants of their first RR they got in 1978, the dogs compete in conformation, agility, obedience, tracking, lure coursing and just about anything a dog can do.

Whatever one chooses to do with the skills, the training is the same. Non-members are welcome to take classes at the Wenatchee Kennel Club.

Even mix breed dogs can compete in agility trials, so there is no limit to how far a pair can go in the sport, and of course no limit to the good times.

For more information check out wenatcheekennelclub.com, Wenatchee Kennel Club Facebook, or contact Betsy at 663-3635.

WKC has an agility trial the second weekend in October at Confluence Park, Moses Lake has a trial each year in March, and WKC has a fun match at Walla Walla Park May 23.

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