The Salt
1:21 pm
Sun February 9, 2014

Four-Legged Athletes Compete With Olympic-Sized Heart

Originally published on Mon February 10, 2014 5:19 pm

In Sochi this week, athletes are competing in a display of human grace and skill. Many will win. Many more will lose, and many tears will be shed.

In New York on Saturday night, athletes of a different breed competed in a display of canine finesse and dexterity. Many won. If any lost, none knew it. Not one shed a tear.

At the Westminster Dog Show's Masters Agility Championship, 225 exuberant dogs dove through tunnels, flew through hoops, leaped over hurdles and wove in and out of poles with the focus of the highest-level Olympic champion.

They were led through the courses by their trainers, who grinned and hugged them and praised their efforts, no matter how badly the dogs messed up.

Teams like Lacey, a Labrador, and her trainer, Colleen Copelan, proved that the joy is in the experience, regardless of precision. "Lacey zigged where Copelan zagged," as the Chicago Tribune put it, costing the pair precious seconds. Then Lacey knocked a bar off a jump, sealing their defeat.

"But what an accomplishment for the both of us," Copelan said happily. "We'll be back next year."

The Westminster rule-makers were more broad-minded this year than in the past: Mutts and half-breeds were welcome. It was the first time a Westminster event allowed anything other than purebred dogs to compete.

Kelso the border collie, age 7, won the overall agility competition in a tail-wagging blur, barking as he went, after nailing the course in the 20-inch division.

But a husky mix named Roo! won the 24-inch category and the top prize for mixed-breed dogs. Roo! was a shelter dog who was so high-spirited, she was returned to the shelter several times before San Francisco-based trainer Stacey Campbell swooped in to rescue her.

Sure, Sochi has sportscasting icon Bob Costas. But if you think a dog agility contest has no Olympic cred, check out Saturday's announcer: five-time Olympic medal winner Greg Louganis, one of the best divers in history.

Aside from his work as a mentor for the U.S. Olympic diving team and judge for the Red Bull Cliff Diving tour, Louganis is a dog agility expert and has competed in agility competitions. He also co-authored For the Life of Your Dog: A Complete Guide to Having a Dog from Adoption and Birth Through Sickness and Health.

Louganis repeated throughout the night that trainers need to maintain a connection with their dogs. The best performers, he said, never broke the human-canine communication during their event, even if the crowd cheered and the tunnel looked to dog eyes like it really ought to be taken from the right, not the left.

Rose Savkov of New Jersey agrees. Her dog Spanky, a Staffordshire bull terrier, placed third in the 16-inch category, but the finish wasn't important.

"The best part, I would say, is just connection with my dog and having fun with my dog," Savkov told NJ.com. "That's my main thing."

Beat that, Sochi.

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