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RECREATION : A Dog's Life Gets a Lot Better : Pet owners rave about 'agility,' a regimen that helps canines channel their energy and improve coordination.

September 10, 1993|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to Valley Life. and

Calypso used to chew up carpets and gnaw window sills when she was bored. But ever since her owner enrolled her in "agility"--the canine answer to a steeplechase--the curly-haired, black Portuguese water dog behaves much better. Agility requires dogs to sail over hurdles, squeeze through tunnels, trot along raised planks, jump through tires, race up A-frame walls, ride on seesaws and zigzag between poles.

According to Calypso's owner, Jane Gates of Van Nuys, the doggy sport constructively channels a pet's energy while also boosting its coordination, confidence and ability to follow orders.

"Calypso absolutely loves it," Gates said, "and I get peace and quiet because it wears her out."

Agility began in England in the late 1970s and quickly caught on throughout the world. In 1986, the United States Dog Agility Assn. was formed in Richardson, Tex., and regional agility clubs and classes soon sprang up throughout the country, including a few in the Valley. While some owners travel the United States and the world to enter their pets in agility tournaments and exhibitions, the dogs just want to have fun.

"The dogs think this is all a big game," said Kathy Lofthous of Canoga Park, whose English shepherd, Rupus, is an old hand at the sport. "Rupus is a big, lazy dog, and yet he enjoys agility."

Agility is almost as much of a challenge--and a workout--for owners. Because the sequence and layout of the obstacles are never the same, an owner must run at the dog's side, shouting commands such as "Over!" "Climb!" or "Tunnel!" to let the animal know which obstacle is next.

"The dogs have to learn the names of the obstacle commands and they have to listen," said Mary Finley of Northridge, who participates in agility with Zoo, an Australian shepherd. "Part of the game is to do something new each time. Plus, because it is a team sport, agility builds a nice bond between the owner and the dog."

More than a dozen dogs and their owners gathered for a recent agility class on the grounds of a Canoga Park church. Trainer Karen Moureaux arranged 20 obstacles on the lawn, turning the churchyard into a colorful pooch playground. Dogs familiar with the sport strained against their leashes, eager to tear through the course.

"The dogs love it, especially if they are athletic," Moureaux said. "If a dog is shy or hesitant, agility often brings out its personality."

According to Moureaux, dogs usually learn the obstacles after about five weeks of training. Practice helps them master the entire course. While almost all breeds and sizes enjoy the sport, lightweight, lithe dogs excel while larger breeds may have difficulty fitting through tunnels or heaving their bodies over hurdles.

Nancy Soyster of Camarillo tried to engage her Bernese mountain dog, Dancer, in agility. But the animal, resembling a St. Bernard, was too awkward. Soyster realized Dancer was not suited to agility, but she was having too much fun to give up on the sport.

So she adopted a second dog--an 8-month-old border collie, Ace. Fast and nimble, he is ideally suited to agility. "Ace thinks we're at Disneyland," she said.

WHERE AND WHEN

* What: Beginning and intermediate agility classes at the Emerson Unitarian Church, 7304 Jordan Avenue, Canoga Park.

* Hours: Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. Times vary depending on level of class.

* Price: $45 for five-week session.

* Call: (818) 593-6193.

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