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These dogs are showing off their moves, not their looks

An agility competition in Long Beach judges canines on speed and finesse, not on how well they're groomed.

December 02, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

The fluffy toy dog with butterfly-like ears looks like he should be home relaxing on a silken pillow. But in dog agility circles, looks can be deceiving.

On Saturday, Tigger, a 5 1/2 -pound papillon, turned into a streak of black-and-white fur, leaping gates, veering into a round yellow tunnel, dashing up and down a seesaw and weaving at breathtaking speed through a slalom-like row of poles. He finished in a mere 37 seconds amid a roar of applause.

The papillon, just 9 1/2 inches tall at the shoulders, is a three-time "agility champion" who finished faster than some Great Danes and greyhounds at the American Kennel Club Agility Invitational in Long Beach.

"You're the best. You're the best," said his breathless owner and handler, Robin Kletke, 43, of Woodinville, Wash., who will run beside Tigger again today in hopes of garnering another championship.

Southern California is accustomed to playing host to the best of the best: world-class surfers, cyclists, golfers, swimmers, even dragon-boat racers, all showing off their prowess in front of national television cameras and cheering crowds.

This weekend, it's the dogs' turn.

Nearly 500 dogs are leaping and weaving at the agility invitational, a showcase of the nation's fastest-growing canine sport. These dogs will be judged, not for their looks, but for their ability to jump through hoops, navigate tunnels and weave through poles.

In a society enthralled with fitness, even the dogs must train and show off their physical skills.

The contest is part of the seventh annual AKC/Eukanuba National Championship, which is drawing top U.S. breeders, handlers and 2,444 dogs to the Long Beach Convention Center for two days of tough competition. It will culminate in tonight's choice of best in show. The dogs are competing for $225,000 in cash prizes.

Tradition still rules in the conformation events at the other end of the convention hall, where owners and trainers were busy combing and blow-drying stately poodles and Old English sheepdogs.

Conformation is the kind of judging featured in the 2000 Christopher Guest film "Best in Show," where well-groomed trainers in suits, hats and ties lead equally well-groomed dogs in a dignified display of the highest standards in dog breeding.

Over at the agility rings, a whole new world of dogdom was on display.

The dogs, while mostly well-combed, were valued more for their speed, obedience and ability to do a "clean run" without knocking down bars or hesitating at the start of the weaving poles.

"We don't care if they're pretty or ugly," said Sharon Anderson, 64, director of agility for the American Kennel Club and a pioneer of the sport in the U.S.

Their owners, too, look different, since they must run alongside their dogs as they race through tunnels and over jumps.

"Here, you might see spandex. They want to be able to move," Anderson said. She nodded her head toward the conformation end of the hall. "If you go over there, you're going to see some pretty glitzy outfits."

The agility contest stresses communication between the dog and the owner or trainer, largely through graceful hand motions and body movements. The dog and owner must think as one.

"We call it a harmony on six paws," said agility judge Saso Novak, 55, of Kranj, Slovenia, who has been active in the sport for 20 years in Europe. Agility contests began in England in 1979 but became popular in the United States only in the last decade. Now the sport is experiencing a boom worldwide. And it draws all kinds of people and dogs.

Mr. Bojangles looms over the papillons and other toy dogs. The Great Dane from Las Vegas stands 34 inches at the shoulders and weighs 155 pounds. That is 21 pounds more than his 5-foot-11 owner, Zee Marie, a former singer. He stands taller than she does when he puts his paws on her shoulders. Marie, 47, trains beside him on her neighborhood streets. He trots. She rides an adult tricycle.

"I pedal like mad," she said.

Terri Marvel came from Gaithersburg, Md., to compete with Checkers, her 8-year-old Scottish terrier, who has won a whole alphabet of titles in obedience and agility. She declined to give her age but said the sport keeps her in shape.

"It's a real stress-reducer," she said as she waited for Checkers' score to be posted. "These dogs are athletes."

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com

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