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Reminiscing on Dog Agility

Kenneth Tatsch, President and Founder of USDAA, reflects on the origins of dog agility as part of the Dallas Agility Working Group's 25th anniversary.


When I witnessed dog agility for the first time in 1985 at Crufts Dog Show in London, I was totally captivated by this sport. Little did I realize what the future would hold for agility or for me personally, especially to the extent that I would be invited as a guest of honor at the 30th anniversary dog agility event in England in 2007 (see the series of articles on history of the sport at www.usdaa.com, in the News Page archives for October 2007 here, here, and here).

Having not seen dog agility in any form prior to 1985, the intensity of handler and dog working in tandem was awe inspiring and demonstrated the essence of what I was struggling to achieve in obedience, and, standing out above all else, it was energized and fun. I couldn't wait to get ringside to learn more, and it was there that I met Peter Lewis, organizer of the event who I would learn was among those instrumental in organizing the sport in its infancy. Peter allowed me into the ring to take close-up photos of the obstacles, with him providing me key measurements so that I could construct a set of obstacles at home. Perhaps of equal importance to my future and that of USDAA, Peter provided me the name of Sandra Davis who lived in El Paso, Texas.

When I returned from England, I set out to build my first set of obstacles and seek out others who might have similar interests. I contacted members of Dallas Obedience Training Club where I trained and the training classes at Richland College, where Elizabeth Hezeau was teaching. After a few months of hit and miss sessions, we finally established a core group for training dog agility that included Elizabeth Hezeau, Heather Smith, Jon and Karen Bishop, and Paul and Marissa Chapel, among others.

In the summer of 1985, I drove to El Paso to meet with Sandra Davis. We spent a weekend sharing training ideas and having general discussions on what agility could be. We worked one afternoon with her local training group. We both recognized that for what we were doing to have purpose, we would have to have long-term goals. Sandra's group received an invitation to host an exhibition at the Gaines Obedience Classic Championships in November of 1986 in Houston, Texas, and we decided to conduct this exhibition as a competition between our two groups. This gave more than a year to train for the event and work out details.

Returning to Dallas, I shared this with our new group (to be named Dallas Agility Working Group), and we set out a weekly training schedule, which in those days was no easy feat. Equipment was stored in my garage and we had to haul it in our vehicles every Sunday afternoon to the local park to set up, practice for the afternoon, and return the equipment home. This would be the norm for the next two or three years.

Working with our first dogs presented challenges as we introduced the obstacles one by one. Training dogs for agility was new to us and there was little guidance. We had to rely on our knowledge of basic principles of dog training and learned to adapt to the requirements of the sport. I continued to collaborate with Peter Lewis, first by letter, then by audio tape and fax, and finally by email, as we sought to better understand the rules. Of course, working only once a week, it took months to work out the basics and to begin running courses with any real continuity. But it didn't stop us from going out to community events and kennel club shows to put on exhibitions. By the time we headed off to Houston for the Gaines Classic in November 1986, we found ourselves as competitive as our counterparts in El Paso, though certainly a far cry from the standard of performance seen in England.

In the weeks leading up to the exhibition, Sandra and I got together and decided the event needed to be promoted under an organization name to help the sport grow, so we established the name United States Dog Agility Association. Our instincts were good, and we received standing room only crowds and had requests from well over 200 people who wanted to learn how to get involved.

Immediately following the event, we began discussing what to do next. At that point, Sandra said she had reached her limits, stating that she had other things she wanted to do, and that I should take on furthering the sport myself. She had as a goal to earn Obedience Trial Champions on many different breeds. She returned home to pursue her goals. We stayed in touch over the years and though she took a pass on dog agility, fate returned her way and she found herself as an initiator and promoter of Canine Freestyle in the United States. She became a trendsetter, winning competitions and putting on numerous seminars. USDAA awarded Sandy USDAA's Pioneer of Dog Agility honors in 2003 at a presentation at the first Cynosport Games in Dallas.

In 1987, I took a leave from my career in public accounting and began seeking opportunities for USDAA when we were approached by the Houston Kennel Club to organize a team event at the Astro World Series of Dog Shows. While the El Paso team did not want to participate (it was too far to travel), a number of individuals began building obstacles and training in Houston. The event included three teams from various groups in the Houston area, and three from Dallas (all being fielded from DAWG). Sandra Davis provided the course designs so that none of the Texas groups participating in the event would have advance knowledge of course to be run.

DAWG teams won first and third place and Houston won second. With the cash awards provided by the Houston Kennel Club, DAWG bought its first trailer for storing and hauling equipment.

Even more importantly for the sport, the event would also prove fateful as a representative from Chum® dog food in England was on hand to witness British-style agility in the U.S. for the first time. This connection ultimately led to USDAA securing sponsorship the following year (1988) from Pedigree® dog food (Chum's sister company in the U.S.) to create the Grand Prix of Dog Agility® tournament championships.  For nine consecutive years, Pedigree brand continued as sponsor, enabling USDAA to create an infrastructure that would lead to offering a diverse titling program (1990) and multiple tournament series that would continue to further the growth of the sport and USDAA. Today, USDAA events are held in seven countries each year, and USDAA along with its partners in the International Federation of Cynological Sports practice dog agility on six continents with sport as a principal focus.

In retrospect, I believe our biggest lessons in the early days are still keys to success in competition today. Everyone knows learning creates stress, and in agility, it is no different. In fact, that stress is heightened by the physical feats required of the dog for which he may or may not be conditioned. A few of these lessons are listed below:

1. Dogs are capable of more than we often want to give them credit for. Proper conditioning for dog and handler will help us to realize our potential in competition and in our relationships.

2. Mind your own stress levels. If you aren't in a good frame of mind, don't try to train. Dogs empathize and your demeanor translates to your dog. It must be kept fun, not contrived as we sometimes see (because dogs see through it), but genuinely fun. So be patient, and train because it is fun for you and your dog.

3. There is little room for repetitive training in agility. A dog needs "exposures," not repetitions. By that, I mean a dog needs to remember good experiences, not be pattern trained. There are no routine patterns in agility, and we have the added challenge to motivate our dogs. Repetitions tend to demotivate.

4. An exercise is best done by never letting the dog know he made a mistake. We as handlers must take responsibility for allowing him to get it wrong, whether by our misdirect, insufficient training, or our breakdown in communication.

5. The responsibility for good communication with one's dog rests solely with the handler.

6. Missing a class or week of training isn't the end of the world. In fact, it demonstrate how important time off can be in learning what a dog remembers and how valuable rest is in physical training and managing stress.

7. There is a clear distinction between dog training and handling. Both must be addressed to form a proper bond in order to be successful.

And philosophically, the time we spend sharing challenges and having fun with our dogs and the friends we make along the way bring lasting memories for years to come. It is this aspect that has driven me to stay involved in dog agility for so many years. As an example, Peter Lewis and his wife remain close personal friends to this day, and I've made many more friends in many countries around the world and throughout the U.S. as a result of my pursuits in agility. I'm fortunate to have this opportunity, and this I could not envision having ever done had I stayed in public accounting. I believe USDAA's motto is most fitting in summing up the essence of USDAA and what we strived for in the past, and that we strive for now and in the future:

Real dogs. Real People. True Sport.

A version of this article first appeared in the DAWG Scoop.

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