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30 Years of Dog Agility Part 1

How did it all really begin?  By Kenneth Tatsch

We have long heard published accounts of how agility started in the U.K.:

In 1977, Peter Meanwell of the Lincolnshire German Shepherd Dog and All Breed Training Society connected with John Varley of the 1978 Crufts Show Committee about putting on an exhibition of a dog's agility... 

I've long wondered what really was behind this official "start."  I had read an article published in Our Dogs newspaper in 1989 that there was an "agility" exhibition in 1974 at an Agricultural Fair in which Peter Meanwell had been a "competitor". It was reported as a figure of eight course, including a variety of jumps. Naturally my first thought was a jumpers course we might think of today, but I wanted to ask, "Just what was this exhibition, who was involved, and what did this agility look like? Who were the people behind the exhibition at the agricultural fair, and what happened to them?"

So I had little hesitation in accepting the Lincolnshire club's invitation to participate in the festivities of their 30-year celebration event September 29th and 30th. In addition to expressing America's gratitude for the club's contributions to the sport, I hoped to get answers to the questions that lingered about the sport's history.  Also in attendance would be surviving members of the first Crufts team, along with other members of the Lincolnshire club during that era.

The event was held in Lincolnshire, a county to the east and about 150 miles north of London.  Upon my arrival in Lincoln, I was greeted with a "fly-by" of the Red Arrows, the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, in tight formation. They are stationed in Scampton, just one mile north of the Lincolnshire Show grounds where the event was being held, and they run daily training exercises. It added a sense of celebration to the event. 

My host, Dave Roberts, trial secretary for the event, drove me immediately to the club's training ground, which he said was relatively unchanged for the past thirty years. He began the story of accounts on the early days of agility and showed me several jumps that were used in the original Cruft competition in 1978. He began telling me about the players and who I would meet during the weekend. 

The Lincolnshire clubhouse.

Heading out to the show grounds to review the set-up and seeing the lines of caravans (campers) driving into the grounds was stark reminder that the British are still some of the dog-craziest people in the world. The two-day event of standard and jumping would have some 1,150 dogs and 6,000 rounds of competition in eight rings, with competitors categorized into seven experience levels. Interestingly, there would be a special class where competitors would run the original Cruft agility course. The judge would require that the handlers use the style of the day - running the dogs on their left side; thankfully, this was a regulation that was dropped within a couple of years.  

There were almost 500 caravans for overnight camping, since few competitors - if any - stay in hotels.  Even judges stay in their caravans at the show.

Shortly after my arrival, I was contacted by a long-time member of the Lincolnshire club, who I was told would have many answers for me about the sport's history. He and a fellow club member came by for dinner (and on to the pub) to recount the times some thirty years prior. Throughout the evening I would learn that Peter Meanwell had indeed been a member of the Lincolnshire club and participated in their exhibitions. He and my hosts for the evening, along with other club members, were active in working trials and obedience and frequently performed exhibitions at regional fairs and other public venues, dating back into the sixties, just as might a club today in the U.S. As one would imagine, the Lincolnshire exhibition team was not the only such group performing exhibitions. My hosts recounted their innovation of different hurdles used in their exhibitions, such as stacked barrels, flaming hoops, and tires, and how they saw this as the start of dog agility. I detected a note of resentment that they were not in the history books, but they were not successful in convincing me that these exhibitions were what we know as "dog agility" sport today.

Check back tomorrow for the second part of this three part series investigating the history of agility.


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