Competition brings canine athletes to Moorpark

by Chris O’Neal
chris@vcreporter.com

Hundreds of dogs will leap, climb, tunnel and weave in hopes of being crowned at the United States Dog Agility Association’s Southwest Regional Championships this weekend in Moorpark.

A total of 305 dogs and their teammates from seven states will converge as part of the annual event that sends qualifying teams straight to the semifinals of the Dog Agility World Championships in November, this year to be held in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The USDAA has 40,000 registered competitors and over 200 different breeds of dogs from the United States and Canada, as well as from Mexico, Japan, the Philippines and five other countries. Established in 1986, the USDAA’s goal of promoting international standards for dog agility has reached every corner of the globe. This weekend’s regional championships, one of about a dozen held across the country, is a precursor to the group’s three main events: the Grand Prix of Dog Agility World Championships, Dog Agility Steeplechase and the Dog Agility Masters Three-Dog Team Championship.

Annie DeChance, spokeswoman for the USDAA, has competed many times and says that agility training with dogs is a unique experience.

“It’s hard to describe what it feels like when you’ve had a great run and you’re in sync with another being that is not of your species; there’s no way to describe it,” said DeChance.

Ellen Green, 62, is a retired screenwriter. She moved to Moorpark two years ago so that she and her dogs, Dixie and Scout, could have more space to train. Dixie, a 5-year-old Labrador retriever, will be competing this weekend across all three of the USDAA’s events.

“I like to say it keeps me young,” said Green, whose first agility-trained dog was Scout, also a retriever, now 15 years old. “You get to play with your dog, be outside and exercise and train, and it’s just a wonderful gift.”

Dixie will have to leap hurdles on the jumper’s course, use precision to walk the teeter-totter, stepping off only after the edge has touched the ground, and make contact with yellow zones while entering and exiting tunnels and weaving between poles.

Training for such competition usually begins as a puppy, says Green, who adds that positive training with reinforcement is the way to go, like rewarding the dog with a treat or toy for correctly completing a task.

Though Dixie and Scout have both come out on top in various competitions in the past, for Green the true reward is being able to connect with both of them.

“The gift for the dog is the same as the gift for me, which is just the joy we both feel when we do this together,” said Green.

Somis resident Colleen Thurston agrees. Thurston’s two Labradors will be competing this weekend as well. Both 6-year-old Lacey and 9-year-old Maggie competed in the Westminster Kennel Club Agility championships this year, coming close to making the finals.

“I get an incredible intellectual and emotional connection with my dogs,” said Thurston.

Both Lacey and Maggie are therapy dogs who work with emotionally distressed children on weekdays. During the weekends, Thurston and the pair train, which she says the dogs enjoy.

“It’s like they’re running through the woods, jumping over logs and going in and out of trees,” said Thurston. “It’s kind of a natural movement for the dogs.”

Winners of the championships not only receive a ticket to the semifinal rounds of the World Championships in Arizona — where the winner can walk away with a $10,000 prize — but bragging rights as well.

The USDAA Southwest Regional Championships will begin on Friday, April 29, and run through Sunday, May 1, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily on the soccer fields at Arroyo Vista Community Park, 4550 Tierra Rejada Road in Moorpark. For more information, visit www.usdaa.com.

Special note to attendees: Dogs are welcome at the event but DeChance stresses that they must be kept on a nonretractable leash no longer than 6 feet.