Janelle Julyan ran alongside her small dog, Eve, in the competition ring as a judge looked on, encouraging the 6-year-old Welsh corgi as she navigated jumps, ramps, tunnels and plastic poles at the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center.
Julyan was one of the 124 competitors who brought a combined total of 163 dogs to Saturday’s Canine Capers Dog Agility Trials, an event sanctioned by the United States Dog Agility Association. All dogs were welcome — from sleek-coated, full-bred Dobermans to small furry mutts. It wasn’t the looks that mattered, it was the skill.
"Any dog can be trained to do agility," Julyan said. "Whereas with confirmation (show dogs) you have to have a certain build."
And unlike some super-primped animal beauty contestants, these dogs are pets first and foremost, she said. "With dog agility, it’s the relationship that’s important," Julyan said.
Eve, a past champion of the Corgi Nationals, got her favorite treat of string cheese after completing her run.
"She did beautifully," Julyan said. "She nailed a really tough weave entry."
For Victoria Hoffman’s standard poodle, Apache, his morning run wasn’t his best effort, after dropping a bar on a jump. Hoffman, like many dedicated dog agility competitors, was quick to divert the blame from the animal.
"If the dog messes up, it’s usually the handler’s fault because they didn’t signal right," Hoffman said. "Ninety-eight percent of it is handler error."
Hoffman, an attorney from Roswell, trains about 20 minutes a day with each of her two poodles and enters a competition nearly every weekend somewhere in the Southeast.
"You can’t imagine the bond it creates with the dog," she said of training and competition.
While some dogs prefer a rubber ball as a reward, Apache got cubed lamb cuts after his run.
"Good agility dogs must have athleticism, intelligence and a desire to compete," Hoffman said. "Poodles are very intelligent."
Dog agility competitions can be an addictive and expensive pastime. From training that begins from the age of 2 months to travel expenses and entry fees, pet owners in the sport are every bit as dedicated as their dog show counterparts.
The most popular and successful agility dogs are herding breeds such as border collies and Shetland sheep dogs. But Saturday’s competition offered an array of animals, from a pudgy dachshund mix to a husky German shepherd.
That all-inclusiveness has helped the sport grow, said Canine Caper president Chris Danielly, who remembers just 23 competitors entering the club’s first trials in 1992.
"You’re not limited by the shape of the head," as in confirmation dog shows, Danielly said. "It’s something a lot of people can do with their dogs, and the dogs love it."