For this world-class agility handler,
waiting and wondering is agony

Photos courtesy Deb Sellon and Jerry and Lois Photography

By Ranny Green

Rock-It, a Shetland Sheepdog, moves about the challenges of an agility course at the Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show in March.

Athletes dread nothing more than being “on the bubble.” You hear the term every spring around the NCAA Basketball Tournament and Indianapolis 500 time trials. All that’s left is the waiting and wondering. Their performances are behind them but will they be enough to make the field?

The “bubble” often occurs in the selection process of national teams, too.

Sometimes the wait is a matter of only minutes, but often the psychological torture can extend hours or even weeks like Spokane’s world-class dog agility handler Barb Davis experienced last month.

Neither Davis, a seven-time member of the AKC/USA World Agility Team or her speedy Shetland Sheepdog Skecher were at the top of their game in early May team trials in Hopkins, Minn., due to minor injuries, which ended up costing them dearly.

“The coach and captain were aware we were not at our best physically,” says Davis, “but they also saw that we won three rounds at the nationals a few weeks before by a good margin, before the injuries. Skecher is clearly one of the fastest dogs in the nation and could have had a real chance to win the world championship (in the Czech Republic Oct. 3-7).”

The long wait for the team selection to be announced was tortuous for Davis. “I wanted to quit thinking about it but it wouldn’t leave my head. I have been through this before, where I have been on the bubble and been chosen. Then again I have been in a position where I was next in line by the stated criteria and bypassed for others who were not as high in the standings. When you strive hard for something that prestigious the emotional side just will not leave it alone.”

Barb Davis, of Spokane, a seven-time member of the AKC/USA Agility World Team, works Rock-It through one of the small-dog obstacles on the course at the Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show in CenturyLink Field Event Center in March. Rock-It was the 2006 AKC National champion and a member of the 2006 AKC/USA Agility World Team.

Davis learned May 21 she was on the selection “short list,” but was told the final announcement would not be made for another couple of days, raising her hopes slightly. Finally, on the morning of May 23 she and Skecher were announced as alternates on the small-dog team, which most likely means they will miss out on the October Olympics of agility dogdom. The only way they make it is if one of the three other pairs sustains a serious injury, not allowing them to train or compete.

“Being chosen for alternate certainly gives my dog recognition as being among some of the best in the country,” she adds. “But perhaps having to deal with this mental battle will build my focus and psychological game. I must not linger on my disappointment but rather run like Skecher does, with a love of life and full intensity. He gives me his best and I must do the same for him going forward.”

What has led to this incredible handler/agility teacher’s success? You should get a good idea from her replies to the following questions posed by this reporter:

Q: As you have owned and handled different dogs as a member of the USA team, is there certain point or age that you can define you have real contender?

BD: It really varies. I get a flavor of their potential while they are still pups. I look for excitement for learning, their willingness to take direction from me, their athletic ability, how much fun they find doing some simple agility-like things. If all these are in abundance then the pup has great potential. But you still may not end up with a real contender.

Occasionally, it happens the other way around where a dog starts out moderately and slowly builds drive for the sport later, ending up a solid contender. But that is the exception. But overall there is not a specific point or age, but as you are training a dog with great potential, you watch it slowly morph into a real contender.

Davis and Skecher move through the Small Dog Individual Jumpers course at the 2011 FCI World Agility Championships in Lievin, France, last October. They finished second in the elite competition.

Q: In some sports where you are working with another element – i.e. auto racing or horse racing, for example – can you pin down how much is handler and how much is dog by successes over the years?

BD: There is a top agility handler who put out a video titled something like “Great Dog, Shame About the Handler.” Agility is definitely a balance of both and that is part of the allure. The person with the fastest dog does not always win. When you enter a competition you often know that certain dogs are faster and certain handlers are better. But it all happens so fast that I can go a lot of ways on a certain day.

I am now running Skecher. This is the fastest dog I’ve ever had, and he almost always is the fastest in competition in his division. But because of his speed, he is harder to steer. But it is so exciting because if I can lay down a smooth run with him, the odds are very great he will be first. If I had not developed my handling skills to the degree I have, this dog would be one of those that folks said, “great dog, shame about the handler.”

Q: What the key attributes needed in building a working relationship and trust with a competition dog?

BD: Keeping it fun and rewarding. This sounds simple but it is not. It can be very frustrating to train dogs. It can seem you have a behavior all trained, but suddenly the dog starts having trouble with it. There can be a ton of reasons this happens. It can be too much repetition and you have bored the dog or too much repetition and dog is hurting a little and you don’t know it. The handler is not rewarding the dog as much so the dog doesn’t find it worth doing.

I am really serious about this sport, but if I act too serious with my dog he will likely slow down. Thus, the human part of this team must figure out what the canine partner needs, by breaking down things and making them fun and interesting.

Who me stressed? Not Skecher, who doses off during Opening Ceremonies at the 2011 FCI World Agility Championships last October in France.

Q: What is your training routine for the build-up for the AKC/USA World Team trials each year? Do you back off of competitions the month ahead of the trials to allow yourself and dog to relax, or do you maintain a regular competition schedule so the two of you will not lose your edge?

BD: These questions make me smile, as it is so rare that what I intend to do is what happens. Here the human component has to decide what is best for the whole team. So it may be that I would really like to be practicing difficult sequences but my dog has started coming off the seesaw early and I need to work on that. This year a minor injury to my dog forced a week of rest just before the tryouts. My intention was to be doing some short exercises with him.

For the most part, I trust my training and dog and in the couple of weeks prior we make adjustments as needed. Sometimes I trial the weekend before and sometimes not.

Q: What does your year-round training schedule include?

BD: We live on five acres with a rolling hill. The dogs love to run on this hill together chasing and retrieving a ball I throw with a Chuck-It. It is really difficult around the house if the weather does not permit this, as one dog in particular keeps jumping around trying to get you to go out! They all love this part of the day.

In the summer we do a little swimming but it is a pretty short season. The rest of the conditioning is practicing agility.

Q: Do you maintain a close relationship with other AKC/USA World Agility Team members throughout the year?

BD: I have one past team member that I am close to and keep in regular contact with. We got along from the beginning, and although we are very different, we are very alike in philosophies. Also, we ended up at one time breeding her World team dog to my national champion. My other close friends are either students or people I compete with on a regular basis in my area.

It is interesting being a team when the rest of the year we compete on an individual basis. It can be hard with team members who are in your own jump height, as those are people you are competing directly against the rest of the time. For the most part, I have formed what I term light relations with most of my teammates.

Davis receives the second-place award for her and Skecher's performance in the Small Dog Individual Jumpers division at the 2011 FCI World Agility Championships.

Q: What does making the AKC/USA team mean to you?

BD: It is like making it to the Olympics. There is just nothing like it. To be in another country, with the very best handlers in the world, to have a large group of supporters who come to root on their U.S. handlers, it so much more unique than any other competition. Most of the time we are at the trials doing our own thing and your friends are happy you had a good run.

At the World Championships, the grandstands are decorated in the colors of their countries. People are waving flags and rooting for their teams. The entire audience is made of up of folks who understand the sport. They so appreciate a perfectly timed and smooth run. They know how easy it is to have an error and understand your feeling when it goes right and wrong. There is also the pride of knowing you and your dog are one of just 12 teams representing your country.

Q: Is there one most memorable performance in the World meet that stands out for you?

BD: It occurred in Portugal, 2001. The competition was two weeks after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. All the teammates were contacted to determine if we wanted to travel. We did, and the planes were far from full. We had security from the time we arrived, but it was increased heavily when some U.S. retaliation began on the weekend. We had Secret Service accompanying us during sightseeing. A very different experience.

But the competition was amazing. A teammate wrote a very moving speech about what freedom meant, and that included us, that our countrymen had died to give us the freedom to do things like travel to Europe to compete with our dogs. My team won a silver medal that year and the large dog team took a gold. Hearing our National Anthem played under these circumstances was oh so moving. The other countries were very supportive and happy for us that year because of the circumstances. That experience was a moving life-long memory.

Q: What impact has competing in the sport at such a high level had on your life?

BD: In 1999 I won my first national championship with Shimmer, but little did I know how this was the beginning of a new life. We won our first spot on the U.S. World team in 2000 to Finland, and our team won silver. ESPN contacted me and for the next five years we were part of the network’s “The Great Outdoor Games” show. Suddenly my husband Jeff and I were traveling nonstop it seemed. I left my job teaching math at a community college and started teaching agility full time. Jeff grew to love the sport and began building equipment. I call him a great A.S.S. (Agility Support Spouse). And the relationships with the dogs themselves are amazing. When it is well trained the dog knows when it had a great run and will turn and look at you at the end, beaming with joy. When you and your dog are in the moment the connection is like no other. It is an amazing and addicting relationship. Jeff and I feel so blessed by the awesome dogs that have changed our lives and taken us on this journey.

Peel selected

Daisy Peel, of Bonney Lake, and her border collie Solar were named to the 2012 AKC/USA Agility World Team as part of the four-member, large-dog contingent.