For Westminster agility judge Lori Sage,
it’s a lifetime memory, but now focus
shifts to giving competitors a feel of comfort

Photos by shibaguyz

By Ranny Green

Sometimes life’s best and most memorable moments are the totally unexpected surprises.

For Lori Sage, of Oregon City, Ore., that was the case several months ago when she received a message on her cell phone from Paul Campanella, Westminster Kennel Club director of agility, inviting her to be one of two judges for the iconic organization’s inaugural The Masters Agility Championship at Westminster Saturday, Feb. 8 in New York City.

Lori Sage, of Oregon City, Ore., one of two judges at the inaugural The Masters Agility Championship at Westminster in New York City Feb. 8, briefs Desiree Snelleman, of Sumner, on the rules before she and Pace, a border collie, begin a competition run at a December trial in Auburn. Pace won the 2013 American Kennel Club National Agility Championship at the 26-inch division.

Lori Sage, of Oregon City, Ore., one of two judges at the inaugural The Masters Agility Championship at Westminster in New York City Feb. 8, briefs Desiree Snelleman, of Sumner, on the rules before she and Pace, a border collie, begin a competition run at a December trial in Auburn. Pace won the 2013 American Kennel Club National Agility Championship at the 26-inch division.

“I remember the message where he asked if I was available to judge at Westminster,” recalls Sage. “I was off-the-charts excited but I had to check my schedule before I could call him back. So I hurried home, checked my calendar and called him right back to accept the assignment. I was thrilled, of course, but had to keep it secret until Westminster announced it. And that wasn’t easy.”

Asked about the importance of adding agility to Westminster’s historic conformation reputation – it’s the second oldest continuously held sporting event in the United States behind only the Kentucky Derby – Sage says, “Agility will provide an incredible showcase for breeders to promote their dogs not only as beautiful conformation animals but also as athletic performers.”

Campanella says, “We are pleased to have Lori Sage as one of our judges for this event. She brings a passion for the sport, an extensive background as both a competitor and a teacher and the respect of her peers. We know that all of this will shine through for us and for the event.”

The immediate status of The Masters is reflected by Fox Sports’ announcement that it will be televised live nationwide from 7-9 p.m. EST (4-6 p.m. PST) on Fox Sports 1. The competition is open to dogs competing at the Excellent or Masters levels, including purebred and mixed breeds registered in the American Kennel Club’s Canine Partners program, Miscellaneous breeds not yet eligible for conformation competition, Foundation Stock Service recorded breeds and Purebred Alternative Listing dogs (purebred dogs that cannot be fully registered). A maximum total of 225 are entered.

Sage eyes Bella, a Pumi handled by Karen Beattie-Massey, of Issaquah, as it moves through weave poles. To make certain none are missed, Sage counts each weave movement. Bella was a bronze medalist in the American and Caribbean agility championships in 2012 and won a place on the AKC U.S. Agility Team that competed in the 2013 European Open in Belgium.

Sage eyes Bella, a Pumi handled by Karen Beattie-Massey, of Issaquah, as it moves through weave poles. To make certain none are missed, Sage counts each weave movement. Bella was a bronze medalist in the American and Caribbean agility championships in 2012 and won a place on the AKC U.S. Agility Team that competed in the 2013 European Open in Belgium.

Each entry will compete in two qualifying rounds over Standard Agility and Jumpers with Weaves courses. Those with the highest combined scores based on time and faults will move on to the televised championship rounds.

Conformation has always been the recognized paw print of Westminster, but make no mistake about it, agility has captured full-fledged interest of the American public the past two decades from the standpoint of American Kennel Club show entries and conversation.

The number of its agility events has increased 52 percent from 2008 through 2013, with entries up a resounding 48 percent in that same span. The AKC conducted its first agility trial in 1994.

Sage has been competing in agility since 2000, having begun with a 7-year-old Pomeranian and a few months later brought home her first Shetland Sheepdog. Since then, she has teamed with four shelties and recently added a Chihuahua to her competition crew.

The growth of the sport, she acknowledges, has been astounding. “An exhibitor can run agility literally every weekend now, with two to four choices on some weekends. The skill of the handlers has grown as well. Everyone is always looking to improve his/her speed and accuracy, shaving even a fraction of a second off their times.”

Sometimes the agility judge is responsible for setting the bars for correct height.

Sometimes the agility judge is responsible for setting the bars for correct height.

Equipment design changes, she notes, from the break-away tire to lightweight jump standards, has led to a vast improvement in the safety of the dogs.

Asked to identify the most important characteristics a agility judge must possess, Sage replies, “A welcoming demeanor should be right at the top of the list. The attitude of the judge can set the tone for the day and I want everyone who comes into my ring to feel welcome and comfortable.

“Handlers are nervous enough when they come into the ring, so if I can help ease their stress and allow them to concentrate on the job at hand, then I’m doing my job. I have been on the other side as a competitor, so I know what they’re feeling.”

When asked what percentage falls on the handler and what is linked to the dog, Sage replies, “Ninety-five percent is on the handler. If my dog makes a mistake, you can usually point the finger at me. And I think that’s the case right across the board in the agility ring.”

Sage watches Pace clear a double jump and make a turn to the tunnel.

Sage watches Pace clear a double jump and make a turn to the tunnel.

Judges, Sage explains, are looking for: Did the dog complete the obstacle course correctly, keep the bars up, proceed forward without refusing or running past the obstacle, stay on course, among other things. After all of that, I hope that from the time the team steps to the start line until the moment they cross the finish line, they have had a fun time. Whether they qualify or not, I hope to see them leaving the ring with the same love for each other they entered it with.”

The Masters Agility Championship at Westminster will be the largest and most prestigious event Sage has judged.

The Pacific Northwest is regarded by many as one of the strongest areas nationally from the standpoint of quality of competition. “In my travels judging nationwide,” Sage says, “I have seen some of the best handlers in the sport. The Northwest ranks among the top in competitor talent.”

Following a run, Sage congratulates Snelleman on a job well done.

Following a run, Sage congratulates Snelleman on a job well done.

Two Northwest women, Barb Davis, of Spokane, and Daisy Peel, of Mulino, Ore., have been named several times to the AKC USA Agility Team that competes annually in the World Agility Championship against dogs from more than 30 countries. Several Northwest campaigners, including Davis and Peel, have won coveted AKC national and invitational championships, as well.

The most highly titled agility dog in the United States is Pinpaps Jonquil of Skipnlena, aka Tigger, a Papillon owned by Robin Cohen and Robin Kletke, of Woodville. Tigger, 15, and now retired, has collected 38 MACH (Master Agility Championship titles), 12 ahead of its closest pursuer, the couple’s border collie Vixen, on the AKC Lifetime List.