Agility, A Fun Sport for You and Your Dog

Agility is a great sport, perfect for the owner and dog who just want to come to classes to have fun and meet people as well as for those who wish to go to competitions. —Kat Potthoff

When my husband and I arrive at the Greater Lincoln Obedience Club (GLOC) for an agility class, instructor Judy Vitamvas is studying a course map. Under Judy’s direction, Andy and I follow her directions for where to position obstacles. As other students arrive, they pitch in too. After everything is in place, the numbered cones are set out. The jump bars are set to a starting height of 8 inches for the smallest dogs in the class. When the course is finally laid out, students walk the course without their dogs. After the students have worked out their strategies, they exit the course, return to their dogs, and take a seat to wait their turn.

judyvitamvas Tonight’s course is “dog’s choice”. Andy heads to the starting line with our seven-pound poodle. Ahead of them are three tunnels. Barnaby can enter whichever one he wishes. Andy candirect him, but must do so from behind the starting line until Barnaby enters a tunnel. The tunnel that Barnaby picks determines which numbered sequence of obstacles he must perform. Naturally, then, the challenge is for the handler to learn all three options, and to adjust on the fly. Throughout the one-hour class, dogs of every size run the course multiple times.

Although I came with Andy and Barnaby as an observer, as the session nears it ends, Andy encourages me to take a turn. I’ve taken agility classes with Barnaby, and even competed with him, but it’s been a few years. Yet participating in dog sports is like riding a bike—one never forgets. Despite feeling nervous as I approach the starting line, once Barnaby dives into a tunnel, my adrenaline kicks in. I run past the tunnel and immediately begin directing Barnaby through his chosen course. “Over!” “Walk it!” “Teeter!” and “Weave!” are a few of the commands I call out. True to form, Barnaby heeds each of my commands as we zoom this way and that through the obstacles. When we race to the finish, he flies over a jump, and Judy and her students cheer.

History of Agility

The primary purpose of agility is to have fun with your dog and to build teamwork between the two of you.  It also burns off a lot of energy in a high drive dog.—Judy Vitamvas

Agility owes partial thanks to a horse-expert named John Varley. In 1978, he was asked by the Crufts Dog Show to entertain crowds between its events. Agility owes the rest of its thanks to Peter Meanwell, a dog-trainer whom Varley turned to for help. Together, the two developed a jumping-style course for dogs, modeled on those in the equestrian world, that would show off their speed and elegance. Since then, agility has become one of the fastest growing dog sports in history.

To do agility, both the handler and the dog will need to learn a wide variety of skills. Because agility involves large expensive pieces of equipment, the best way to learn agility is by taking classes. The dog will need to learn how to perform each obstacle, and how to interpret their handler’s commands, gestures, and body language. The handler will need to learn how to teach their dog the desired behaviors, how and when to give commands, how to plan a good strategy for a course, and how to perform different types of “crosses” (which are maneuvers that get dog on the other side of its handler).

People involved in agility (and other dog sports) also work to educate themselves on positive dog training, nutrition, and anatomy and physiology to be better prepared to keep their dogs in shape and healthy for their lives and to participate in dog events and sports. —Kat Potthoff

It should be clear by now that agility is a team sport. The team is you and your dog. Your dog might be performing the obstacles, but he/she couldn’t do it without you. Because of the many hours of training closely with your dog, the two of you will develop a unique bond. All this activity will also be good for your dog’s health (and yours!), and learning new skills will boost his confidence. The rest of my article will share highlights of my conversations with two GLOC agility instructors about their reasons for becoming involved with agility, and their experiences as trainers.

Agility Instructors

Both trainers with whom I talked have long held a love of dogs. Judy Vitamvas grew up wanting a dog, but couldn’t get one until she was adult and had her own house. She got her first dog in her 40s, and has had two or three dogs at a time ever since. Kat Pothoff has had several dogs, but Riko is the first dog with which she’s done more formal training and competition. “Riko enjoys learning new things as much as I do and so we have tried many different dog events such as: obedience, rally, agility, dock jumping, barn hunt, tracking, musical freestyle, and a few other things. He loves to go hiking and camping too. This past summer we learned to SUP Pup–Stand Up Paddle Board.  He really enjoyed sitting on the board and taking a ride! Water sports are among his favorite things.”

Most of my experience has been “on-the-job training” teaching classes, supplemented by extensive reading on dog behavior and training techniques and working with my own dogs.—Judy Vitamvas

The two ladies have also been GLOC members for several years. They became trainers to support the club that they love. For Judy, GLOC’s current president, the process of becoming a trainer was a gradual one. She came to GLOC in 1988 to take an obedience class with her first dog. She later returned with her second and third dogs. After the third dog, she started assisting with obedience classes. By then, she’d also become interested in agility, which she picked up mostly by trial and error. As remains true today, there’s always a need for instructors, and so Judy began teaching agility too. She’s now been an obedience and agility trainer for over 20 years with GLOC, slowly becoming better over time. “I eventually realized that I enjoy working with the students and have a knack for getting along with dogs.”

For Kat, who has been a volunteer in various capacities for almost eight years, she became a trainer because of being inspired by other members. “Many give tireless time and energy to help teach classes.” Kat also noted how many GLOC members do volunteer work with rescue groups or with individual families who are struggling to understand canine behavior, so that challenging dogs can live successfully in a family situation. Kat also feels that demonstrating skills to her students with her dog Riko has benefited him. “It’s a good opportunity for Riko to get out and meet new dogs as well as try new dog disciplines and learn new skills.

The best way to really know if you fully understand a concept or skill is to teach it.—Kat Pothoff

On the path to becoming an experienced teacher, one will make mistakes. For example, as with some other long-time members, Judy Vitamvas began learning how to train when the methods focused on correction rather than praise and reward. Consequently, Judy was “probably too impatient with the students and too harsh with the dogs.”

Being an agility instructor will provide one with many memorable moments. For example, there was a time when Judy was a trial chair and there was an incident that led to some rather red faces. Back then, GLOC was building its own because commercially-made equipment either wasn’t available or was too expensive. “There was a group of competitors who were always finding something to complain about our equipment. Suddenly the chief course builder, who had also made most of the equipment, took the microphone and proceeded to let the group know what he thought of them in no uncertain terms and unkind language. Fortunately, the judge didn’t report the incident, but that group did not return to our trials for some time.”

Fortunately, the lighter moments far outweigh the embarrassing ones. Judy shared a story about doing agility with her third dog, Tango, a black Shih Tzu, on a hot day in the park. Tango began to resist Judy’s training efforts, which led to Judy becoming increasingly frustrated. “Suddenly, Tango ran to the chute and refused to come out of the fabric, not knowing I could see her big lump. I laughed and realized I was being too hard on her. We quit for the day.” Judy recalls an equally funny moment with Tango on a similarly warm day at an agility trial. “Tango first hid in a tunnel and then under the secretary’s table in the shade. Smart!”

katpothoffricoKat remembers fondly when GLOC celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. “We put over 50 dogs in a stay. Then we had some volunteer photographers from the club shoot several different angles of the whole process of sitting the dogs. We also put one photographer up on a long ladder to catch a shot of all the dogs. It’s still fun to look at those photos.”

Final Words

The biggest reason to check out GLOC is that all our trainers are volunteers. We do this for the love of the dogs, and the love of training. Beyond that, we have many trainers who have years of experience. If one trainer doesn’t know the answer, we can bring in another trainer and see what they suggest.—Judy Vitamvas

Since 2008, our family has participated in one class or another at the Greater Lincoln Obedience Club. Naturally, then, when I decided to write a series of articles for LAA Pet Talk about local pet services, GLOC was at the top of my list. GLOC offers a wide variety of classes. In addition to obedience and agility, the club also offers specialty classes in flyball, musical freestyle, tracking, treibbal, and tricks.

As you can imagine, GLOC is a happening place. There was a lot of activity going on around me as I conducted my interviews. Classes were in progress in all three rings. Nearby, two club members were talking about upcoming trials. Others were talking about a new foster dog. If you’ve yet to try out GLOC, I suggest you sign up for one of its many classes. I’ll be writing about some of their other classes at greater length in the upcoming months.


Obedience Can Be A Life-Saver for Your Dog

Alicia Graybill, Obedience Session at GLOC
Alicia Graybill, Obedience Session at GLOC

“First things first. Have your dog work on ‘Watch me!’ It’s a very important skill. Throw some treats and practice it.” A class of about ten adults with their dogs have gathered on the green rubber flooring of the home of the Greater Lincoln Obedience Club (GLOC) building. It’s a chilly November evening and the light outside has started to fade. Instructor Alicia Graybill rolls her wheelchair to the center of the class to observe and offer advice as needed while students review skills learned the previous week.

Later in the session, Alicia lightly holds onto the leash of a German Shepherd. The owner stands up against the far wall. Alicia then lets go of the leash and tells the owner, “Call your dog.” The owner orders her dog: “Come!” The dog instead runs to other owners who wait with their dogs for their turn. This time, when the owner calls “Come!”, Alicia’s young assistant keeps hold of the leash and keeps the dog on track as it runs back to its owner. Alicia and the dog’s owner immediately heap praise on the dog.

As the one-hour class nears its end, Alicia tells her attentive students: “Time for one more thing.” She instructs everyone to spread out and practice the command “Sit”. Some dogs properly keep their attention on their owners. Others look around, prompting their owner to redirect them. After a minute, Alicia calls: “Free!” Each owner echoes Alicia’s command, thereby releasing their dog from the “Sit” command. Praise and treats follow.

History of Obedience

The importance of obedience is the relationship that you develop with your dog. I love teaching things like impulse control, mostly taught as ‘leave it’, because it can save a dog’s life! The same can be said about teaching recall. It’s so important to teach a solid recall because you can keep your dog from being hurt or even killed if they can come to you reliably. In my teaching, I love to have fun with my dog and that is what I try to teach students too. Training is about having fun and building a great relationship with your dog.—Whitney Fritzinger

Obedience teaches dogs what to do in any situation. It doesn’t make ‘little robots’ out of dogs; instead, it makes them better companions. If dogs see or hear something that’s scary, they’ll look to the owner for guidance instead of running off or barking.—Marcy Graybill

Obedience as a sport began back in the 1930s. A breeder by the name of Mrs. Helen Whitehouse Walker was receiving recognition for the outstanding quality and character of her poodles. Like many poodle owners, Walker had had to fight the stereotype that poodles were nothing more than dogs with pretty haircuts. To persuade the public that poodles were as smart as any other breed, Walker devised a series of exercises to showcase their intelligence. In October of 1933, Walker held the first obedience test on her father’s estate in New York.

The following year, Walker’s kennel maid joined her on a road trip across the United States, on which they gave obedience demonstrations with the dogs. Enthusiasm for obedience training grew and, in 1934, Walker organized a second test to be held in conjunction with the June North Westchester Kennel Club show. Through the efforts of these two ladies, the first American Kennel Club (AKC) Obedience Tests were held in 1936. The tests were then divided into the three classes that we know today: Novice, Open and Utility.

While obedience is a competitive sport, it’s also considered the foundation to all dog training. In addition, obedience helps build a deeper relationship between an owner and their dogs. For these reasons, dog experts contend and therein lies a reason for every dog owner to learn it. The rest of my article will share highlights of my conversations with four GLOC obedience instructors about their backgrounds and experiences as trainers.

Obedience Instructors

Marcy Graybill
Marcy Graybill

For Marcy Graybill, it’s having one’s own dog that leads one to become a trainer. Marcy’s first dog was a German Shepherd puppy adopted from the Capitol Humane Society. Marcy didn’t know much about owning or training a dog. Her solution? To read a lot of library books about dogs and begin using her newly-acquired knowledge to train Lady. Along the way, Marcy discovered that she loved training dogs, Eventually, Marcy started volunteering for Capital Humane Society, where she helped train other dogs. With her second dog, Marcy became involved with the Greater Lincoln Obedience Club, and eventually became an instructor. “It’s much different from training just dogs, but equally rewarding.”

For Alicia Graybill, it’s having a challenging dog that leads one to become a trainer. Alicia’s Siberian Husky, Timber, kept climbing over fences. He always came back, but during his absence Alicia would spend a lot of energy looking for and worrying about him. She needed more control. Like Marcy, she read every library book available. One of her favorites remains Second Hand Dog, a smaller-sized book by Carol Benjamin. Although published in the 1980’s, and so in some ways outdated, Alicia believes the author was ahead of her time. “The psychology is sound. A dog needs to know what he’s doing right. That book taught me this lesson.” After Alicia experienced success in working with her dog, like her sister Marcy, she started to volunteer at the Capitol Humane Society. This led to her becoming a pet foster and to getting involved with GLOC.

Whatever their motivation for becoming trainers, all four of the obedience instructors I interviewed grew up with a love of dogs. Marcy even persisted in her love for dogs despite being bitten by a friend’s dog when she was a child. “He’d just been given a treat and I didn’t know any better.” Despite being scared, Marcy never stopped wanting a dog of her own. She’d pet sit whenever given the opportunity, take her neighbors’ dogs for walks, and even play with any animal that came near her.

If your dog barks, cover their eyes with your hands. They can bark and not see or see and not bark. As soon as they quit barking, take your hands away.—Robin Bonge

Teach your puppy (or kitty) to come when called. Start inside the house and always praise and give a reward such as a treat or a scratch behind the ears. Never call them and punish them. “Come” is the one command that could save your pet’s life.—Marcy Graybill

Robin Bonge
Robin Bonge

On the path to becoming an experienced teacher, mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned. When Robin Bonge first started to teach, she felt nervous and struggled to remember the names of students. Whitney Fritzinger remembers being too impatient with herself as a teacher and with her dog as a learner. In time, Robin has gained more confidence in herself as instructor. She’s also learned that despite how out of control dogs might seem at the start of a class, they’ll come around with work. Together with her dog, Maggie, Robin has taught puppies that obedience can be fun and rewarding. In time, Whitney has gained more patience. She’s also learned how to talk with many different people and work with all kinds of dogs. Marcy Graybill regrets the years of using force and fear. “This was back in the 1980’s and that’s how most trainers trained, but I feel guilty just thinking about it.” Over time, Marcy has learned that “each dog is an individual.” Because of this, “What works for one dog may not work for the next one. Keep your options open when training.”

Alicia Graybill explains how initially she wasn’t training “her dog”. Instead she was training an “imaginary dog”. Timber dog’s thick coat made him immune to corrective swats, yet Alicia persisted with the ineffective training method “I needed to start with dog that was ‘actually in front of me’. Once I did, training went better. Dogs learn in different ways. Timber didn’t like treats or toys. I found out by accident that he liked tanned rabbit skin. I used to carve designs in leather. One day I was experimenting with leather, when Timber grabbed it and ran out. Next, I put canned cat food in the leather hide. Eventually, Timber got to where he liked treats.” Alicia says that she faced a steep learning curve with Timber, but gradually he became a joy to train. The two went on to do obedience, agility, and musical freestyle together.

GLOC has many people who teach different classes. We are about teaching a variety of reward-based activities to dogs. If we have a question that we can’t answer, we find someone who can.—Robin Bonge

GLOC is many things. It’s a community where you can find friends who share common interests. It’s a family. We all have dogs and understand the challenges and responsibility that comes with dog ownership. It’s a remarkable resource that is unmatched in Lincoln. If you have a dog related issue you can be sure someone else has experienced the same issue or knows someone else who has.—Whitney Fritzinger

Being a teacher can provide one with many memorable moments. Some of those will be funny, others embarrassing, and some special. Marcy told of her realization that her dog, Lady, needed more exercise than a simple walk, and so she began training her to run alongside a bike. “It was early in our attempts to do this and Alicia often came with me, just in case. We were biking down the John Dietrich bike trail and a little poodle came running out of a back yard. I called back to Alicia, ‘Look at the cute Poodle!’ Lady decided it was an invitation and she took off sideways to go and meet the pup. I flew after her sliding along the ground. We stopped when she got to the fence. I was unhurt and the two had a great meeting. I never did say anything to the man gardening, but I’m sure he was incredibly shocked to see a big dog dragging a big girl and her bike into his back yard.”

Whitney Fritzinger
Whitney Fritzinger

Alicia shared an equally funny and embarrassing story. She wasn’t technically training Timber, but just out in the field with him. Because of his “escape artist” nature, she had him on a thirty-foot leash. Marcy and her dog, Lady, were just ahead. Alicia kept hold of Timber’s leash and put her hands into her pockets. Marcy called out, “Come!” to Timber and Alicia didn’t think to let go. Her pants split down the side.

The other two instructors also had their embarrassing moments. Robing recounted the time when she had to work late and so just had time to pick up Maggie and go to class. “After I told the students to potty their dogs, Maggie had an accident. It was totally my fault. I didn’t give her enough time before class.” Whitney shared about having a dog who is a nervous personality and who often “poops when he’s nervous”.

The biggest reason to check out GLOC is that all our trainers are volunteers. We do this for the love of the dogs, and the love of training. Beyond that, we have many trainers who have years of experience. If one trainer doesn’t know the answer, we can bring in another trainer and see what they suggest.—Marcy Graybill

Why GLOC? GLOC is the most economical. It’s also the premier training facility in area. The equipment is clean, safe, and appropriate. One must pass class criteria. If one doesn’t, the instructor might suggest taking the class again. The repetition helps and so can having a different instructor. We strive to give dogs the best training environment. My goal as training director is to promote dog sports and to encourage bonding between the dogs and their owners.—Alicia Graybill

Not every memorable moment is funny or embarrassing. Alicia’s pride showed when talking about taking Timber to a competition in Iowa. “Every dog went one at a time. No dog had a problem until second to the end recall. Nearby was an agility competition. Each time the teeter banged, the dogs in our competition would get spooked and refuse. I didn’t know what Timber would do. He did everything beautiful. The teeter banged. I called, “Come!” Timber came right to me. He was the only dog to qualify and so we got first. Timber could do about anything.”

Final Words

gloc_logoIn 2011, to strengthen my bond with our toy poodle, I enrolled us in a few obedience classes. Although Barnaby was already familiar with basic commands (“Sit,” “Down,” “Come,” and “Stay”) from training at home and from taking agility classes with my husband, he learned to accept those commands specifically from me because of the classes. In addition, we practiced some new commands such as “Heel” and “Leave It”. Barnaby does seem to now views me as equally important in his life as my husband. Barnaby hates to see me leave, waits for me to come home, follows me around the house (especially when Andy is gone) and curls up between Andy and me when we relax or sleep. Overall then, I’ve gained from the obedience classes what I had hoped: Barnaby looks to me for guidance and shares a bond with me. If you have yet to take an obedience class, considered the foundation to all dog training, I encourage you to check into one at GLOC today.

Thanks to the GLOC instructors who graciously took time to answer my questions!

  • Alicia Graybill is GLOC’s current training director. She has been a trainer with GLOC for sixteen years and has taught just about everything, including Obedience, Puppy Manners, Rally Obedience, Novice Ready, Tricks, and Musical Freestyle. For several years, she was a Humane Educator for Capital Humane Society. She’s also fostered for several rescues, and is currently providing foster care to a dog for Domesti-pups.
  • Marcy Graybill has been a trainer with GLOC for nineteen years and has taught just about everything including Basic Obedience, Clicker Obedience, Canine Good Citizen, Novice Ready, Rally Obedience, Reactive Dog Class, Rocket Recalls (seminar), Shy dog (seminar), and Tricks. For several years, she volunteered at the Capital Humane Society and remains willing to help at its special events. Each year, she goes to the GRRIN Goldrush and to offer the Canine Good Citizen test to the people who come to the event.
  • Robin Bonge was GLOC’s corresponding secretary from 2013-2015 and is currently the volunteer coordinator. She’s been a trainer with GLOC for four years and has taught Obedience.
  • Whitney Fritzinger is slated to become GLOC’s training director in 2017. She’s been a trainer with GLOC for 2014 and has taught mostly Obedience. She also volunteers for Nebraska Border Collie Rescue as the intake coordinator and events coordinator.