On course: Local dog agility titleholder shows what it takes to be a champion
DESERT HILLS – At nearly 10 years old, Australian Shepherd Lola hasn’t slowed down a bit. Lola is a dog agility champion known for her speed and grace in the ring.
Lola’s owner, Desert Hills resident Mary Christner, has had dogs in agility courses since 2001. Christner called Lola “one in a million,” both as an agility champion and as an all-around affectionate, intelligent dog.
“It’s a partnership – we’re a team,” Christner said, referring to agility training. “It all stems from love.” Christner described agility trainers as coming from all different walks of life but all sharing the goal of having fun with their dogs and enjoying the sport.
“We love our dogs, and we’re out there to play and have fun,” Christner said.
Christner competes with both her dogs, Lola and JJ (short for Jumping Jewel).
Lola’s greatest ability is her speed in the ring.
“Her speed is magnificent for her age,” Christner said. “She’s extremely efficient. She can jump and do her obstacles by cutting corners. She makes every move count.”
Christner explained that in agility, dogs work for titles; titles add up to a champion designation. Lola is a champion in three different venues and recently won two gold medals in a Colorado championship. No money is attached to the champion title; it’s all for the love of the sport.
While JJ isn’t the performer Lola is – Christner describes her as the type of dog that enjoys playing with children more than working in the ring – JJ shares Lola’s loving disposition and eagerness to please. Christner enjoys competing, as do her dogs, but first and foremost, JJ and Lola are beloved members of the family that share their sweet dispositions everywhere they go.
Christner related the story of when JJ met a little girl with physical disabilities. The little girl’s parents asked if JJ and Lola could meet their daughter, since she loves dogs. While JJ knows better than to jump on anyone, somehow she knew that this little girl would need JJ to reach out to her since she couldn’t pet JJ due to her physical condition.
“JJ put a paw on each of her shoulders and very gently kissed her,” Christner said. JJ’s gentle expression of affection touched every onlooker.
“JJ is never a champion in the agility ring – she’s a champion in my heart!” Christner said.
Christner is careful never to overwork either of her dogs; she’s a firm believer in not over-training the dogs.
“You don’t want it to become a job for them,” Christner explained. “It should be fun.”
Christner observed a dog agility demonstration at WestWorld years ago and was immediately interested in the sport. For those who are interested in training their dogs for agility courses, Christner recommends finding a local trainer and starting the dog as young as possible, as well as talking to trainers at agility trials to get a feel for the sport.
“Start in a puppy class and teach the basics,” Christner said. “Go to a venue where there's not a lot of pressure to start with. Train in the ring to get a comfortable venue to start with.”
Christner recommends Dogs on Course in North America (DOCNA) as an ideal venue. DOCNA allows training in the ring and is a more low-pressure venue for dogs that are learning.
Dog agility training offers opportunities for all dogs. Agility focuses on the dog’s personality and drive, not on the dog’s breed, size, or looks. Christner’s dogs are fixed, which she notes allows them to be more comfortable and relaxed, in training and in general.
For those who are buying a puppy and planning to do agility training, Christner recommends “picking the parent well,” looking for active, happy parents with a desire to please. Christner noted that rescue dogs can also be excellent in agility.
“Rescuing is wonderful, and we’ve had a lot of rescue dogs do fabulous in agility,” Christner said. “There are many dogs out there that can do this.”
“They’re all different,” Christner said, reiterating that any dog can respond well to agility training. “I know a gal who had the number one Shih Tzu in the country. That dog was so fast, so responsive, and just loved her handler so much she’d do anything for her.”
Agility training offers opportunities for kids, too. There’s no age minimum for handlers, and junior handlers are encouraged in the ring.
“I love to promote the junior handlers,” Christner said, adding that she enjoys watching the “loving communication between the dog and the young handler. I’ve seen kids just blossom showing their dog.”
For Christner, the best part of the dog agility competitions isn’t the ribbons or the titles – it’s the partnership she shares with her dogs as they work together. She always makes sure to thank her dogs after a competition and let them know what a good job they did.
“I always thank her,” Christner said. “I tell her, ‘Thank you, Lola, that was perfect.’”
Learn more about dog agility training at www.docna.com.