The Swiss are top of the table

There she was again, strapped into her EasyJet seat, eating a crusty roll that scattered crumbs over all her fellow passengers and trying to remember if she had packed her glasses. Veronica Hamner of the Union Canine de Trelex had invited Mary Ann Nester for the second time to the Swiss Romande to give an agility weekend.  She'd had lots of fun there last year and was surprised to be asked to do a repeat visit. After all, they had heard her repertoire of jokes already - in English and French!

It was great to be back! I defy you to find a more scenic training field - Mt. Blanc on one side, Lake Geneva on the other, and loads of cows.

The venue and facilities
Agility training is outdoors and 'le cabin' is not just somewhere to shelter from the rain, but the focus point for socializing. There’s coke in the fridge and wine racked in the cupboard. No wonder everyone is so jolly. Notices of forthcoming events and embarrassing funny photos of members line the walls. There is storage space for agility equipment and an office where instructors can hide when it all gets too much. But this year, the biggest improvement in the club’s site facilities was the installation of a freestanding porta-loo. I was delighted and could drink as much coffee as I wanted with an easy heart!

The next item on the Union Canine de Trelex shopping list should be a couple of sledgehammers. I recoiled in horror as I watched women pegging down the equipment with the back of axes! Didn’t they realize the sharp pointy end was for chopping wood, not each other’s head on the back swing?

What a welcome!
This year, I was asked to train three groups: Minis, Maxis and, new this year, 'les debutantes,' loosely translated as dogs that have not yet made their first appearance on the agility circuit. I thought I would start the day with some agility, but the members of the Union Canine de Trelex had other ideas. They formed a semi-circle around me and stepped forward one by one to introduce themselves and their dogs; each performed a trick – waving a paw, speaking on command, carrying a welcome scroll or touching a hand.

The Minis and Maxis were old friends and the debutantes were a real treat boasting a breed with which I was unfamiliar – the Schapendoes or Dutch Sheep Dog. I fell in love with her and she was the only black and white herding dog on the course! I was very touched by this little introduction ceremony and impressed by so much canine talent. They obviously had great expectations for the weekend and I didn’t want to let them down.

Game plan match
I had thought up some new exercises to further their handling techniques and some agility games that would be fun and test their course running skills. The games were intended to get everyone thinking about how they would plan a course. Would they know the strengths and weaknesses of their dogs? Would they crack under pressure or would they be as cool as a Swiss mountain air? In addition, the games allowed all three groups to participate in some activities together. Watching your friends make the same mistake as you is a good bonding exercise! It also meant that each group could rotate onto the equipment for a half hour stint while the resting group retired to 'le cabin' for coffee and croissant.

The games
On the Saturday morning, the equipment was laid out and while one group did exercises and sequences with me, the 'resting' groups were told to plan a route through the obstacles, negotiating each one once only – a Take Your Own Line.  Everyone ran the course they devised before lunch. Usually when I set a Take Your Own Line challenge, everyone in the class copies everyone else. This Swiss lot really thought about what was most advantageous for their dogs and this in turn produced very individual courses. I couldn’t help but notice how their dogs attacked the weaves. We had spent a great deal of time on this obstacle last year, and it was very gratifying to see dogs weaving on the left or the right at great speed and never missing an entry or exit. Once more, they excelled at choosing courses that collected points and suited their dog’s abilities. Almost everyone got the gamble of three fences and table finish. I was beginning to think that the tasks I was setting were too easy. Frankly, I was having a tough time judging. Numbers scare me and doing mental arithmetic 'en francais' was a nightmare. I got my own back with the final game of the weekend!

I said to no one in particular, 'Finish with a laugh and they’ll invite you back for fondue again next year”.'  I have Dordale Agility Club to thank for making that invite a sure thing. Dordale ran a fun class at their show this year that involved a ridiculous hat, a striped scarf and large pair of gloves. Could you put these on, run your dog and still go clear? Well you could if your dog doesn’t think the scarf is a new pull toy and if you don’t need your hands to point at jumps. Basically, the dog has to keep going no matter what you are doing or where you are. It was a good test for these handlers, and it was lots of fun. Everyone laughed at themselves and each other. I warned that the next level of difficulty involved running in flippers... and they just laughed!

The Swiss & their dogs 
The weekend had proved to me that the Swiss are up for anything. They didn’t balk at the tasks I threw at them, and they courageously sat down to do a twenty-question quiz between the entrée and dessert on the Saturday night. Not a stomach rumbled in complaint or protest. Pens grated on paper to answer questions such as, 'Combien de dents a un chien (How many teeth does a dog have)?'  No one got it right and answers ranged from 22 to 48. The answer, 'Enough to leave a mark if he bites' got a judge’s special. In fact, the Swiss are very generous when it comes to prizes and everyone finished the weekend with loads of goodies. There were 'prix d’encouragement' for les debutantes and top marks in the Gamblers, Take Your Own Line and Fancy Dress won enough chocolate to keep you munching in front of the TV for weeks. Not to appear stingy, I had brought raggies to distribute to
everyone. These were real English souvenirs, made by a very nimble fingered lady in Wellingborough and were an immediate hit.

Time to say good bye
Back to the airport. While I buckled my seat belt and prayed for a smooth ride, I thought about my new friends and their dogs. They certainly had proved to me that they weren’t afraid of having fun. More important, they demonstrated that you could be a skilful handler with a well-trained dog and still have a good time. I wondered if  my husband let me get a Schapendoes? 

For a report of Mary Ann's first training course in Switzerland, see The Hills are Alive with the Sounds of... Dogs.

About the author
Mary Ann Nester
is a member of APDT. Born in the USA, she came to Britain in 1972 as a student. She has pursued a mixed career - fruit picker, gymnastic coach, keep-fit instructor and academic librarian. In 1997 she set up Aslan Enterprises, a dog-training school named after her first agility dog.

Running Aslan, a lurcher dog, at agility competitions got Mary Ann hooked on the sport and Bounty, a German Shepherd Dog, and Tam, the Border Collie were soon added to the household.

Mary Ann's most successful dog to date has been Brillo Pad, a Miniature Poodle who took her to Olympia and Crufts. Brillo also competed in the Draw Challenge on National Lottery Live!, winning Mary Ann the privilege of pushing the button that released the evening's lottery balls in front of millions of television viewers.

Daz, another miniature poodle and most recent addition, was bought for competition in the Mini ring, but grew too tall! He has proved that size doesn't matter. He entertained the crowds at Olympia as one of the 'fun dogs' and has strut his stuff in the ABC competition (Any Breed but Collie) at Crufts.

Mary Ann is a member of the first British Team to compete in the FCI World Championships 2001 in Portugal.

She has recently moved to Northamptonshire and writes regular articles for both The Agility Eye and Agility Voice as well as Agilitynet.

Photos: Mary Ann Nester

Addendum: The Swiss are top of the table

'They demonstrated that you could be a skilful handler with a well-trained dog and still have a good time.'

Lady Elsbeth





Jane and Hubble

Florence & Melody Nadia and Sonny Boy


© Copyright Agilitynet