Parlez-vous agility?

Mary Ann Nester went to Switzerland to find out if the hills were alive with agility dogs. When Veronica Hanmer of the Union Canine de Trelex invited her to give a week-end agility course, she yodelled yes, yes, yes! Although she would have to leave her own dogs  and husband at home, she felt the opportunity to meet agility enthusiasts abroad was too good to be missed. Maybe she would find a dog called 'Maria.'

The Union Canine de Trelex  has about 150 to 200 members and runs classes in  puppy socialisation, obedience and agility. It is one of seven clubs belonging to the Association Suisse de Sports Canins  which has been in existence for about seven or eight years. Located in the Swiss Romande, everyone speaks French.

Parle-tu Français?
I was assured that communication would not be a problem. Most of the Swiss speak at least two languages, one is usually English, and a translator would be available.  Well, I wasn't going to let my high school French go to waste. I didn't mix my rights (droite) and lefts (gauche) too much - at least not anymore than I do in English. I did ask everyone to point at the hurdle with their leg (jambe) when I meant arm (bras). My worst pronunciation effort was the weave command (slalom) which came out of my mouth as the Hebrew greeting 'Shalom.' By the end of the week-end, I could act out the part of a dog or a handler so convincingly that there was no need for speech!

The Venue
The Union Canines de Trelex  train outdoors spring, summer and fall - too much snow in the winter. They could not wish  for more beautiful surrounding. From the training field I could see Mt. Blanc, Lake Geneva and a couple of cows. Car parking is not a problem where there is so much space, but the best place to abandon your car is near the cabin and puppy pen. 

The cabin is the place to go for a mid-morning break of coffee and croissant and it is big enough to cater for dinner parties of twenty or more! It  also provides storage space for equipment. The puppy pen is enclosed by a chain linked fence and is not far off the size of many English training  halls. After puppy classes, it serves as a parking area for dogs whose owners are otherwise occupied eating sandwiches, moving the A-frame or working a second dog.

The Equipment
It was all good quality stuff with a Premier flavour. But not Charlie-proof. Lindsey's  collie, Charlie, managed to knock a wooden pole flying into the air that landed on the ground and split in half. It was quite spectacular and I was very glad not to have been standing nearby. We all know that accidents happen in any sport and try to take appropriate steps to ensure that they are as few as possible. 

To ensure maximum safety for their dogs, the Union Canines de Trelex needed a bulk supply of pegs.  I convinced them that pegging the weave poles to the ground would stop the wobble-effect and allow their dogs to wiggle through them without lifting the frame into the air.

I also suggested pegging down the collapsible tunnel. David's collie, Toby, entered this obstacle at such speed that I thought he was going to turn it inside out. What a difference when the entrance and exit (not too tight, s'il vous plâit - they're not all mini height!) are pegged down. When the chute is pegged, the dog has to run the length of it, even if exiting to the left or right.  It  is worth pegging any obstacle that is likely to move or be lifted off the ground.

The Maxis
The Agilitynet Survey 2000 revealed that the most popular breed for agility in the UK is the Collie. The number of Collies in my Swiss maxi class was equalled or surpassed by the number of Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians and cross breeds.  I suspect many of the Union Canine de Trelex members have chosen Goldies and Dalmatians as pets because two of the club's trainers, Veronica and Lindsey, handle and breed that type of dog. Even I, a mini dog handler, was tempted by the Dalmatians who were great characters and very able agility dogs.

Veronica and Lindsey explained that dogs must be licensed in order to register their progeny with the Kennel Club. They must pass a 'beauty' test (confirmation, colour, etc.) and temperament test. The temperament test includes an assessment of breed characteristics: for example, Golden Retrievers must demonstrate a natural ability to track and retrieve. 

The Minis
The mini dogs included two Border Terriers, a Sheltie, a Staffie and a number of X's. My favourite  was Sonny Boy, a Teckel (working Dachshund) X Papillon.  I have never seen this particular cross anywhere before and was surprised to see such a handsome dog display such high speed and manoeuvrability. The partnership between Sonny Boy and Nadia, his fifteen year old owner, is a joy to behold and I think they could give many in Britain a run for their money!

The people
The Swiss are well-known for their clean living and dour expressions. When I met the members of the Union Canine de Trelex, I confess to being a little bit scared. They looked so serious. Would these people ever smile? By the end of the week-end, I had succeeded in getting everyone to loosen up. I wasn't working a dog so I cheered their successes and it caught on. Learning to shout "Go, go, go, go, go!" was simply a case of following my example. They applauded their team in relay races and shouted "Bravo" when a class mate's dog hit a touch point.  All except Lindsey who had to hang loose. Her Collie needed no encouragement to be enthusiastic around the agility ring. I don't know how much agility everyone learned, but I think they had a good time!

Getting to know you day
Saturday was divided into jumping exercises and weaving and contact work pitched at a Starters/Novice level. All the dogs had some competition experience and their handlers were open to new training ideas and methods.

We had a banquet in the evening at the clubhouse and I gave a presentation on the English agility scene illustrated by slides taken during the Longleat Show. I wanted to give them an idea of the sheer numbers of agility competitors going out each and every week-end to run their dogs and get eliminated. A question and answer session followed focusing on topics such as sponsorship, the classification system, and pre- course nerves. It also gave people the opportunity to ask me personal questions like, 'How old is your Miniature Poodle, Brillo?'  or 'How often do you train your dogs?'

The next day
Sunday, we returned to the agility field for further jumping exercises and contact work - would they handle their contacts as they had described in their homework? 

After a picnic lunch, I briefed them on course-walking; for example, how to detect and avoid traps and how to negotiate start and finishing poles.  We ran a competition to put everything into practice - Minis and Maxis ran over the same course and were placed to third. I was very impressed with everyone's performance, especially sixteen year old Sabrina and Dolly, her Bouvier X.  Dolly looked like an enlarged version of my very first dog, Jip, and I couldn't help but have a soft spot for her. Sabrina's Dolly loves agility and tries to always be in the right. It is very difficult to pilot a dog who is so fast and tries to guess the handler's wishes. Although Dolly did not achieve a clear round this time, when she does, she will be hard to beat. 

Time to Go
It had only taken me the week-end to get into the habit of kissing everyone three times in greeting. Three does seem excessive, but I'm not going to be the one to rail against tradition. I had a wonderful time.

My advice is never pass the up an opportunity to do what you do at home in another country. The problems of a foreign language, customs and Kennel Clubs can all be overcome - especially when your hostess is Veronica Hanmer. A common love of dogs doing what they love best will break down most barriers and widen your personal horizons.

About the author...
Mary Ann Nester
(left) 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 strutted his stuff in the ABC competition (Any Breed but Collie) at Crufts.

Photos: Mary Ann Nester


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