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Times flies when you're enjoying yourself

We are all getting older - agility, too. Mary Ann Nester admits to no longer being the athletic young girl who ran a twig-thin lurcher round the agility ring, but a little old lady pursued by a pack of miniature poodles in the car park. Things are changing with each passing year and just like the grey hairs she keep finding, each of her visits to Crufts reveals a new development in our sport.

The first time I saw agility was at Earlís Court and I can remember watching a dog called Freddie the Dreamer in the Thames team. I thought that even I could run a dog better than that! Agility is changing. This year I watched Toni Dawkins run her merle collie, Kite, and wished that I could handle a dog as well as she does!

When I started taking an interest in agility, the only event staged at Crufts was the Kennel Club standard dog team finals. I believed that you had to have a big dog to compete in agility (and it had better be a collie). Things have changed. The Kennel Club now holds Championship agility classes for individual dogs for both standard and mini dogs and, hopefully, we will see Midi dogs represented soon. And it is not only the Kennel Club events that are expanding and are growing. You can watch 'rescue dog' agility with teams from Wood Green Animal Centre, the Blue Cross, Battersea and others. There are agility displays by different breed societies and the Pedigree ABC competition makes sure the non-collies get a look in. 

Thank goodness
As a Mini dog handler, I have included Eukanuba in my prayers every night. Without their sponsorship, Crufts would have been a big dog only club. With them, the minis are at Crufts from beginning to end but it wasnít always like that. Agility has become a sport that is open to all dogs - large or small, pedigree or mutt - and those are the dogs I saw competing at Crufts this year.

Once, only British dogs competed at Crufts, but agility is global and, thanks to Pets Passports, Crufts now holds international events in breed, obedience and agility. When I looked down on the agility ring at Earls Court the very last thing I would have expected to see would have been a handler and her collie from the United States. Why did I bother to move to England? I could have stayed at home and trained my dogs without crossing Atlantic. Thank goodness the representative from the USA didnít win this year because I no longer remember any of the words to the national anthem. I wonder how many countries will be competing at Crufts next year?

The next generation
Itís nice to see new faces at Crufts whether they are from abroad or down the road. I remember seeing a little boy with big glasses running a Golden Retriever at Crufts in a Young Kennel Club event long before I had even attended my first training class. It never occurred to me that I would one day compete at Crufts against this ladís mother, the legendary Carol Hughes and Chockie.

And just to make sure I am aware that time is flying, this year I had to cheer little Grace Rump, daughter of Sarah and Keith Rump who ran the infamous Language Timothy, the fastest Jack Russell in agility history. Why did I always have to be drawn against him in the Knock Outs? Those were the days. Next, Iíll be clapping my agility friendsí great grandchildren. Am I alone in wishing there was a veteran class for old farts like myself?

Go Poo-dells!
The Eukanuba Mini Knock-Out is my favourite Crufts Final. If there is a poodle on start line, my shouts of encouragement can be heard in Wales. Two poodles on the line and my screams can split icebergs in the Artic.

This yearís course was exceptional asking the dogs for speed AND control. Who would have thought it would be so difficult to run a circle? No wonder Ian Watts and his Staffordshire Bull Terrier Crossguns Thong Song - say that five times fast - took home crystal. Not a poodle, but definitely a handler who loves his dog and who has worked hard to arrive.

But what is most reassuring to myself as a handler is that I see people making the same mistakes on the course year after year. Itís nerves. The astro-turf carpet has made things easier for the dogs, and the judges take care to design spectacular but handler-friendly courses. Itís the thrill of being at Crufts that turns a conscientious handler into a bag of jellybeans. Contacts are missed and poles are knocked. The ante is upped. Some competitors can take the pressure; others loose the plot and crumble. You think itís all over after one round? Youíve two more to go in the Championship classes and Eukanuba Mini Challenge.

My congratulations to Priscilla Barratt and Gem for winning the Challenge and keeping their cool. Well done to Lisa Bailey and Peg and Simon Peachy and Diesel for winning the Championship Finals. You showed you can deliver the goodies under pressure.

Miss it? No way!
Watching performances by great handlers such as these keeps me coming back to Crufts year after year. Yes, the car park is a nightmare. Yes, there is always a queue for the toilets. And the crowds are thicker than ever. Every year I think Iíll give Crufts a miss, but end up spending at least one out of four days there.

I donít know what next year or the year after that will be like. I anticipate a bigger international class and Iím hoping that it will include minis and midis. How the new height regulations will affect Crufts finals is open to speculation. Will there be a Medium Dog Championship class? Will the Smalls be thrown out with the dish water? Iíll be a little older, but I will just have to wait till 2006!

About the author...
Mary Ann Nester
came to England from New York in the early 1970ís and never went home. In 1997 she set up Aslan Dog Training, a dog training school named after her first agility dog, a lurcher. She offers classes in obedience and agility in Northampton and has conducted training days and workshops throughout Britain and Switzerland.

Her credentials are impressive. She is an Agility Club Approved Instructor and an experienced competitor and judge. Her dogs have competed as finalists at Crufts from 1997 to 2002 and have been members of the teams representing Great Britain at the World Agility Championships in Portugal 2001, Germany 2002 and France 2003.

Mary Ann shares her knowledge of dogs as the guest 'expert' on BBC Radio Northampton answering listenersí queries and is a regular contributor to the agility magazines Agility Voice and Agility Eye.

When not chasing her own dogs round an agility course, Mary Ann is a part-time receptionist at a local veterinary practice.


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