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A Roll in the Grass
"Bo," at AKC National Agility Trial

Say “dog show” and most people picture Breed Conformation shows, where handlers in suits and sensible shoes present pure-bred, well-groomed dogs to a judge for the honor of best specimen of their breed.

But say “dog trial” and many people draw a blank. Yet on any given weekend, under cover of early morning fog, mini-vans with bumper stickers like “In Dog I Trust” quietly slip out of cul-de-sacs everywhere to partake in various dog sport trials. These addicts often drive for hours for a chance to compete in Obedience, Agility, Fly Ball, Tracking or another dog sport of choice.

On a typical Saturday morning, a canine obstacle course is erected in a park in Dixon, California for an all-day Agility trial. A judge from Arizona carefully watches a manic, barking Australian Shepherd whirling through the course. The dog’s spandex-clad handler chirps out directions and quick praise as the Aussie leaps and shimmies through the correct sequence of jumps, tunnels and weave poles. At the finish line, sideline supporters give a rowdy hurray. The dog leaps into the elated owner’s arms, ready for victory play—and liver bits.

On the same morning, a park fifty miles away becomes an Obedience Trial site. A woman in a polka-dotted sweatshirt releases her young Dalmation from a “sit stay” across the ring by firmly calling “Max, come!” She holds her breath in anticipation until the dog comes. He correctly sits squarely in front of her, awaiting the “finish” command. So far so good, but she doesn’t want to jinx a qualifying score by relaxing until the last test is done. If they succeed, the dog can add a CD (Companion Dog) title to the end of his name and start trying more difficult tests.

In other venues on this and other days, pairs train and compete in tracking scents, pulling carts, finding rats in tunnels and more. Few competitors actually need dogs to perform the work that these activities mimic, but the human-canine partnership that results is deeply satisfying. Each partner develops trust, respect and risk-taking skills. At least one partner—often the one with four legs—keeps a healthy perspective on competition and often re-defines success.

Jigs, a golden-eyed border collie, is at an Obedience trial with his owner, Sharon Freilich of Martinez, California. It’s time for the “Long Sit” portion of the test. Entering the ring, Jig’s white paws and Sharon’s trail running shoes swish in lock step through the damp grass, which is extra long and sweet from recent rains. His keen eyes and erect ears freeze on Sharon as she unclips his leash.

“Jigs, sit,” she calmly commands. Jigs pops his bottom down and waits for the next command. Perfect.

“Jigs, stay.” As Sharon steps away she holds his gaze, but sees his nostrils flare.

Her eyes flash “Don’t even think about it,” but it’s too late. The intoxicating sweet grass has overwhelmed Jigs. Down he goes, face first into the grass, rubbing its sweetness onto his snout, then neck. Now fully inebriated he flounces down, belly up and starts high-speed wriggling to work as many good grass smells as possible into his black and white coat before he gets busted. The judge excuses Sharon and Jigs from the ring.

“Oh man, was he in heaven,” Sharon chuckles as she tells the story to another dog sport addict. Both are keen competitors with highly-accomplished canines, but they know that a sense of humor comes in handy when working with dogs. And if the canine partner decides that success for that day means a blissful roll in the grass, who is to say that is wrong?

Kate Marshall is an admitted Agility addict; her border collie "Bo" is by far the better half of the team. Sharon Freilich, owner of the above grass-roller, is her agility instructor. Kate was raised by a Herding addict and is now married with two children. Kate is a co-author of WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU, THE BOOK OF US, WORDS TO LIVE BY and THE BOOK OF MY PET.