Westminster dog show agility contest grows by leaps, bounds

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Masters Agility Championship the Westminster Kennel Club_30467

FILE- In this Feb. 8, 2014, file photo, Elf, a border collie, runs the weave pole at the first Masters Agility Championship the Westminster Kennel Club staged at Pier 94 in New York. This year’s contest on Saturday, Feb. 14, is a recent and fast-expanding addition to the nation’s premiere canine event. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, […]

NEW YORK (AP) – Maggie and Lacey lead a typical work-hard, play-hard lifestyle, putting in 50-plus hours a week in a psychiatrist’s office and devoting another eight or more hours weekly to training and competing in their favorite sport.

Except that Maggie and Lacey are Labrador retrievers, and contestants in Saturday’s agility contest at the Westminster Kennel Club’s celebrated dog show.

“They’re very sensitive, perceptive animals who have a professional decorum in the office” as therapy dogs for mostly child and adolescent patients, says owner and handler Dr. Colleen Copelan, a psychiatrist in Camarillo, California.

Then when they’re on the agility course, she said, “they can let loose the pressure of people’s feelings and just be there for them.”

Some 330 competitors are set to run – and spring, balance, whirl and weave – the layout, a recent and fast-expanding addition to the nation’s premiere canine event. The roster of competitors is up more than 45 percent from Westminster’s first agility contest last year, even though the club made it tougher this year to qualify, requiring hopefuls to have a higher level of agility titles.

“The exhibitors’ feedback we got was incredible,” Westminster agility director Paul Campanella says.

Fans say the sport can help excitable dogs channel their energy into fun, gives other canines a confidence boost and builds a bond between the animals and their owners. Dogs navigate an obstacle course of jumps, tunnels, ramps and other items as quickly and cleanly as they can, while handlers use voice and body signals to guide the animals through a complex route.

“You have to be a team in a bubble,” sending and receiving signals as subtle as a shoulder turn, Copelan explains. “It’s an interspecies communication.”

The competitors span 74 dog breeds and varieties, range from fleet, petite papillons to powerful Doberman pinschers. And 15 of them are no one breed: The agility competition is open to mixed-breed dogs, which allowed them to return last year to Westminster for the first time since the show’s early years in the late 1800s.

It was a coup – and a great time – for Hailey, a Boston terrier-beagle mix set to make another run at the agility championship this year.

Owner Karen Profenna didn’t get involved in dog agility until she got the then-“hyper, hyper, hyper” Hailey as a puppy, and an obedience trainer suggested the sport. Now, at 9, Hailey still has plenty of spunk, but she also has a slate of agility titles and a repertoire of 160 tricks, including skateboarding and dunking a basketball.

“She’s interested in anything that keeps her mind occupied,” Profenna, of New City, New York, said recently as Hailey circled her backward, based on eye signals alone.

Parts of Saturday’s all-day competition will be televised from noon to 2 p.m. Sunday on Fox Sports 1.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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