Dashing dogs: Agility races gaining popularity

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Dashing dogs: Agility races gaining popularity
In this image provided by the Purina, Prino, a four year old Papillon, competes in the small dog agility event of the third annual Purina Incredible Dog Challenge in Del Mar, Calif. on Saturday, June 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Purina, Gus Ruelas)
** ADVANCE FOR MONDAY JULY 25 ** Evan Taylor's 3-year-old Border Collie-mix, Duncan, keeps an eye on his master as he leaps over a jump June 30, 2005, at Tail Race Training Center and Kennel near Pleasant Ridge, Ky. Taylor and his dog have completed an advanced agility training class from Debbie Pinthus, a canine training specialist and owner of Tail Race Training Center and Kennel. (AP Photo/Messenger-Inquirer, Gary Emord-Netzley, )
In this image provided by the Purina, Nani, a Bernese Mountain Dog, bails off her board during the third annual Purina Incredible Dog Challenge's surfing competition in San Diego, Calif. on Friday, June 10, 2011. This premier canine sporting event features dogs competing in a variety of events including dog surfing, dog diving, freestyle flying disc, head-to-head weave poles, Jack Russell hurdle racing and agility. (AP Photo/Purina, Gus Ruelas)
In this image provided by the Purina, Arden Moore, of Oceanside, Calif., celebrates her dog Cleo's, an eight year old mix, performance in the third annual Purina Incredible Dog Challenge's surfing competition in San Diego, Calif. on Friday, June 10, 2011. This premier canine sporting event features dogs competing in a variety of events including dog surfing, dog diving, freestyle flying disc, head-to-head weave poles, Jack Russell hurdle racing and agility. (AP Photo/Purina, Gus Ruelas)
In this image provided by the Purina, Owner Jeremy Duenas of Yorba Linda, looks on as Deagen, a 5 year old French Bull dog, competes during the third annual Purina Incredible Dog Challenge's surfing competition in San Diego, Calif. on Friday, June 10, 2011. This premier canine sporting event features dogs competing in a variety of events including dog surfing, dog diving, freestyle flying disc, head-to-head weave poles, Jack Russell hurdle racing and agility. (AP Photo/Purina, Gus Ruelas)
In this image provided by the Purina, Ricochet, a five year old Golden Retriever, participates in the third annual Purina Incredible Dog Challenge's surfing competition in San Diego, Calif. on Friday, June 10, 2011. This premier canine sporting event features dogs competing in a variety of events including dog surfing, dog diving, freestyle flying disc, head-to-head weave poles, Jack Russell hurdle racing and agility. (AP Photo/Purina, Gus Ruelas)
In this image provided by the Purina, Nani, a Bernese Mountain Dog, looks on during the third annual Purina Incredible Dog Challenge's surfing competition in San Diego, Calif. on Friday, June 10, 2011. This premier canine sporting event features dogs competing in a variety of events including dog surfing, dog diving, freestyle flying disc, head-to-head weave poles, Jack Russell hurdle racing and agility. (AP Photo/Purina, Gus Ruelas)
In this image provided by the Purina, professional surfer Taylor Knox and Zoey, a seven year old Jack Russell Terrier, put on an exhibition during the third annual Purina Incredible Dog Challenge's surfing competition in San Diego, Calif. on Friday, June 10, 2011. This premier canine sporting event features dogs competing in a variety of events including dog surfing, dog diving, freestyle flying disc, head-to-head weave poles, Jack Russell hurdle racing and agility. (AP Photo/Purina, Gus Ruelas)
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 20: A dog during the slalom race at the Agility Competition as part of the second edition of 'Virada Esportiva' at Parque do Carmo on September 20, 2009 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Adhil Rangel/LatinContent/Getty Images)
ST. PETERSBURG, FL - FEBRUARY 7: Pati Mah's Corgi named Alley Cat navigates the agility course during the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge February 7, 2003 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Canines of different breeds competed in events such as the Frisbee toss, obstacle course and swim race in the Eastern Regional Finals. (Photo by Chris Livingston/ Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 24: A dog weaves through poles during the dog agility competition at the Purina Dog Chow Incredible Dog Challenge August 24, 2002 in San Francisco, California. The event has competitions for all sized dogs ranging from agility to racing. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 24: A dog runs out of a chute during the dog agility competition at the Purina Dog Chow Incredible Dog Challenge August 24, 2002 in San Francisco, California. The event has competitions for all sized dogs ranging from agility to racing. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 24: A dog dives into a pool to retrieve a ball during a diving competition at the Purina Dog Chow Incredible Dog Challenge August 24, 2002 in San Francisco, California. The event has competitions for all sized dogs ranging from agility to racing. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 24: A group of Jack Russell terriers leap over a hurdle at the Purina Dog Chow Incredible Dog Challenge August 24, 2002 in San Francisco, California. The event has competitions for all sized dogs ranging from agility to racing. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Stryker, an Australian shepherd, leaps over the back of owner Lourdes Edlin, of Miami, during the Ashley Whippett Invitational at the USDAA World Cynosport Games Saturday, Nov. 12, 2005, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Roy Dabner)
Andrea Yankovsky of La Jolla, Calif., tosses her dog Haley's favorite toy, as they compete in the Dock Dogs competition, of the USDAA World Cynosport Games, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2005, in Scottsdale, Ariz.(AP Photo/Roy Dabner)
Spring, a Shetland Sheepdog, exits the tunnel obstacle during the Masters Agility Championship the Westminster Kennel Club staged at Pier 94, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in New York. The competition marks the first time mixed-breed dogs have appeared at Westminster since early in the show's 138 years. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Henry, a French Bulldog, scales the A-frame obstacle during the Masters Agility Championship the Westminster Kennel Club staged at Pier 94, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in New York. The competition marks the first time mixed-breed dogs have appeared at Westminster since early in the show's 138 years. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Tommy the Poodle runs the weave poles during the Masters Agility Championship at Westminster staged at Pier 94, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in New York. The first annual agility championship is part of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Rapture, a border collie, clears the tire obstacle during the Masters Agility Championship at Westminster staged at Pier 94, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in New York. The competition marks the first time mixed-breed dogs have appeared at Westminster. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2014, file photo, Alfie, a poodle mix, approaches a hurdle as he demonstrates his mastery of an agility test during a news conference in New York. For the first time ever, the Westminster Dog Show will include an agility competition, open to mixed breeds as well as purebred dogs. “I’m representing everybody who just sits on their couch with their dog,” said Alfie's owner Irene Palmerini, of Toms River, N.J. “He’s just our pet.” (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Fran, with partly-dyed hair in the colors of the Spanish flag, prepares to take part in the World Dog Agility Championships being held in Johannesburg over the weekend, starting Friday, Oct. 11, 2013. The international event is being held in South Africa, and outside Europe, for the first time. Dogs in categories, Large, medium and small compete for the best times in obstacle courses to show their intelligence and agility after extensive training by their owners. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)
Alicia Nicholas, from Peoria, Arizona, USA, reacts with her dog, Ho, during the opening ceremony of the World Dog Agility Championships being held in Johannesburg over the weekend starting Friday, Oct. 11, 2013. The international event is being held in South Africa, and outside Europe, for the first time. Dogs in categories, large, medium and small compete for the best times in obstacle courses to show their intelligence and agility after extensive training by their owners. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: A dog jumps over a fence in the Rescue Dog Agility show in the main arena on the first day of Crufts dog show at the NEC on March 6, 2014 in Birmingham, England. Said to be the largest show of its kind in the world, the annual four-day event, features thousands of dogs, with competitors travelling from countries across the globe to take part. Crufts, which was first held in 1891 and sees thousands of dogs vie for the coveted title of 'Best in Show'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: A Border Collie jumps over a fence in the Rescue Dog Agility show in the main arena on the first day of Crufts dog show at the NEC on March 6, 2014 in Birmingham, England. Said to be the largest show of its kind in the world, the annual four-day event, features thousands of dogs, with competitors travelling from countries across the globe to take part. Crufts, which was first held in 1891 and sees thousands of dogs vie for the coveted title of 'Best in Show'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: A small dog jumps over a fence in the Rescue Dog Agility show in the main arena on the first day of Crufts dog show at the NEC on March 6, 2014 in Birmingham, England. Said to be the largest show of its kind in the world, the annual four-day event, features thousands of dogs, with competitors travelling from countries across the globe to take part. Crufts, which was first held in 1891 and sees thousands of dogs vie for the coveted title of 'Best in Show'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: A small dog jumps over a fence in the Rescue Dog Agility show in the main arena on the first day of Crufts dog show at the NEC on March 6, 2014 in Birmingham, England. Said to be the largest show of its kind in the world, the annual four-day event, features thousands of dogs, with competitors travelling from countries across the globe to take part. Crufts, which was first held in 1891 and sees thousands of dogs vie for the coveted title of 'Best in Show'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A Poodle in the Agility Ring during the first-ever Masters Agility Championship on February 7, 2014 in New York at the 138th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Dogs entered in the agility trial will be on hand to demonstrate skills required to negotiate some of the challenging obstacles that they will need to negotiate. AFP PHOTO/Timothy Clary (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 06: Fame, 3, a Papillon, jumps throuh a hoop while demonstrating skills for the upcoming agility competition as part of the Westminster Dog Show on February 6, 2014 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. This is the first year for the Masters Agility Championship at Westminster to be held this Saturday at Pier 94 in New York, ahead of the big event - the 138th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 26: A collie performs during an agility show at the 'Spring International Dogs' exhibition in Ifema on May 26, 2013 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
A poodle jumps over a hurdle during the so-called 'Agility World Championship 2010' on October 1, 2010 in Rieden, southern Germany. Around 400 dogs and their owners from more than 30 countries will take part in the competition running until October 3, 2010. Agility is a dog sport, in which owners have to direct their animals through an obstacle course. AFP PHOTO ARMIN WEIGEL GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read ARMIN WEIGEL/AFP/Getty Images)
A dog competes in the 'Flyball' event at the World Dog Games in Sydney on November 1, 2009. The games feature four dog sports, Flyball, Agility, Canine Disc and Diving Dogs and apart from their visual appeal they demonstrate the special bond the dogs share with their handlers and owners. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Canine 'Jake' dives into the water during the DockDogs event at the World Dog Games in Sydney on November 1, 2009. The games feature four dog sports, Flyball, Agility, Canine Disc and Diving Dogs and apart from their visual appeal they demonstrate the special bond the dogs share with their handlers and owners. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
A dog competes in the 'Flyball' event at the World Dog Games in Sydney on November 1, 2009. The games feature four dog sports, Flyball, Agility, Canine Disc and Diving Dogs and apart from their visual appeal they demonstrate the special bond the dogs share with their handlers and owners. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 31: A Border Collie competes in the Agility event during The World Dog Games at Acer Arena on October 31, 2009 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
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By Sue Manning

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Shih Tzu is a whirl of fur on a course studded with obstacles, flying through tunnels, leaping over bars, scrambling up bridges and zigzagging through poles as its owner tears alongside, calling out commands and flashing hand signals. At the finish line, there are hugs, treats and lots of slobber.

Linda Harper of San Diego and her Shih Tzu named Fame spend every weekend on the road competing in agility races, the fastest growing dog sport in the United States that is most popular with older pet owners. Harper, 67, says the whirlwind contests help her and her dogs stay young and fit.

Harper has eight minutes to memorize the 18 to 20 obstacles before the clock starts ticking. That's far longer than Fame gets to scramble through it - the standard time for a dog to finish a course is 50 seconds.

This isn't a walk in the park - it's a heart-pounding, high-flying sprint. Owners must guide their dogs through the obstacles in a particular order, and do it as quick as they can. There are penalties if a dog walks on top of a tunnel, enters the wrong end first or knocks down a bar.

Veterinarians say the exercise and camaraderie are beneficial for dogs, and the more popular the sport, the safer the equipment. The newest gear is lightweight, breaks away if a dog hits it and has no sharp corners. And pooches are never asked to jump higher than their legs will allow.

"Any dog that enjoys exercise and working with their owner can excel. If the dog seems to enjoy the sport and the owner is having fun, it is a good thing," said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

When handlers describe the joys of agility, they talk about the euphoria of a perfect run, being in sync with their dogs, making friends at competitions and getting to travel.

Gayle Lape, 71, of Catonsville, Maryland, called competing with her Pembroke corgis, Phoenix and Ruddy, "a passion, an obsession." She says she's "so happy I am still able to do this. I am enjoying the ride and the run."

As Lape and her dogs have aged, they have changed the way they work. She sometimes teaches her dogs to ignore her while she takes shortcuts.

The American Kennel Club surveyed competitors last year, and 50 percent said they were over 51 years old. Of those, about 20 percent said they were over 60. To attract young people to the sport, entry fees are sometimes waived for handlers under 18.

The club is the largest of nine U.S. groups sponsoring agility trials. Purina Pro Plan's Incredible Dog Challenge televises many of events and helps introduce newcomers to the sport.

The number of agility participants has grown every year since it was adopted by the American Kennel Club in 1994, and it's up 48 percent in the last five years, said Carrie DeYoung, the club's director of agility. To a lesser extent, there has been growth in other dog sports, too, including dock diving, where dogs jump for height or distance into water; Frisbee, both distance and freestyle catching; and herding.

Lape and Harper enjoy winning but say their dogs only care about pleasing them.

"It is very unlikely that they (dogs) care about winning," said Beaver, the veterinarian. "Owners may think they are working harder in competition, but it is actually the owner who is working harder and the dog is responding to the owner's cues."

Despite the thrill of a win, no one gets into agility for money, DeYoung said. Even in major contests, top prizes rarely exceed $1,000, she said.

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