Out like a flash, 3-year-old border collie mix Luke sprinted through the chute, over the fence, and up and down the seesaw.
Owner Pati Mah has represented the United States in international competition. She’s already excited to see Luke at work.


“He’s a baby. As far as being at this level at 3 years old, that’s considered pretty amazing,” Mah said. “That’s pretty young to be doing this well at that age.”

Dogs of all shapes and sizes are part of the show at the Pals & Paws agility trials, held March 7-9 at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center on the Westside. The competition includes many height and skill classifications, as Jack Russell terriers, Belgian Tervurens, Australian shepherds, and many more negotiate the chutes, fences, tire jumps, and weave poles that make up the course.

Slideshow: Pals & Paws Agility Trials

Pals & Paws is one of more than 100 clubs nationwide affiliated with the United States Dog Agility Association, the sport’s national governing body.

“In USDAA, all dogs get to play. You just have to register your dog,” said Deb Smith of Orlando, with 5-year-old Stunn.

They don’t have to be a specific breed. So it’s really fun and really fair.”
Top performers at the competition earned the right to compete at the USDAA Southeastern Regional, scheduled for June 5-8 in Perry, Ga.

For dogs and their owners, it takes long hours of training to get the right steps to clear every obstacle.

Lynda Orton-Hill, who has represented Canada in world team competition, was competing in Jacksonville for the first time with Favor, her 8-year-old Sheltie. She knows about the extensive training on the flat level before even beginning to train dogs on the obstacles.

“That’s like a couple of months’ worth of work before you ever get to the equipment. Then you start to build layers of equipment and tugging,” she said. “Then we put it all together, and that’s the level you see here.”

Although speed is important, dogs and their owners also have to develop the right technique to hit the mandatory yellow target areas on apparatus like the A-frame and teeter-totter.

Missing the yellow zone or knocking down a fence leads to an automatic penalty.

“Getting them to hit it on the way up and on the way down, especially if they’re fast, is difficult,” Smith said. “You have to really train and reinforce it.”

For those interested in starting out in agility competition, trainers say obedience classes are an important start. After that, nothing can substitute for practice and building routines to mold dog and owner into a harmonious team.

“You’ve got to have a good relationship with your dog,” said Michelle Mauro, who participated with Shelties Tuff, Mojo and Slick. “Spend time with them and do lots of training with them.”

Mah, Luke’s owner, has competed for the American team at the world championships in Switzerland and Denmark. But she knows that even at the highest level, the appeal remains the same.

“While I certainly like to win and I want to be that good, to me, this dog is my constant companion and I’m really just playing with him,” she said.