CT Mixed Breeds To Compete In Westminster's New Agility Event

When the American Kennel Club first began allowing mixed breeds into agility events, Lisa Tibbals welcomed the chance to compete with Sadie, a scruffy female terrier mix rescued from dire straits in Kentucky. But she was miffed by the reaction from some owners of purebreds.

"One woman asked me, 'What is that?'" recalls Tibbals. "I said, 'That is mine, and she is a Kentucky Gull Terrier.' Someone else asked me, 'Is that one of those new designer breeds?'"

There is no such breed as a Kentucky Gull Terrier. But if anyone posed such an impertinent query today, Tibbals could truthfully reply that "she" is a contestant in the inaugural agility event at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, one of the most prestigious canine events on the planet.

Americans love stories of breaking down elite barriers, and Westminster has already scored a public relations bonanza by adding an event open to mixed breeds. From morning television talk shows to The Colbert Report, everyone wants to showcase mutts bound for Westminster.

The 138th Westminster Dog Show, to be held Feb. 10 and 11 at Madison Square Garden in New York, remains an elite purebred province. But during the First Annual Masters Agility Championship at the Piers on Feb. 8, the spotlight will fall for the first time on both mutts and purebreds.

Not that Westminster would avail itself of so common a term as "mutt." The official designation is "All-American," which covers mixed breeds and also breeds not recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC).

Tibbals, who lives in North Haven, has two dogs entered: Sadie, and her White West Highland Terrier, Castle. Dogs will compete in a standard class with A-frames and seesaws and a jumper class with weave poles to determine 50 finalists. Only the finals will be televised.

Thirteen of the 225 dogs entered are from Connecticut. Fifteen of the total are All-Americans. Viewers hoping to see a Connecticut All-American win big can root for Sadie or Pace, an American Farm Collie (unrecognized breed) owned by Mary Champagne, another Guilford resident competing with two dogs. Her second is a rescued Australian Cattle Dog named Bug.

Champagne, who teaches agility, hopes Westminster will emphasize the preparation as well as talent that agility demands. "A dog racing across a dog walk at full speed has to know where all four feet are at all times," she says. "And their bodies have to be properly conditioned just like any other athlete."

At a January agility trial held at Paws 'n' Effect canine training facility in Hamden, trainers extol Sadie's gumption and ability after a clean run. "And she's stinkin' cute, make sure to write that," intones trainer Shoshana Dos.

Simply Irresistible

Tibbals found Sadie five years ago via the Petfinder website, where the dog was estimated to be 2 years old and billed as a Tibetan Terrier mix. "There's definitely some kind of terrier in her," says Tibbals, and likely some Havanese.

Whatever the genetic make-up, when Tibbals saw Sadie's picture, "There was something about her face that just grabbed me."

"I wanted another agility dog," says Tibbals, who already had one "Westie" in the game. "But I promised myself that I wouldn't put any pressure on her. She would have a job. We would find something that she wanted to do."

It soon became clear that what Sadie wanted to do was run fast, jump, weave around poles and scuttle through tunnels. At least, says Tibbals, "she wanted to humor me. She's very game, and she'll try anything that I ask her."

Westminster's elitism has lost some of its luster in recent years, and adding agility, which the AKC had already opened to mixed breeds, is a way to both bolster the show's image and raise new revenue. But fans are thrilled.

Trainers are grateful that Westminster is highlighting the lifelong health and recreational benefits of agility for dogs and humans, and demonstrating that any breed or mixed breed of dog, as long as the dog isn't obese, can do this.

Joanne Anderson, a Westminster spokesperson, says the oldest dog in the agility event is 12 years old, and three Papillons from the same litter are 11 years old. "What does that say to you about exercise?" she asks.

Agility is a team sport, and while anyone with any breed of dog can play, don't ever imagine that all it takes is pointing your dog in the right direction. That would be akin to thinking anyone could pick up a baton and conduct a symphony.

The agility line-up at Paws in January is a kaleidoscope of breeds and mixes: Chihuahua, Picard, Dalmatian and German Shepherd, to name just a very few. Granted, some breeds tend to shine more at agility than others.