The lights faintly appear through the tops of the pine trees. Sneaking a peek through the brush, there appear to be people running. They periodically stop and start. Just what is going on? In a clearing beyond the trees, there's an athletic field of some sort.
Upon closer inspection, it's clear that it is a practice field. Positioned on a small plot of land in West Ashley between S.C. Highway 61 and Paul Cantrell Boulevard is a field of play ... and all the athletes are dogs.
Four nights a week, dogs and their trainers are put through a regimen that teaches obedience and discipline. The dogs learn rather quickly. Sometimes their human partners need additional instruction.
A dog must be at least 10 months old to receive this training. Canines a little longer in the tooth also are welcome, even though some people believe old dogs and new tricks are not compatible.
Treats and tricks
This particular Tuesday night training session is devoted to beginner dogs. A toy poodle walks by, maybe 10 inches tall. Not far behind is a young Rottweiler that already weighs 60 pounds.
Trainer Erin Queen says the dogs "just want to please." Her own dog, though, a cocker spaniel named Jefferson, needed additional attention and was required to stay after school before he embraced the activity. Now he's a first-class performer.
There are five different skills these dogs are taught: hurdles, see-saw, walking the plank, tunnel and weave poles. Of the five, weaving in and out of poles like a downhill skier is the most unnatural. Yet, if the owner is patient, persistent, understanding and loaded with enough doggie treats, almost every breed can master these skills.
If a dog has a bad run, it's most often the handler's fault, not the dog's.
But who really benefits more, the dog or the owner?
The Lowcountry Dog Agility Club is one of several groups that train dogs and their owners in the sport.
The club is for dogs and people who love them. For many in the club, membership incorporates much more than that. Once the handler and the dog learn these various skills, the next step is competitions, which are called trials.
On Saturday and Sunday, more than 100 dogs are expected to see if they've been barking up the right tree. The club will host a United States Dog Agility Association trial at its West Ashley course, 1987 Ashley River Road.
Spectators and well-behaved dogs are welcome. (They'd prefer the spectators behave as well, I'm thinking.)
The reasons people get involved are as varied as the size and disposition of the dog at the end of the leash.
There's a certain canine camaraderie among this crowd. During competition, it's not about whose dog is better. Everybody cheers for everybody.
The very nature of spending time and exercising with one's dog benefits the owner as well as the pet. It also strengthens the bond.
Are these folks a little canine crazy? Some club members admit their neighbors probably have their doubts. It can certainly command a certain amount of time, money and commitment to train and travel.
In the end, though, these folks love their dogs and some of the best furry, four-footed athletes come from the pound, not a pure-breed dog show.
You might see some of this crowd eating at local restaurants this weekend. They're the ones who insist on asking for doggie bags.
Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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