Trials test dogs' agility, builds bonds between pets and owners

A Pug named "Toot" handled by Cyndy Douan jumps through a hoop in the advanced ring of the Lowcountry Dog Agility Club's Spring agility trial at Palmetto Island County Park Saturday.

Holding tight to a leash restraining his Labrador retriever named Spot, Richard Wallace of Spartanburg looked as edgy as his anxious dog.

He pumped nasal spray into his nostrils. Fidgeted with his baseball cap. Gave Spot a doggie treat. Waited and watched.

Finally, it was time.

Wallace entered the ring and tossed Spot's leash aside. Spot sprinted off, clearing the course's first two jumps before zig-zagging through weave poles and climbing a teeter-totter, among other obstacles. "Come on! Come on!" Wallace cheered, running alongside Spot.

The pair was first up in the Grand Prix event during the Lowcountry Dog Agility Club's Spring Agility Trials held this weekend at Palmetto Islands County Park in Mount Pleasant.

The sport provides an opportunity for dogs and their owners or handlers to exercise together while having fun.

For the past decade, the area club has hosted the trials, which are sanctioned by the U.S. Dog Agility Association.

This year, 141 dogs from up and down the East Coast competed on various obstacle courses based on height and skill level.

Sixty dogs competed in the Grand Prix for advanced contenders.

After the event, Wallace was panting harder than Spot.

"Richard, how'd she do?" someone shouted.

"She went off course at the end," Wallace replied, still catching his breath. He put Spot back in her cage and loosed Tick, another one of Wallace's three Labrador retrievers. It was Tick's turn at the obstacle course.

Wallace travels to trials all over the Southeast. He said he easily spends about $1,000 a month in gas, hotel rentals and entry fees. But it's worth it, because competing helps him build a closer relationship with his pets, he said.

"It's just a lot of fun," Wallace, a Wofford College economics professor, said. "I love spending time with my dogs, and they like having a job to do. They really enjoy themselves."

Fifteen-year-old Courtney Holscher of Mount Pleasant said she enjoys competing just as much as her cocker spaniels, Sandy and Grits, like showing their athleticism.

"It's just, like, a rush," she said. "Most of the time you can't stop to think. It's going so fast."

This weekend, Courtney is competing at the master's level, the highest level of the agility trials, with Sandy. The pair has won more than 200 ribbons.

Saturday was Carol Barach's third or fourth trial with her mixed-breed, Clydezilla. The pair from Atlanta competed in the starter's contests.

In one round, Clydezilla decided he'd run his own course. He bypassed the first couple of jumps and headed straight for the rubber tire, leaping through its center before running through a nearby chute. Then, instead of climbing an A-frame structure, he zipped through the course's other tunnel.

He didn't zigzag through all 12 weave poles either.

"Apparently, eight was enough," Barach said, chuckling. "He might not always do them right, but he does what he thinks I want."

Indeed, Wanda Usher of the Lowcountry Dog Agility Club said the dogs feed off of their owners.

"The competitors are very excited. The dogs think they always do well," Usher said.