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Is Agility Really a Sport?

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Here is a truism. What cannot be accomplished by a pocketful of frankfurter and chopped lumps of cheese? Sue Mott was about to find out. There are 6.5 million dogs in this country and most of them, from a Affenpinscher to a Shipperke, can be persuaded to hop over a hurdle for the price of a morsel of sausage. Obviously, do not try it with your St. Bernard. You would need a pound of fillet steak. Anyway, big lumpy dogs are no good at all.

But smaller ones, sheepdogs, poodles, they are the business. This partially explains why I was standing in a puddle of wet sand in a downpour in Hinkley trying to coax a poodle called Coco over a set of fences with only my trusty frankfurter and a few minutes of coaching to help me. Coco looked at me, as both our hairdos became flattened and matted with rainwater, and walked sorrowfully back to her owner. There must be more to it than that. Sure enough, there is.

There are a lot of people - and their dogs - doing Dog Agility.
There are 5,500 registered handlers and 9,200 participating dogs at Kennel Club shows. All of them charging around courses of hurdles, tunnels, A frames, see-saws and knee-high close-together weaving sticks that the dogs slalom through like Chemmy Alcott whipping down a mountain.

It is a craze out there. They are doing it at Crufts as we speak and the final will be televised live on Sunday. Altogether 431 clubs cater for this eclectic taste. Aficionados buy caravans, luxury dog baskets, cases of wine and Winalot and they all go off, animals and humans, every weekend right through the spring and summer to run like maniacs round an obstacle course shouting "back" and "over" and generally reminding Rover of those old frankfurter days. It is the UK's fastest growing dog activity - not counting poop-a-scooping.

As a result, the Kennel Club want recognition for their performers. They do not want to call it an activity any more. They want to call it a sport. Playing Cluedo is an activity. Scratching in front of the television is an activity. It is not enough to be in such unhallowed company. The Kennel Club think Dog Agility has come of age and it is time to be dignified by the grander label 'Sport'.

They don't want money. They don't want Sport England to cough up for better coaches, bigger hurdles or premium sausages. They want to rank alongside golf, tennis and showjumping as sportsmen, women and canines. It is a difficult campaign to deny.

Chief campaigner is Steve Croxford, the team manager of the British Kennel Club World Agility Team. (There is a World Championships and it is in Switzerland this year. Book early.) Britain are the 1995 world champions - and that with borrowed Belgian dogs (three border collies and a Tervuren) because of our quarantine laws.

But is it sport?
Croxford is positive it is. "Like most sports you've got to have a strategy. You've got to guide your dog around the course with verbal and visual commands; you need to have rapport with your dog, very similar to horse riding. Except you can't actually sit on the animal and steer it. You've got to do it from a distance. It requires visual and spatial awareness. Because you've got to watch where you're going, watch the dog and try not to fall over any equipment. And it's against the clock." This is compelling evidence.

If sport is an activity you have to change your shoes for (a recent definition), it qualifies. You need trainers. Walking shoes are no good. The human has to sprint in bursts, anticipate and quell canine rebellion and all but get in the tunnel too. The dog just has to run like hell but, crucially, in the right direction.

There is an audience for this. Not of Barcelona's Nou Camp proportions but certainly of, say, a slow night at the speedway. Many are there for the same reason. The crashes. In the case of agility, nothing is hurt but the dignity of the owner. There is nothing quite so soul-destroying as to rev up your pet for its moment of glory on the start line, fighting the nerves, throbbing with adrenalin, rising to the shrieks from the crowd, only to discover - upon the referee's whistle - that your dog has walked back to the car. Sometimes they lie down with their legs in the air. Dogs, not owners.

Like all the best sports, it has drama and uncertainty built in.

But is it really sport?
If show jumping is, why isn't agility? Both feature man and beast going over jumps. In this case, man is just slightly more detached. It is not in the knees, but the voice. Greyhound racing is sport, and that is just whippets chasing a mechanised ball of fluff.

Obviously, this argument would not exist at all, if the owners could be persuaded to ride their dogs round. But the fate of a Chihuahua in the hands of a buxom lady owner doesn't bear thinking about. And a Great Dane would fall off the see-saw. It is not going to happen. So the fight must go on.

Meanwhile, Coco keeps going in the wrong end of the tunnel. This, apparently, has something to do with my instructions. Shouting 'Oh, over to the left a bit, Coco,' is not readily translatable into dog.

I must say I am not feeling particularly like a sportswoman at this moment, unless it be a swimmer just coming out of the pool, given the volume of rain.

But there is no doubt that dogs trained by Croxford are far more obedient than your average chase-a-stick brigade. They make lovely pets, which is more than you could say about sportsmen.

It would be a hard heart that forbade these nice, if slightly bonkers, people the ascension to sport they so desire. Let them have their sporting status and then brace yourself for their campaign for entry into the 2012 Olympics.

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Telegraph



Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2006