The Swiss are top of the table
she was again, strapped into her EasyJet seat, eating a crusty roll that scattered crumbs over
all her fellow passengers and trying to remember if she had packed her glasses.
Veronica Hamner of the Union Canine de Trelex had invited Mary Ann Nester for the second
time to the Swiss Romande to give an agility weekend.
She'd had lots of fun there last year and was surprised to be asked to do a repeat
visit. After all, they had heard her repertoire of jokes
already - in English and French!
It was great to be back! I defy you to
find a more scenic training field - Mt. Blanc on one side, Lake Geneva on the other, and loads
venue and facilities
Agility training is outdoors and 'le cabin' is not just somewhere to shelter from the rain, but
the focus point for socializing. There’s coke in the fridge and wine racked in the cupboard. No
wonder everyone is so jolly. Notices of forthcoming events and embarrassing funny photos of
members line the walls. There is storage space for agility equipment and an office where
instructors can hide when it all gets too much. But this year, the biggest improvement in the
club’s site facilities was the installation of a freestanding porta-loo. I was delighted and
could drink as much coffee as I wanted with an easy heart!
The next item on the Union Canine de
Trelex shopping list should be a couple of sledgehammers. I recoiled in horror as I watched
women pegging down the equipment with the back of axes! Didn’t they realize the sharp pointy
end was for chopping wood, not each other’s head on
the back swing?
This year, I was asked to train three groups: Minis, Maxis and, new this year, 'les
debutantes,' loosely translated as dogs that have not yet made their first appearance on the
agility circuit. I thought I would start the day with some agility, but the members of the
Union Canine de Trelex had other ideas. They formed a semi-circle around me and stepped forward
one by one to introduce themselves and their dogs; each performed a trick – waving a paw,
speaking on command, carrying a welcome scroll or touching a hand.
The Minis and Maxis were old friends
and the debutantes were a real treat boasting a breed with which I was unfamiliar – the
Schapendoes or Dutch Sheep Dog. I fell in love with her and she was the only black and white
herding dog on the course! I was very touched by this little introduction ceremony and
impressed by so much canine talent. They obviously had great expectations for the
weekend and I didn’t want to let them down.
I had thought up some new exercises to further their
handling techniques and some agility games that would be fun and test their course running
skills. The games were intended to get everyone thinking about how they would plan a course.
Would they know the strengths and weaknesses of their dogs? Would they crack under pressure or
would they be as cool as a Swiss mountain air? In addition, the games allowed all three groups
to participate in some activities together. Watching your friends make the same mistake as you
is a good bonding exercise! It also meant that each group could rotate onto the equipment for a
half hour stint while the resting group retired to 'le cabin' for coffee and croissant.
On the Saturday morning, the equipment was laid out
and while one group did exercises and sequences with me, the 'resting' groups were told to plan
a route through the obstacles, negotiating each one once only – a Take Your Own Line.
Everyone ran the course they devised before lunch. Usually when I set a Take Your Own Line
challenge, everyone in the class copies everyone else. This Swiss lot really thought about what
was most advantageous for their dogs and this in turn produced very individual courses. I
couldn’t help but notice how their dogs attacked the weaves. We had spent a great deal of time
on this obstacle last year, and it was very gratifying to see dogs weaving on the left or the
right at great speed and never missing an entry or exit. Once more, they excelled at choosing
courses that collected points and suited their dog’s abilities. Almost everyone got the gamble
of three fences and table finish. I was beginning to think that the tasks I was setting were
too easy. Frankly, I was having a tough time judging. Numbers scare me and doing mental
arithmetic 'en francais' was a nightmare. I got my own back with the final game of the weekend!
said to no one in particular, 'Finish with a laugh and they’ll invite you back for fondue again
next year”.' I have Dordale Agility Club to thank for making that invite a sure thing.
Dordale ran a fun class at their show this year that involved a ridiculous hat, a striped scarf
and large pair of gloves. Could you put these on, run your dog and still go clear? Well you
could if your dog doesn’t think the scarf is a new pull toy and if you don’t need your hands to
point at jumps. Basically, the dog has to keep going no matter what you are doing or where you
are. It was a good test for these handlers, and it was lots of fun. Everyone laughed at
themselves and each other. I warned that the next level of difficulty involved running in
flippers... and they just laughed!
Swiss & their dogs
The weekend had proved to me that the Swiss are up for anything. They didn’t balk at the tasks
I threw at them, and they courageously sat down to do a twenty-question quiz between the entrée
and dessert on the Saturday night. Not a stomach rumbled in complaint or protest. Pens grated
on paper to answer questions such as, 'Combien de dents a un chien (How many teeth does a dog
have)?' No one got it right and answers ranged from 22 to 48. The answer, 'Enough to
leave a mark if he bites' got a judge’s special. In fact, the Swiss are very generous when it
comes to prizes and everyone finished the weekend with loads of goodies. There were 'prix
d’encouragement' for les debutantes and top marks in the Gamblers, Take Your Own Line and Fancy
Dress won enough chocolate to keep you munching in front of the TV for weeks. Not to appear
stingy, I had brought raggies to distribute to
These were real English souvenirs, made by a very nimble fingered lady in Wellingborough and
were an immediate hit.
Time to say
Back to the airport. While I buckled my seat belt and
prayed for a smooth ride, I thought about my new friends and their dogs. They certainly had
proved to me that they weren’t afraid of having fun. More important, they demonstrated that you
could be a skilful handler with a well-trained dog and still have a good time. I wondered if
my husband let me get a Schapendoes?
Mary Ann Nester
is a member of APDT. Born in the USA, she came to Britain in 1972 as a student. She has pursued
a mixed career - fruit picker, gymnastic coach, keep-fit instructor and academic librarian. In
1997 she set up Aslan Enterprises, a dog-training school named after her first agility dog.
Running Aslan, a lurcher dog, at agility
competitions got Mary Ann hooked on the sport and Bounty, a German Shepherd Dog, and Tam, the
Border Collie were soon added to the household.
Mary Ann's most successful dog to date has been Brillo
Pad, a Miniature Poodle who took her to Olympia and Crufts. Brillo also competed in the Draw
Challenge on National Lottery Live!, winning Mary Ann the privilege of pushing the button that
released the evening's lottery balls in front of millions of television viewers.
Daz, another miniature poodle and most recent addition,
was bought for competition in the Mini ring, but grew too tall! He has proved that size doesn't
matter. He entertained the crowds at Olympia as one of the 'fun dogs' and has strut his stuff
in the ABC competition (Any Breed but Collie) at Crufts.
Mary Ann is a member of the first British Team to compete
in the FCI World Championships 2001 in Portugal.
She has recently moved to Northamptonshire and writes
regular articles for both The Agility Eye and Agility Voice as well as
Photos: Mary Ann Nester
Addendum: The Swiss are top of the table
'They demonstrated that you could be a
skilful handler with a well-trained dog and still have a good time.'
Jane and Hubble
Florence & Melody
Nadia and Sonny Boy