Scores depend on both speed and accuracy, with handlers using verbal cues and body language to guide the animals.
“You have to memorize. You have to strategize … It’s a delightful challenge,” said Marcia Lyons of Seattle. She reached the finals with her Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, Liberty.
To border collie owners, their success in this event is no surprise.
“They’re very focused, and they love to work and learn new stuff,” said Westminster competitor Jim Koras, who has three border collies.
But dogs that aren’t quite such naturals at the sport “actually teach you the most,” says Koras, of Wethersfield, Connecticut. “You have to learn more about them, and it’s harder to build that teamwork, but it’s really satisfying to do.”
He was at Westminster on Saturday with his first and so far most accomplished agility dog, a husky-border collie mix named Cote.
If there were border collies, Shetland sheepdogs and golden retrievers by the dozens, there were also some far rarer dog s, such as Valur the Saluki.
The leggy, ancient Middle Eastern hounds are fleet but known for independent-mindedness, so owner Christine Klein of Sharon, Vermont, makes sure to “keep it fun.”
As a pug, Niner comes from a breed more associated with snuggling than speed.
But after a bystander spotted her zipping around a dog park some years ago and suggested agility, “we saw how much she liked it,” said one of her owners, Cindy Pichotta of Minneapolis.
Seven-year-old Niner made her Westminster debut Saturday, handled by Pichotta’s partner, Dan Webster.
“People are surprised when they see her,” Pichotta allows. “You don’t expect to see a pug.”