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Even old dogs love new tricks on agility course

By jim Published: June 6, 2009

McCook Daily Gazette

MCCOOK, Neb. (AP) — They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but don't tell that to a miniature schnauzer named Hans.

The feisty 10-year-old keeps up with his younger canine companions as he navigates around the equipment at the dog agility course, winding his way over and through obstacles like the weaving poles and jumps.

Hans has been coached for two years by his owner, Greg Gaston, also 10 years old, who with other members of the Driftwood Feeders 4-H Club in McCook train their dogs in agility exercises.

Driftwood Feeders is one of the oldest 4-H clubs in Nebraska, beginning sometime around 1936 and still going strong. Although its members do a number of activities, many also hold state fair championships in dog showmanship and obedience.

No dog is too old or too stubborn to learn the maneuvers, said leader Pam Gaston. In fact, older dogs learn quickly, she added, as they have a longer attention span than younger dogs.

Even hyper, bark-at-anything dogs can be taught the agility course. "It's just a matter of channeling their energy," Gaston said.

Pedigrees don't matter as well. Almost all the dogs of the Driftwood Feeders are those rescued from the McCook Humane Society, including a corgi mix, a German pointer mix and others.

"The best part is that it's a lot of fun for the dogs," said 19-year old Jessica Einsphar, a former member of the club who's been working with her Lab/German shorthair pointer for eight years on agility and obedience, garnering several state fair championships. She shares her experience as a junior leader at Driftwood Feeders, helping out with younger members.

"You can teach dogs so many things," she said. "They learn so quickly and remember things."

There's lots of movement going on during the agility course, as owners communicate with their dogs through their voice or hand signals to show the dogs where they should go and what to do. Because dogs inherently want to please their owners, there are no treats involved — just lots of praise from their masters.

But things don't always come out perfectly every time. In a recent practice session, sometimes the dogs nimbly padded onto the balance beam — and sometimes they chose to bypass it. Some ran through a tunnel at breakneck speed, while others stopped and sniffed the surrounding ground instead.

But there's no doubt the dogs enjoyed the workout, making hairpin turns around the obstacles and waving their tails frantically as they waited for their owners' approval at the end of the course.

"Agility classes are fun and positive-based, rather than obedience-based," Gaston explained. "It doesn't matter how disciplined or undisciplined they are, dogs get excited doing it because it's fun for them."

And fun for the owners, too.

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