PASADENA, Md. (AP) — A miniature Australian shepherd dashes down a long yellow tunnel, up and down a steep plank and through a plastic tire swing, his owner cheering him on the whole time.
It's just a typical practice session at the Pawzazz dog agility team headquarters in Pasadena, where canines of all shapes and sizes, colors and breeds learn to navigate a maze of obstacles in preparation for competitions.
The team is part of the Kinder Pup obedience school started by Terry Wright and Debbie Hutchinson in 1988. Hutchinson, the main agility instructor, said dog owners usually bring their pets in for obedience training, see the dogs leaping through the obstacles and are intrigued.
"They get addicted," Wright said.
Twenty-seven dogs — and their masters — on Pawzazz trained most of September for the 2009 North American Dog Agility Council championships in Shelbyville, Tenn. Dogs from all over the continent competed Sept. 23-27 as judges score them in categories including speed and accuracy.
Cody, the Australian shepherd, is deaf, making his fancy paw work all the more impressive, said his owner, Leanne Lohmeyer of Kent Island.
He's the first deaf canine to go through agility training at Kinder Pup, and he has exceeded all expectations.
Lohmeyer, who also has a cockapoo in Pawzazz, boasts that Cody has won at least 40 titles at agility competitions and has made it to the "elite" category, the highest ranking in the sport. Most of the canines in Pawzazz are elites, Wright said.
"As long as he's looking at me the whole time, he can do it," Lohmeyer said.
Hutchinson and Wright have trained him just the same as all the other dogs.
"We never made excuses. We just figured out different ways to do (the obstacles)," Lohmeyer said.
A typical course includes about eight different obstacles, each testing different forms of agility. There are seesaws, tunnels, planks, hoops and the weave poles, a line of skinny metal poles that the dogs dart in and out of as they run through the course.
Hutchinson said there's no one way to train a dog in agility, though most canines can master the skills in eight to 12 weeks.
"Each dog that comes here is an individual, and there's no cookie-cutter model that says this is the way it has to be done," she said.
Lisa Krizan of Odenton has brought seven dogs to Kinder Pup over the last 19 years.
"I like seeing the light bulb go off in the dog's mind when they learn something new," Krizan said. "And there's so much wisdom from Terry and Debbie about how dogs behave."
Wright has more than 40 years of experience with obedience training. She got into the field after she adopted an abused dog and brought him to a trainer.
"He was impressed with the work that I had already done, and offered me an apprenticeship," Wright said.
But her involvement in agility training came much later, after she and Hutchinson founded Kinder Pup on a sprawling plot of land off Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard.
Hutchinson was teaching an obedience class in the early 1990s when she met Kim Duff, a trainer from England who suggested that Hutchinson begin offering agility classes.
"She said, 'I think you guys would really like this,' and she taught the first class," Hutchinson said. "She taught here for three years."
In the early days, there were about eight dogs on Pawzazz. Now there are about 60 canines on the team, though not all compete. Their handlers come from as far away as Frederick and Northern Virginia.
"It's the people. We're like a family," Patty Kimball said. The Laurel woman has brought her dogs to Kinder Pup for 17 years, and her daughter now also is part of Pawzazz.
Yes, the dogs compete against each other, but it's a friendly kind of competition, Kimball said.
"We support each other," she said.
Wright said it's important to note that all the Pawzazz dogs are, above all else, beloved pets. The competitive part is secondary.
"The owners got into because it was something their dogs would like to do," Wright said.
Longtime Pawzazz member and agility judge Jean Wilkins of Elkridge seconded that.
"You watch them running, and you know they're having a ball," Wilkins said.
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