Competing Canines in Hatley
When Hatley’s Suzanne Kohl visited Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair about ten years ago, she didn’t expect to come home with a new found passion, but she did. “My daughter Erica and I were at the Royal Winter Fair to see the horses when we came upon a room full of dogs
jumping on command, going through tunnels, jumping through hoops. We watched some more, right then and there, and when we left I said: I’m getting a dog!”
As soon as Suzanne got home she went keen, making a list of the attributes she wanted in a dog and researching dog breeds. “I was so excited. I wanted a dog that was active outside, quiet inside, with soft fur… Then I heard about French Spaniels,” explained Suzanne about the breed she decided upon. “I picked up “Moss” when he was seven weeks old and started training him right away; I had a goal!”
The Haskell Free Library proved a wonderful resource for Suzanne as she was just getting started, providing some excellent reading material on dog training. “I got a lot from The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete, a book I took out of the Haskell three times.”
“You have to be especially careful when training an Agility dog, but any dog needs to listen. When you train them well it’s like avoiding problems in the first place. It’s very easy to get mad at a dog when you’re training it, but if you want your dogs to work with you…” said Suzanne who now has two French Spaniels who have not only collected hundreds of prize ribbons by running through tunnels and weaving through poles at breakneck speed, but who are models in canine behavior, attentive of their master and willing to please.
Besides training her dogs in agility at home, using the circus-like equipment installed on her spacious lawn, “Moss” and “Willow”, the second French Spaniel that Suzanne bought six years ago, train weekly at the Sherbrooke Agility Club. Although at ten years of age Moss is now retired, this regular training is crucial for Willow if she hopes to continue winning ribbons in this highly competitive sport. She recently lost a Steeplechase event by just 77/100ths of a second! “Some of the Club’s members just want to train their dogs to do tricks, others like to practice and then go to ‘trials’. When I started about eight years ago, there was just a smattering of trials (the competitions) around Quebec. Now they have them every weekend, and all winter too,” explained the dog trainer who travels regularly to Quebec City, Montreal, Rougemont, Terrebonne, Laval, and St. Augustin, to name just a few of her destinations, to compete. “I do drive a lot, sometimes three hours one way to get to a competition. I usually get home at ten at night, after getting up at 3:00 in the morning to go. It’s all part of the fun.”
“There’s a whole atmosphere at the trials. When you arrive you set up your tents, warm up the dog. You have to learn the course, there will be eighteen to twenty obstacles, and then they set it up. Then you have seven minutes to walk the course and figure out your strategy. It’s a real mental exercise and, at the Master level, it’s very intricate. We must learn six or seven courses like this but as the day wears on you sometimes stop in the middle of a course and think: where am I?”
At the trials, the dogs can also compete in what’s known as ‘games’ like Jumpers and Gamblers. “At the end of Gamblers, you have to try to get your dog to do the obstacle course from a distance, and if she does, you double your points.”
“In Agility, you don’t just have levels of ability to work through, there are also different categories for huge dogs and teeny dogs. The sport really adapts to different abilities: the ‘special’ category is a little easier than ‘regular’; and the ‘veteran’ category gives a little more time and is easier. That’s nice because the dogs can still play when they’re older – it’s a very cool sport!”
What was most impressive when Suzanne did an agility demonstration with Willow in her front yard during the interview was how strong the communication was between dog and master. In the sport of agility, the trainer must get their dog to run the obstacle course in the pre-determined sequence, as fast as the dog can, by using only their voice, movement and body signals. They are not allowed to either touch their dog or the equipment. The mental connection between Suzanne and her dog Willow, while Willow dashed, weaved, jumped and tunnelled around the home course showing off, was almost tangible.
Although it certainly looked like Willow was having fun, I asked Suzanne if the dogs enjoyed all the competing. “If they didn’t enjoy the competitions, you’d never be able to get them to do it.”
Hatley’s Suzanne Kohl has won over one hundred prize ribbons for ‘Agility’ with her
French Spaniels Willow and Moss.