NEW YORK — A high-leaping Australian shepherd named Holster scrambled and sprang to take the Westminster Kennel Club agility title Saturday, seeming undaunted by anything the obstacle course could throw at him.
Then he jumped up and merrily pawed his owned and handler, Wendy Cerilli of Greenwich, NY.
"He’s a very loyal and hardworking dog," she said.
Meanwhile, a 10-year-old Boston terrier-beagle mix named Hailey won a separate title for the No. 1 mixed-breed agility dog, a win that left owner and handler Karen Profenna drying her eyes.
With Holster’s win, Aussies barked their arrival at an event that border collies had won since it started in 2014.
Not that participants are necessarily keeping score. Many say they’re just out to have fun and showcase their pets’ abilities at the nation’s most illustrious dog show.
Spanning 76 breeds, the 330 competitors ranged from Chihuahuas to giant schnauzers and included 26 mixed-breed dogs, nearly twice as many as last year. The event has given them a place at a show that was purebreds-only for over a century, and some contestants are even combos designed to be agility super dogs.
Hailey, on the other hand, is a dog Profenna got as a pet, then started training in agility as an outlet for her boundless energy. During breaks from competing Saturday, Hailey demonstrated some of the 175 tricks she knows. She also makes 200 therapy dog visits a year, said Profenna, of New City, NY.
Border collies were the most prevalent breed competing, and the driven, fast, flexible herders are seen as tough to beat. The animals compete in height classes, but unlike many other agility trials, Westminster has 10 winners from each class run off to crown one top dog. The lowest time wins, with time added for errors.
Winning the other classes were a Belgian Tervuren named Smartie, handled by Julie Hill of Mandeville, La.; Cruzer, a Shetland sheepdog handled by Diane Patterson of Middletown, Conn.; Keebler, a Pembroke Welsh corgi handled by Roger O’Sullivan of Giahanna, Ohio; and Wren, a Papillion handled by Betsey Lynch of Delaware, Ohio.
Smartie, the Belgian Tervuren, is winner of the 24-inch Agility class! Stay tuned for the Masters Agility champ! pic.twitter.com/r9548MaxtX
Organizers say it can be any dog’s game, and participants note that any animal — or handler — can have a great day or make a false move.
"You never know what to expect," said Suzann Milheron of Somers, Conn., whose border collie Ffynch won his height class at Westminster last year and made it to the finals this year.
Westminster added agility in 2014 amid a boom in the fast-paced, TV-friendly sport. The number of agility events sanctioned by the American Kennel Club has surged nearly 50 percent in the last five years, from under 2,500 in 2010 to nearly 3,700 last year. More than 12,000 canines are registered with the U.S. Dog Agility Association, which sponsors hundreds of events nationwide.
Fans say the sport strengthens communication and trust between dogs and owners.
Rickie Roo, a rat terrier, has to trust owner Deborah Davidson Harpur to help her navigate the agility course: The 8-year-old dog has little depth perception because of a genetic disorder. Even after eye surgeries two years ago, "she was trying to do agility in her cone," said Harpur, of Harbor City, Calif.
Rickie Roo might not have had a great chance of winning it all, but that’s OK with Harpur.
"I had a dog, two years ago, who could have been blind forever, and here I am, competing at Westminster," she said. "No matter what, I’m a winner."