By Patrick Winderl
It's a dog's life, and for these dogs, life is good.
At the Hill County Fairgrounds on Wednesday nights, surrounded by canine and human companions, doggie treats and apparently all-too-exciting obstacles, these dogs are taking a crash course in agility training.
For one hour each week, the dogs - and their owners - relentlessly navigate an obstacle course that includes jumps, an elevated ring, a balance beam and a tunnel. The course, set up inside a large building on the southwest corner of the fairgrounds, is designed to teach the dogs to respond to their owners' commands and keep the animals in shape, said instructor Fran Buell, who has taught dog obedience classes for more than 10 years.
The owners run beside their canine companions, offering instruction and encouragement as the dogs make their way over, around and through the obstacles.
The agility class is one of two advanced courses offered by Buell, and is open to dogs and owners who have completed beginner obedience training. In agility classes, the focus is less on obedience and more on having fun and training dogs to do special tasks, Buell said.
Dogs in the agility course and in Buell's advanced obedience course must be able to respond to their owners' commands either "loose lead" or "off lead," meaning with little or no influence from a leash.
"It's different and fun. You're teaching your dog to lead and heel. The people have fun. They like to see their dogs do these things. They feel like they are really training their dog to do something special," she said.
Buell's assistant, 2003 Havre High graduate Rachel Gerhart, said the courses are a "bonding experience" for dogs and people. Dogs get to exercise and socialize, and in return, their owners get a dog that is healthy and well-trained.
Some of her clients include hunting and farm dogs, Buell said, which learn how to perform certain tasks.
"It also teaches the dog to jump over things rather than go through things that might hurt them. When you're taking your dog hunting, you can tell them to go through something, and the dog knows it's OK. It's putting more trust in the owner."
One farm dog in Chinook learned to walk across a board between a bale of hay and a tractor so that the dog could accompany its owner in the field.
Dog owner Linda Brady said she brings her 18-month-old German shepherd, Jake, to class because he becomes nervous around strangers.
"He's such a big dog. I needed to make sure I was in charge," Brady said.
Watching Brady and Jake navigate the obstacle course, it's difficult to determine just exactly which species is having the most fun.
"During the winter, when it's 15 below out, it's kind of tough to get motivated to take the dog for a walk," Brady said. "With this, it's easy."
Apparently, Jake feels the same way. As soon as she pulls into the parking lot at the fairgrounds each week, Jake signals his approval by becoming especially chatty, Brady said.
Hunting dogs are common participants in Buell's classes. In private classes, Buell teaches hunting dogs to "finish," which means that after retrieving the downed bird, the dog gives it to its owner, then rests at the owner's left side.
Buell brings one of her own dogs to help during class. Duncan, a 3-year-old golden Lab, is obviously a veteran. He navigates the obstacle course with ease, then settles down in a relaxed pose that suggests he is bored with the entire affair.
Puppy and beginner obedience class focuses more on behavioral problems, Buell said. Different dogs have different needs, and all are welcome here, Buell said. Whether it be a tiny Maltese or a ather hefty German shepherd, dogs of every size and disposition participate in the agility training.
"Training a little dog is just as important as training a big dog," she said.
Different breeds can create different problems, Buell said. For instance, some dogs are more independent than others, and some have instincts that compel them to do things like try to herd other animals or sniff every square inch of floor.
Duncan, being a Labrador, is naturally inclined to investigate every scent he picks up, Buell said, adding that he does a good job of keeping his impulses in check.
"He minds really good. He's a good dog," she said.
One of the hardest behaviors to change is aggression, Buell said, especially in older animals.
"All dogs have the predator instinct," Buell said, adding that some of the larger dogs occasionally are tempted to attack the smaller ones. That type of aggression needs to be addressed, she added.
Disciplining aggressive animals also teaches the smaller dogs not to be afraid, Buell said. During obedience classes, making sure everyone gets along can be a handful, she added, but by the end of the course, each animal knows what is expected of it.
The key is to use a balance of positive reinforcement and firm discipline. One woman whose dog goes into a frenzy every time it receives praise is told to utilize the leash more rather than emphasize positive reinforcement.
"Try not to pet her. Use the leash," Buell suggests.
For Buell and Gerhart, witnessing a poorly behaved dog transform into an obedient companion is especially rewarding.
"It's really neat to watch," Gerhart said.
Buell recommends taking a troublesome dog to the vet before enrolling it in obedience class. Sometimes, a simple medical condition can be the source of misbehavior, she said. Dogs may try to let their owners know something's wrong by acting out. But, if the vet gives the pooch a clean bill of health, behavioral school is the next step, she said.
With a little help, even the most unruly animal can be trained to obey even the youngest of masters.
Like many of the dog owners who attend her class, Buell got her start in dog training through 4-H. What began as a hobby more than a decade ago soon blossomed into a business for the Gildford resident.
"I've always liked animals," she said. "Then 4-H needed a leader, and I did that. I started doing public classes and it just started to mushroom from there. We have a lot of fun with it."