Dog agility judging has been part of Don Farage’s life since 2003, and long before that he was a dog owner who happily trained his own pet. This year, the Bartlett resident and his wife, Alicia, traveled to New York City so he could judge for the 5th Annual Masters Agility Championship at Westminster on Feb. 10.
“It’s surprising,” Farage said about being chosen to judge. “You don’t really expect it, and you definitely don’t go looking for it.”
Once the surprise wears off, the next emotion is how cool it will be, he said. Then comes the “gulp” moment, when you realize you’re going to be on TV in front of the world.
Even people who don’t own dogs have heard of the annual Westminster Kennel Club’s dog show or watched its broadcasts. This is the premier American event that challenges breeders, owners and handlers to showcase the physiques and skills of their beautiful animals.
The path to being invited as an agility judge is filled with countless hours of competition and training. Typically, a judge will show his own dog through the highest level within the American Kennel Club before going on to judges’ school, Farage said.
He attended in 2002 and started judging the next year.
“You learn all the rules and then go take the test, basically, but in a lot of ways it’s a stress test,” he said. “They try to put you through it — do you know all the rules, can you do all the judging, can you measure courses.”
The work also requires stamina. A competition may run from early morning into the evening with the judges always on their feet. At Westminster, Farage worked from 6:30 a.m. until about 10:45 p.m., logging about 38,900 steps. (At most dog shows, he racks up closer to 24,000-25,000 steps.)
But he had many, many steps along the way that prepared him for the job.
Like most other judges, he worked his way up from local trials to bigger events, getting recognition for his skills through word of mouth. The time invested has paid off: Among his accomplishments, Farage has judged nationals three times and also judged a world team tryout and a world team qualifier.
“Some of these are higher pressure than Westminster,” he said. “Westminster is just a lot of fun.”
Loving the sport
The Farages have two standard schnauzers and two border collies, and he puts them through their paces in agility competitions. He started with his dog, Beau, in 1987. Farage worked with the miniature schnauzer through obedience training and also learned about conformation (how well a dog’s body matches the breed’s standards). Then he found his favorite part of the dog show world: Agility training.
Agility is a sport that showcases a dog’s willingness to work with its handler in varied situations, according to the Westminster website. It is open to both purebreds and all American mixed breeds, and it requires conditioning, concentration, timing and teamwork for the dogs and their handlers to negotiate an obstacle course, racing against the clock.
Dogs must weave between poles, take jumps, navigate through tunnels, pause at designated spots and perform other well-practiced skills.
“It’s just fun,” he said. We do it because it’s fun. It’s a game we can play with our dog.”
He likes the fast pace and variety of judging agility competitions, and, as a dog owner and handler himself, he also appreciates how the training strengthens bonds between owner and dog.
“It does two things — you build a stronger bond, but it also tends to build a lot more confidence in the dog.”
The couple have been part of several local dog owner organizations over the years, including the Shelby County Obedience Club. Currently, they are part of the Greater Shelby Kennel Club.
For people interested in dog agility, he encourages going to the AKC’s website at akc.org, finding a nearby open trial and attending to see if they like it. The next Memphis trial will be in October, but Nashville also has trials too.
After that, it’s a matter of both the dog and the owner learning what to do. The moment it really clicked for him was when Beau figured out how to navigate the weave poles. It was a jubilant moment when Beau finally wove in and out between each of the 12 small PVC pipes stuck in the ground.
Agility is something that the dedicated dog owner and his pet should be able to manage, with time. Farage added, “Patience is a really, really good skill to have.”