The classroom had a dirt floor, half the students were the furry, four-legged kind, and assignments involved tunnels and weave poles as the Wichita Dog Training Club hosted classes this week for people and dogs honing their agility skills.
People from as far away as Texas and Missouri came with their dogs to a six-day seminar led by Colorado instructor Stacy Peardot-Goudy, learning to guide their dogs to success in the fast-paced canine sport known as agility.
Dogs in Tuesday's advanced class ranged from Gunner, a miniature pinscher owned by Janice Arnold, to Lena, a standard poodle owned by Jane Neave, plus border collies, Australian shepherds, a golden retriever, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi and a Portuguese water dog.
The people attending the seminar, however, agreed that it was the handlers who came to learn, not the dogs.
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"Almost all of these dogs will do what the handler indicates," said Mike Gallagher of Wichita, who competes with Chip, a flat-coated retriever. "The problem is the handler doesn't always indicate the right thing. That's why Stacy's here."
Agility is all about teamwork, said Peardot-Goudy, who offered advice and encouragement while directing handlers and their dogs through different combinations of routines.
The bond between human and dog was evident as dogs followed handlers' body movements, hand signals and verbal commands to navigate a succession of numbered jumps, plus weave poles, tunnels and other obstacles.
Although handlers cheer their dogs along with commands of "up," "over" or "scramble," directing them toward the A-frame, for example, instead of the adjacent tunnel, it's the body language that dogs respond to most, handlers said.
"You can say the wrong obstacle," Neave said, "but if your body is bending in the right direction, they will still go where you want them to."
Josie Gans traveled from Midland, Texas, with her golden retriever Rizzo to pick up some agility tips. It was her fourth seminar with Peardot-Goudy, whom she called an "awesome instructor."
"I'm a slower handler with a relatively fast dog," said Gans, 65. "She doesn't just say, 'Run faster.' ... She shows me ways to do things with the speed that I have and the dog that I have."
The Wichita Dog Training Club has about 30 members who participate in agility, Neave said. The seminar, she said, would prepare participants for agility trials today and Sunday and at the Sunflower Cluster Dog Show April 9-11, both at the Kansas Coliseum.
Club member Mikel Miller said she was excited that for the first time, mixed breeds will be able to compete in agility and obedience at the dog show.
In the past, American Kennel Club events have been limited to purebred dogs, she said, but a new ruling will allow dogs like Sarah, her greyhound-pit bull mix, to participate.
"So many people have mixed-breed dogs that they want to train, and there's no venue here to compete in. It's discouraging," said Miller, who adopted Sarah from the Kansas Humane Society. She said she hopes the new ruling "will make mixed-breed dogs in the shelters more inviting" to prospective adopters who want to compete in performance events with their dogs.
Gallagher said he likes the "enthusiasm" involved in agility, compared with obedience, an activity he and his wife previously participated in with their dogs.
"Obedience was fun but it's very structured and controlled," he said. "It's hard to motivate your dog."
With agility, "you can yell and scream as much as you want. You can run with your dog. For me, it's just a lot more fun."
That's the whole point of agility, Gallagher said —"to make it pleasant and fun for the dog."
"If your dog isn't having fun and is just going to mope around and say, 'Why should I do this? What's in it for me?' " there's no sense in doing agility or any other activity, he said.
"I'm fortunate to have a dog that's very self-motivated and loves to do it with me."
The Wichita Dog Training Club offers classes in beginning, intermediate and advanced agility, as well as obedience, a prerequisite.
An agility dog "still has to sit, stay and run when you tell it to," Gallagher said. "But if you are training correctly, your dog will love to do that with you.
"You are his playmate — his dominant playmate, hopefully, but you are still his playmate."