Not just for dog trainers, animal agility competitions are a delight for anyone who adores their four-legged friends. While skill-based events take place throughout the year and across the nation, nothing quite compares to the level of talent that assembles for the Westminster Kennel Club’s Masters Agility Championship. Otherwise known as America’s oldest dog show, it includes a full week of programming that attracts close to 3,000 dogs and their owners.
Leading up to the February 8 to-do, we touched base with Hudson Valley local and former dog trainer Lavonda L. Herring. A Lagrangeville resident, Herring relates her journey from small competitions to the seventh annual Masters Agility Championship at Westminster in New York City, where she will serve as one of two judges for the top-performing pups in the United States.
Lavonda Herring: I’ve been living in Lagrangeville for over 30 years. I’ve done different kinds of dog shows since I was 20. I’ve judged agility for over 20 years. Agility for dogs is all about ramps, tunnels, and jumps for dogs. It’s a competitive timed event. There are probably about 20,000 American Kennel Club (AKC) shows a year in the United States including Alaska and Hawaii.
One of Herring’s dogs competes / Photo by Kenneth Reed Photography
LH: You basically start training your dogs at any age. Sometimes you’ll see a mother, daughter, and granddaughter all running dogs. It’s a physical sport – you have to run with your dog. You compete against other dogs at different jump heights and at different levels. You have a beginner’s, open, and expert class. I’ve always been highly involved in dogs and dog training, so this is sort of a natural progression for me.
LH: I’ve been to all states. I just got back from California this weekend. I’ve judged in all states including Alaska and Hawaii. I would say I fly about 30 weekends a year to different states.
LH: There a lot of dog sports, and I did a lot of them. I went to a trial and saw agility. I thought, “Well this is something I would like.” So, I started doing it. You first have to do a judging seminar. That’s where I got my license to judge. You have to be licensed to judge, so not anyone can do it. Like any sport, there are rules and regulations that you have to follow.
LH: I think it’s pretty well-known. I think it’s growing all the time. It’s a sport that any age could do. It’s very family-oriented and supporting. Most of the people are very supporting of each other. I know at Westminster it’s packed with people who don’t even have dogs who come watch it. It’s a fun sport to watch.
LH: It was so many years ago – it was over 22 years ago! The sport was new back then and it’s much easier now. You know, when you start anything new, there are kinks to work out. I enjoy watching the dogs so, for me, any time I step into the ring, it’s fun. It’s a partnership between the dog and its handler. Every time I step into the ring, the course that [dogs] have to do is different. We don’t repeat courses. It’s a course that the dog has never seen, and the handler gets to walk it without the dog. It all depends on the communication between the dog and the handler. There’s a tremendous amount of training that goes into it.
LH: I have six dogs right now. I have two fifteen-year-old Australian cattle dogs, a twelve-year-old Boston terrier, a nine-year-old Australian cattle dog, an eight-year-old Staffordshire terrier, and a two-year-old Staffordshire terrier. The eight- and nine-year-old compete and the two-year-old is getting ready to compete.
LH: Westminster only has championship dogs; they’re called MACH dogs (Master Agility Champions). And they have to, what we call, “double q.” They have to qualify in standard and jumpers on the same day 20 times to a get a MACH title. Many of the trainers that you will see at this year’s competition will have multiple dogs with this title.
LH: I got an email asking if I was available. Sometimes you get recommended. Sometimes you’ve judged in a certain area before. But I think for Westminster I was recommended; I don’t know by who. Your name gets around.
LH: I’ve loved dogs and I’ve always loved dog sports. For doing agility, I did the confirmation and I also did obedience with AKC. And I did a German sport called schutzhund. It’s a way of testing German police dogs. So, it involves… a police dog in this country would be…
LH: Yeah, but I did it with rottweilers. It was just a natural progression. I wanted something lighter and I thought, “Wow, let me try that.” It all involved training and being a partner with your dog. And schutzhand has nothing to do with agility, nothing. It’s a totally different sport.
LH: Agility you do without a lease and you’re running while the dog is doing something on a timed thing. Then confirmation is – I hate to call it this – more of a beauty pageant, but what dog fits the particular ideal of what that breed should look like. In other words, if I have a poodle, I have to show them in hand against all other poodles to find out which one best fits the description of what a poodle should be. And those are all done one hand and there’s no real running. Agility would be more compared to a cross country event and confirmation would be more of a beauty pageant.
LH: Obedience is without a leash. It’s how obedient the dog is next to you. Does it turn? Does it sit? Does it go get the dumbbell?
LH: In terms of number of dogs, it’s not the biggest, but prestige-wise and advertisement-wise, yes. [Westminster Kennel Club does] a very good job at Westminster. They’re also into confirmation on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday and then obedience Sunday. It’s a very prestigious event.
LH: If you want to judge, you have to have a background in it. The normal progression usually goes from being an exhibitor for a while, and then you decide, “Ok, well I want to be a judge.” So, there are certain requirements that you have to fulfill. After you complete the judging seminar, you have to be followed by a representative to make sure that you are following all of the rules and, at last, you are a full-fledged judge and get your judging license.