Agility Facility leaps into Salem
Salem — To start her dog agility lesson on May 21, Mary Champagne placed numbered cones at jumps and tunnels to indicate the 12 obstacles of the first course and instructed her students to walk the course. The slow walk-through allowed them to get a feel for which way to enter each obstacle before their first run.
And then the dogs came out.
After the five handlers had a chance to practice their steps, crosses and hand signals with helpful tips from Champagne, they took turns on the course with their furry companions. Some flew through it like they had done the same route before. Others took their time or missed obstacles out of sheer excitement of being on the course.
But everyone got treats for a job well done.
Champagne's training business, appropriately named the Agility Facility, celebrates its first anniversary in Salem in June. A resident of Lyme, she said she first came to the dog agility world with a dog she had more than 20 years ago. It gave her and her dog a constructive way to release energy, and since then she has trained at least 10 of her own dogs and competed locally, nationally and internationally.
"It started off as a hobby, and it turned into a career," she said. She grew up with horses, a common trait among dog agility handlers, and she also worked for a veterinarian, so she always was exposed to animals in some way.
Before moving to the current space next to Burnett's Country Gardens, Champagne taught agility classes out of a horse riding arena. She said dust and lack of climate control were an issue, and as her student base grew, she started looking for new spaces. After five years of looking — finding an open space without columns was a challenge — a student suggested the Burnett's space.
The Agility Facility opened there June 8, 2017, and it has since grown from 30 students to about 100. Classes range from group beginners' lessons to competitive and private lessons, and they started competing at the facility this winter.
While dogs with a lot of energy like border collies are common agility dogs, Champagne said any dog can do an agility course; some of her canine students include a basset hound and a Great Dane. Monday's lesson had dogs ranging from Rowan, a toy Shetland sheepdog, to Yuki, an Australian shepherd; the jumps can be adjusted for the height and skill level of each dog.
Three instructors, a mix of some of Champagne's experienced students and other agility-trained friends, also have been added to the roster. Holly Burchsted, an East Lyme resident, said she started as one of Champagne's students and went through the training to become an instructor, herself. She ran Monday's course with her rat terrier Juice, carrying his squeaky Lambchop toy for encouragement, and she compared the engagement between dog and handler to a sport's high.
Lora Abbott, a veterinarian from East Haddam who also teaches a weekly class, said One Mind Dogs, the Agility Facility's handling program, is more about teaching handlers how to "speak dog." She started as a student in 2011 with her Jack Russell terriers, and she said she enjoys seeing the dogs' faces light up when they get what their owners are trying to tell them.
The communication aspect and seeing her dog understand her nonverbal cues are among 13-year-old Kaylie Marvin's favorite parts about taking lessons with Reba, her Australian cattle dog/beagle mix. The duo from Colchester started group lessons in September, and even though Reba can be a little slow to start, Marvin said she hopes to start private lessons with her and plans to continue training into high school and beyond.
"It's one of the highlights of my week, going to agility lessons," she said. "It's one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had with dog stuff."
The Agility Facility is holding an open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 16, to celebrate its first anniversary. For more information, visit theagilityfacility.com.