Ryan Stanton, rstanton@ExplorerNews.com
Nov. 30, 2005 - It's the close bond between a handler and her dog that enables the pair to maneuver through an obstacle course completely in sync with each other.
Northwest resident Cerise, who goes by a single name, probably knows this as well as anyone else. She's trained and competed in agility trials with three dogs since she lunged into the sport about eight years ago.
"It's not just about the dog being told what to do. It's about the teamwork and the bond, and that's the addicting part," she said. "You have a relationship with an animal that's working with you, not just working for you - they're not just little machines."
It's this relationship that makes dog agility a team sport, said Cerise, who's been training with her 9-year-old Australian shepherd, Sena, for six years now. Sena still competes across North America, including in St. Louis, Atlanta and Calgary most recently.
She'll soon be one of about 200 dogs from across the Southwest competing in a two-day event at Ora Mae Harn District Park Dec. 10-11 in Marana.
The Saguaro Scramblers Agility Club of Tucson will host the competition from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, with teams constantly running obstacle courses. During the runs, handlers will direct their dogs through a series of jumps, weave poles, teeter-totters and the occasional tunnel.
Judges from New York and Canada will be scoring the event, watching about 800 runs during the two days, said Cerise, the show's chairwoman. Saguaro Scramblers hosts six competitions per year, though this is its first in Marana in about five years, she said.
"For us, this is probably one of our bigger shows," Cerise said. "It's going to be pretty busy. We will set up three rings and two will be running constantly."
The North American Dog Agility Council is sanctioning the event, which will emphasize speed and distance. Courses will be set up to encourage dogs to work up to 25 feet away from their handlers, Cerise said, adding that the challenge is seeing whether the dogs can make the right moves when they're away from their owners.
Unlike some organizations, NADAC allows dogs of all breeds to compete - not just pure-breds - so even mutts from the local pound can run the course, Cerise said. Handlers will range in age from 8 to 74, she said.
"I think people are attracted to NADAC trials primarily because it's a relaxed, fun atmosphere," she said. "The other venues, I think, tend to attract more of your hard-core competitive people."
Saguaro Scramblers has teamed up with the Not So Grande Dachshund & Small Dog Rescue to hold a "Food for Fido" food drive at the event. All dog food collected will help dogs in rehabilitation, said Shari Lowe, founder of the rescue, located in Picture Rocks.
Lowe said she'll have dogs available for adoption at the event and will offer microchipping for $15. The service will be administered at the park from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 10 and from noon to 2 p.m. on Dec. 11.
"A microchip is important for the recovery of lost or injured pets," she said. "It's a little computer chip that's about the size of a grain of rice and it's put in the shoulder blade area, similar to a vaccination, and it remains there for a dog's lifetime."
Lowe said a microchip helped reunite one Tucsonan with a dog he lost while visiting the White Mountains several years ago. After searching tirelessly to no avail, a dog pound found the dog three years later and scanned its chip, she said.
"Sure enough, it was their dog and he just lived with someone else for a while and then made his way to the pound," she said.
Lowe said she's excited because one of the dogs from her rescue, Missy, who was adopted at an agility show this past year, will be competing with her new owner in the upcoming event. She said someone found Missy, an unruly Rottweiler, in a wash after a large rain storm.
"She wasn't just for the average family. She needed training, understanding and time," Lowe said. "So, this will be her first trial now. Our little girl all grown up and trained - I can't wait to see it."
In addition to the fast action, event organizers said there will be a raffle, food vendors and dog grooming, making the event fun for the whole family.
"We're just trying to promote it as a spectator sport, raise public awareness and encourage people to train their dogs," Cerise said. "You don't have to train them to do agility, but you at least have to train them to do something."
Saguaro Scramblers started in 1994 in the backyard of Michael and Sherry Porter, who wanted to build a playground for their sheltie. The agility club quickly caught on and has since grown to include more than 100 members.
In addition to holding six shows a year, the club teaches agility classes and brings a national competitor to town once a year to give a seminar on training techniques.
Cerise, a semi-retired nurse who trains dogs by day, half-jokingly admits she's "gone off the deep end" since getting into the sport.
"It's just like a hobby anyone else would have that they're obsessed with, whether it's car racing or whatever," she said. "You start because you have a dog and then you get a little dog with more aptitude for the sport, and now I have five dogs. I'm insanely addicted."