Lili Dawidowicz puts one of her border collies through his paces Friday morning on the practice field at her home in rural Trenton. Dawidowicz and her dogs Panda, Max, and Nahmi compete in the growing sport of dog agility.
A somewhat obscure but growing sport and a coincidence of fate has led to a connection between a Trentonian past and a current resident.
If you were surfing channels Sunday afternoon, you may have come across an example of the competition nationally broadcast on NBC, which carried the Incredible Dog Challenge & Show Dog Championships from Atlanta, Georgia.
The relatively new sport of dog agility brought together two women who are passionate about the competition and both connected to Trenton.
When former Trenton resident Jane Tyson saw as a point of contact for an upcoming dog agility competition in Glen Carbon the name and address of a current Trenton resident, she was intrigued enough to make contact with Lili Dawidowicz. Lili and her husband, both retired from the United States Air Force, moved here in 2003.
The sport involves a handler directing a dog through an obstacle course in a race of time and accuracy. The dogs are not leashed, nor are they incentivized with food or toys. The handler's controls are limited to voice, movement, and body signals, requiring exceptional training of the dogs and coordination by the handler. Obstacles include hoops, jumps, A-frames, tunnels, weave poles, and others.
There are about 25,000 competitors representing more than 200 breeds of dogs registered with the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), the world's largest independent authority for the sport. Dogs are separated based on size and ability, and not by breed.
Dog agility was introduced to North America in 1986 by the USDAA, which staged the first officially-sanctioned event here.
There are varying accounts of the sport's genesis, but the earliest recorded example was in 1978 in the United Kingdom, when dog agility was used to entertain spectators at the Crufts dog show. The first course was modeled after equestrian events.
Lili Dawidowicz was first exposed to dog agility when she was stationed in South Africa with the Air Force, and saw dog agility used as an exhibition between equestrian events.
Since her retirement, Lili has plunged herself into training her border collies in dog agility by educating herself about proper training techniques, and practicing with the dogs nearly every day.
Despite the fact that many have never heard of dog agility competition, the sport has a significant following across the country. "I could go to an event every weekend, and I used to," said Lili. "Now I limit myself to every other weekend."
The Dawidowiczes live in the countryside near Trenton, on a large shaded lot with a dog agility practice course positioned up front. Clearly the dogs love to practice and compete. "It's the best part of their day," said Lili. When Lili goes to the house to fetch the dogs, they burst through the front door in a tumble and sprint directly to the practice course.
There, Lili leads them through a series of jumps and tunnels, A-frames and weaving stakes, all precisely sequenced and subject to both time and accuracy judgements.
The dogs navigate the course with speed, energy, and focus that is surprising viewed up close. Indeed, the activity is stressful to the animals' joints and musculature. The damage is mitigated through the use of various exercises, including walking backwards, turning in circles, and standing on two legs. The activity is also physically demanding for the trainer.
Lili and her border collie Milo entered their first competition in the fall of 2004. Since then, Lili's dogs have accumulated a number of ribbons and trophies at various competitions. A room of the Dawidowicz home is reserved for the dogs' prizes.
Handlers truly compete for the love of the sport. There is very little prize money involved, and usually only at USDAA-sanctioned events. Lili estimates she has invested about $10,000 in equipment for her practice course, not to mention the cost of travel. Despite the success of her dogs in competition, their winnings to date total $35.
Lili's expertise has grown with increased training. "About four and a half years ago," she said, "I began to truly understand how to train the dogs. That's when I started to take lessons on a weekly basis." For those lessons, Lili traveled to a working sheep ranch in Sorrento, Illinois.
The Dawidowiczes have six dogs altogether, three of whom Lili trains for competition.
Panda and Max share half of the same bloodline, bred by Harry Enloe of Sorrento. Nahmi was born in January 2011, and adopted by the Dawidowiczes in June of that same year. Nahmi first competed in a trial in May of this year, and brought home four first-place finishes in the novice division.
Panda is the most accomplished of the three, having qualified for several American Kennel Club events over the years. Panda was among the top dogs at this year's National Agility Championships, and was awarded the AKC's prestigious Master Agility Champion title in January 2012.
Max is the fastest of the three dogs, but also the least easily controlled. Max placed third in the U.S. Dog Agility Association's regional Steeplechase competition.
"My goal now is to give my dogs a long and healthy career," says Lili, who is also becoming more involved in the organizational side of the sport, and as an advocate.
Lili is involved in the Gateway Agility Club of Suburban St. Louis as the trial chair for an upcoming American Kennel Club dog agility event in Glen Carbon, at The Sports Academy. The event will be from July 26 through July 29, and is free to the public. "All we ask is that if you bring your own dog, please keep them under control," said Lili.
It was through Lili's involvement in the upcoming event in Glen Carbon that she struck up a friendship with former Trenton resident Jane Tyson.
Jane Tyson grew up in Trenton, attending Wesclin schools from first grade through her graduation in 1970. Her parents were well-liked local citizens Kenneth and Myrtle Tyson. She moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma many years ago.
She began entering agility competitions in 2004 with her Sheltie, Celene, and the next year trained Celene's littermate, Cheri. Both dogs were ranked nationally in agility by the United Kennel Club (UKC). Jane's current dog Kenzie was born just two days after Celene died in 2005, and named after Jane's dad. Cheri has since died as well.
"Kenzie is a natural-born agility dog, gifted from the beginning," said Jane. Kenzie has been ranked in the top 50 nationally by the United Kennel Club every year since 2007, and has twice won her height division at the UKC nationals, held each year in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Over the past few years, when trips to Kalamazoo have brought her through Trenton, Jane has visited here, socializing with friends from Wesclin's class of 1970, attending West Gate Baptist Church (which began in the Tysons' basement in the 1960's), and roaming the rural areas around Trenton to shoot farmland photos. "If I had ever driven up on Lili's place on one of my photographic outings and seen that agility equipment, I probably would have had a heart attack!," said Jane.
"I had no idea there was someone in Trenton who shared my passion for training dogs and competing in agility," she said. The American Kennel Club's agility nationals will be in Tulsa in 2013, Jane explained, so she set a goal of trying to get Kenzie qualified for the event.
"Qualifying requires doing more trials than I normally do in a year, so I decided to enter the AKC trials in Glen Carbon," said Jane. "When I saw Lili's name and home town listed on the entry form, I e-mailed her. I look forward to meeting Lili and her dogs in July in Glen Carbon. I plan to visit Trenton after the trials are over to visit friends, take some pictures, and hopefully have a bit of fun playing with Kenzie out at Lili's place."