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Agility competition training can help boost animals' self-confidence and behavior

By: Kalyn Kahler kalyn.kahler@gazette.com
July 25, 2014 Updated: July 25, 2014 at 10:36 pm
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Colleen McLaughlin congratulates her dog Sky after they competed in the dog agility competition at the 2014 Rocky Mountain State Games Friday, July 25, 2014, at America the Beautiful Park in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Melian stood confidently at the start of the dog agility course at the Rocky Mountain State Games, legs quivering in anticipation. She waited anxiously to respond to the call of her owner, LeNore Ralston. But just a few years ago, Melian quivered when a branch fell off a tree, a car drove past or another dog came into sight. The black lab responded anxiously to every small noise or movement around her.

"I could not walk her down the street," Ralston said. "A leaf would blow and she would freak out. She has what I call, a 'danger, danger' bark."

Ralston, dressed for the Games' only nonhuman sport in dog-bone earrings and a ring decorated with paw prints, rescued Meli as an 8-week old puppy. Meli's previous owners were unlicensed breeders, and she and her littermates went straight to the shelter at Colorado Springs-based All Breed Rescue & Training.

The Colorado Springs native began working with Meli on agility training to see if it could help change her behavior. As her training progressed, and Meli began to compete a year ago, she transformed into an easygoing dog and now has her Canine Good Citizen certificate.

"I've had people who have known her from the beginning who say to me, 'She's like a different dog.'"

Meldona Sauer, owner of Action Paws LLC, helps dogs like Meli every day as her job. Sauer said that agility training is a guaranteed way to cure a "scaredy-cat dog."

"They are going to come out of their shell," Sauer said. "They are going to be confident dogs ... it gives me goosebumps when I think about it. They come in with their back against the wall and the next thing you know they are competing."

Ralston hopes to continue to compete with Meli and eventually take her to nationals. But for now, in her first outdoor trial, she is focused on contending for a podium spot.

The competition kicked off in the intense sunshine Friday at America the Beautiful Park. Rocky Mountain State Games agility commissioner Kathy Matejka's corgi, Zinger, kept cool by splashing around in a wading pool, while also keeping the spectators cool, flinging water as she shook dry. Other canines stayed in the shade of their tents and beat the heat with cooling coats, special jackets that reflect sunlight away from the canines.

Both Matejka and Ralston are members of the Colorado Springs-based Pikes Peak Agility Club and are responsible for organizing the trial in each of its two years. They agreed that although agility is not an Olympic sport, for the handlers and dogs who will land on the podium Sunday, it might as well be. The State Games agility is unique among other contests because it concludes with an awards ceremony.

"The look on people's faces on the podium who got the medals (last year), you would have thought that we were in Beijing," Matejka said, referring to the 2008 Olympics. "We have the fountain and the Peak in the background. It's the best photo ever, and that was probably the biggest surprise we had last year."

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