By AMANDA DYSLIN, The Free Press of Mankato
NEW ULM, Minn. (AP) -- Joni Steinbach chuckled when asked if she thought her border collie Sport knows she's one of the best agility dogs in the country.
"No, she doesn't know," said Steinbach of New Ulm. "All she knows is she gets to play at the end and that Mom's the best thing since sliced bread."
That love and loyalty aspect of agility training is a big part of what Steinbach and Sport get out of the constant training they do at home in their backyard agility course, as well as the numerous competitions they compete in throughout the year from the local to national levels. All the work the past five years has paid off with numerous awards, the latest of which came this spring when Sport placed fourth at the American Kennel Club National Dog Agility Championship in Reno, Nev., out of a field of 267 dogs in her class.
"I sat in the winner's chair a long time," Steinbach said. "You sit in the winner's chair until somebody beats you. I was thinking, `We might do it. We can do it, Sport.'"
Sport's time was 29.6 seconds going through the agility course. A time of 29.4 seconds resulted in Steinbach's winner's chair exit, and the dog that finished with a time of 28.8 seconds was crowned the winner.
Both Steinbach and Sport were in good spirits, though. Steinbach would never make Sport feel that she let her down, and certainly, in Reno, she performed wonderfully. The way Steinbach sees it is that most of the fun comes in the act of performing itself and the bond between owner and dog.
Steinbach first learned about agility training decades ago during the years she owned sheltie dogs.
"I didn't really do anything with them other than play, play, play, Frisbee, Frisbee, Frisbee," she said. "Flyball and agility were just starting to come out back then. And I was like, 'Oh, I want to do something like this.'"
Steinbach got her chance while working at the Brown County Humane Society. A blue merle border collie came in to the rescue, and when no one came to claim the dog, she adopted him, named him Simon and the two began working on agility training in 2002.
Agility competitions involve a handler directing a dog around poles, through tunnels and over jumps, among other things, all with the most accuracy and in the fastest time possible. Simon had a bit of trouble with the latter; compared to other border collies, Simon performed at medium speed.
Now 10 years old and retired from competition, Simon boasts a few local titles but was never quite good enough to compete at the national level. "He was kind of like, 'OK, I'll do it for you, Mom,'" Steinbach said. "He was more laid back and easygoing. ... I think Simon just did it for me."
In August 2007, Steinbach got Sport from a Washington breeder at just 8 weeks old. She could tell early on that Sport felt much differently about agility training and competition.
"She just sits at the start line and shakes (with excitement)," she said.
With Sport's heart in the competition as much as Steinbach's, the two have done well together. They've competed in various events with the American Kennel Club, U.S. Dog Agility Association and Canine Performance Events, among other organizations. They're at the point now where they're working on shaving tenths of seconds off their times.
"We travel all over," Steinbach said. "There's never really money involved, but it's like the Olympics or the Super Bowl or something."
Competing at the national level is exhilarating, she said.
"You have to be clean, fast -- you've got to be perfect," she said. "It's a sport. It's a game. It's an athletic thing."
Steinbach and Sport are preparing for the USDAA Nationals in October in Denver and for next year's AKC championship to be held in April in Tulska, Okla. Steinbach said having placed fourth this year isn't an indicator of how well they'll do next time. The only things she can control are the hours they put into training, her positive attitude, and making sure Sport loves every minute of it.