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How dogs at Westminster get psyched up to compete just like pro athletes


NEW YORK–NFL kickers have their pre-kick checklists before every field goal attempt. NBA players like Steph Curry have pregame routines they almost never deviate from to keep them calm but focused.

Dogs preparing to participate at the Westminster Kennel Club’s agility competition — held on the Saturday before Monday and Tuesday’s main dog show event — are no different. And like their human counterparts, everyone has a routine tailored to his or her personality.

“Some dogs, you can take them out and run them straight into the ring,” says Christina Potter of North Bergen, New Jersey, who ran through the event’s obstacle course filled with jumps, tunnels and see-saws with her Chinese Crested dog Morgan. “Some dogs need to be out a while. Maybe you know your dog needs to see 10 dogs to get his head in the game, or it can’t be ringside seeing other dogs run. It’s a challenge.”

Potter and her husband Taylor keep Morgan in her crate to save up energy, then takes her ringside five or six dogs before she’s slated to run. They also know getting her to “speak” increases her energy and gets her excited. Then, it’s snack time.

That seems to be the same for many of the pups preparing to compete in front of a crowd — a fed dog is a happy dog. Just ask Sadie the “All-American” mixed breed … or her owner.

“I just talk to her, keep her busy, give her cookies and have her do tricks,” says Lisa Tibbals of North Haven, Connecticut. “I try not to take her out before it’s time to go. At an event like this, it’s so many people.”

Both owners and their competitors have to warm up, whether it’s a quick walk or actual stretches for everyone — injuries are a risk for both species when dashing through a ring filled with starts and stops. And if you think the pressure is tough for a dog under bright lights and with hundreds of fans watching, think about what their humans have to contend with.

Lonnie, a female, mixed breed, owned by Robin Lembo of West Milford, N.J. competes in the Masters Agility Championship companion event to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) ORG XMIT: NYMA111

They’re allowed to walk the course for a few minutes without their dogs in order to figure out the order of the obstacles. Once the dogs enter for their run, there’s no contact or food allowed until after they finish, with only their handlers’ movements, commands and hand gestures to guide them, not to mention the knowledge that a treat or two awaits a the end.

“My dog gets paid really well,” says James George of Richmond, whose English Springer Spaniel gets rewarded with hot dogs. “You figure out what has high value for them and pay them in that currency. After a successful run, she gets hot dogs and to play with a toy.”

Hopefully, the result of that routine is a clean run without faults, one in which the owner remembers the order and the dog completes each task the right way. But even when there are imperfect performances, there’s only one thing that’s important.

“I let my nerves get the better of me,” Tibbals said after one rough result. “But she was happy, and that’s what it’s all about.”



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