NEW YORK — Top-knotted Tommy the toy poodle might look like he’s more interested in laps than leaps.
But the 5 ½-pound silver poodle took a maze of obstacles in stride Saturday as he and about 225 other dogs jumped, darted, clambered and broke new ground at the Westminster Kennel Club show’s first agility competition.
The agility trial added a dynamic, fast-growing sport to the nation’s best-known dog show and marked the first time mixed-breed dogs have appeared there in 130 or more years. And for enthusiasts like Tommy’s owner, Barbara Hoopes, it was a chance to showcase what dogs of all shapes and sizes can do.
“He’s a big dog in a little dog’s body,” Hoopes, a biology professor at Colgate College in Hamilton, said after Tommy finished a strong run.
Dogs are judged on accuracy and speed as they navigate jumps, tunnels, ramps and other objects off-leash, with handlers guiding them via calls and signals.
Established decades ago, agility is an increasingly popular canine pursuit. The number of dogs competing in agility trials has grown by nearly 50 percent over the last five years.
But at Westminster, the sport is playing on dogdom’s biggest stage. The final rounds Saturday night were to be televised.
“It’s very special being here because of Westminster’s prestige,” said Westbury-based dog trainer and breeder Andrea Samuels.
Agility aficionados say the sport is a canine confidence-builder that creates rapport between dogs and owners and provides a healthy outlet for high-energy dogs that need something to occupy them.
Australian shepherd Jackie D. is “crying to do agility,” says her owner, Neno Pessoa, a dog trainer and breeder from Bloomsbury, N.J. “If I train her puppy and I don’t train her on one day, she’s cranky.”
Saturday’s competitors spanned 63 different breeds, from the diminutive papillions to such big dogs as Doberman pinschers.
Many – like the 35 border collies entered – represented breeds known for their agility chops. But their rivals included breeds with physiques that don’t necessarily scream “nimble.”
Look at French bulldogs, for instance, and many people see “cute, fat little couch dogs,” Katy Shreve of Palm Bay, Fla., said as she and her Frenchie, Henry, relaxed after his romp through the agility course. After adopting Henry about four years ago, Shreve took him to an agility class just for fun and kept going because “he has such a ball.”
About 16 of the competitors didn’t represent any one breed at all, in a substantial shift for a dog show that has long been purely purebred turf. Westminster featured some mixed breeds early on but not since at least 1884, organizers say.
Mixed-breeds – or what the show calls “all-American dogs” – still can’t compete for the sought-after Best in Show trophy. But their inclusion in the agility contest has brought cheers from owners eager to show that everyday dogs can go nose-to-nose with their purebred peers. Animals-rights advocates who have criticized Westminster, and dog breeding in general, call the development a good step, though they still plan to protest the traditional part of the show next week.
Westminster officials say adding mixed-breed contestants helps the show make good on its aim to honor all dogs and their roles in people’s lives.
Nicole Bozich recalls being petrified by dogs before her husband persuaded her to get Audie, a probably-pug-terrier mix that a pet store was selling for $20. Obedience classes evolved into agility training and, eventually, into a spot in Saturday’s lineup.
“If you told me five years ago that I’d be at Westminster showing a dog, I wouldn’t believe you,” said Bozich, of Southern Pines, N.C., but “we built this bond.
“He trained me to be a dog owner – I didn’t train him.”