t is the English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association’s National Dog Show, held during prime agility season and April’s early dawn arrives in the form of a thunderstorm. The trial is being held in Geneva-On-The-Lake, Ohio, on the banks of Lake Erie and white-capped waves pound the shoreline as handlers warm up their dogs for competition. Participants in this dog agility trial form some of the best dog and handler teams of English springer spaniels in the nation. It is rumored that some owners have resorted to acquiring
professional handlers - amusingly referred to as "the agility girls" - in order to increase their chances of winning. Hopes are high as Tux, the top-ranked agility springer, is not in attendance.
"Whether is was Springer intuition, loyalty to Andy or just plain luck will never be known, but somehow Harley understands which jump is next."
Among the agility hopefuls are Andy Miele and the nine year old Harley, from Perkasie, Pennsylvania. Age brings Harley wisdom and he surveys the course with a steely gaze. Harley has seen it all before; the obstacle discrimination traps, tight turns, and hard angled weave pole entries. He is unafraid. Andy scans the course evaluating the potential problem areas. He is supported by over five years of agility experience and some of the best training available in southeastern Pennsylvania. He is less experienced than some handlers present and more so than others. They are a middle-ranked team who expect to give the bigwigs a run for their money.
A handler stops to chat, noting that his own dog is faster than Tux, then wishes Andy luck. Unintimidated, Andy warms Harley up with a few practice jumps as the thunderclouds roll in. The gray of the impending storm surrounds them - gray in the sky, gray in the mist and gray in the water. The sky opens up and a downpour begins as Andy steps to the start line. Harley shakes, and his long ears swirl, displacing the rain in a thousand sparkling droplets. He settles as Andy watches the starter for his signal... and then, the boys are off.
The springer negotiates the opening jumps without difficulty and pushes through the closed tunnel. The fabric is heavy with the weight of the rain but Harley soldiers on. Harley reads Andy’s signal and avoids the dogwalk trap, correctly pushing out to the tunnel instead. He is deadly accurate but sacrifices time - and every second counts.
The clock ticks as Harley bangs the see-saw and charges around the jump circle. He clears the first two but suddenly disappears behind Andy, who is positioned near the third jump. Panic rises in the spectators as the crowd draws a collective breath; rule number one in dog agility handling is “never turn your back on your dog”. Andy has momentarily lost sight of Harley. Whether is was Springer intuition, loyalty to Andy or just plain luck will never be known, but somehow Harley understands which jump is next. He cuts behind Andy, clears the jump and cleanly executes the angled weave pole entry. The hard driving rain pelts Harley, whose eyes are narrowed slits as he fights the storm, never giving in.
Harley hangs onto the table for the required count of five seconds then flies toward the discrimination trap. Again, he reads the course correctly, climbs the dogwalk and rounds the corner for home.
Harley’s run has been precise and perfect under hazardous conditions. Spectators nervously await the score sheet logging Harley’s time. The time is good, in by more than a full second; not a record-breaker, but good enough to qualify. Andy and Harley have made a respectable showing in a difficult situation! A peanut butter celebration for Harley follows, with a warm blanket for Andy.
One by one, the other teams try for the gold. Faster teams, like Harley’s bright young nephew Riley, crash and burn as speed on the slippery obstacles creates mistakes. Some dogs are fired up and make errors, others become transfixed by the intensity of the scents produced by the wet conditions and sniff distractedly. There are few qualifiers today. The rain pounds as spectators await the results posting. Most have drifted inside to discuss the course and offer excuses. The “agility girls” are nowhere to be seen. Finally the results are posted. Harley has won!
Andy awaits the presentation of the prestigious blue ribbon. The crowd has dispersed and the ribbons steward is packing up. An oversight has resulted in too few blue ribbons; there is no ribbon for Harley. The large steward wearing a pumpkin colored slicker refuses Andy the major prize, finishes packing and moves inside.
No ribbon, no ceremony, no acknowledgment. Alone in the rain, a man and his dog stand together, with the gray clouds, the wild waves and the Creator of the universe as the only witness to his achievement; that on this day, just this one time, he had the very best dog.
Perhaps this kind of acknowledgment is all that matters.