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Cairn Terriers in Agility

Cairn Terrier "Mac" in the weavepoles in Masters.

This article was originally published in Showsight Magazine, June 2013 issue.


Cairn Terriers in Agility

I saw agility for the first time about 15 years ago. It was at the huge Christmas Classic show in Cleveland, OH with breed and obedience competitions. While waiting to watch the breed judging for the cairn terriers, I wandered over to watch dogs running what appeared to be an obstacle course. I was immediately impressed with the teamwork between dog and handler and could see how much fun the dogs were having while racing around the course.

At the time I only had one Cairn and her name was Morgan. We had completed some basic obedience classes, and I was wondering what we should do now. I thought this was something she would enjoy doing and signed us up for a class. It was hard to find classes back then since agility was still fairly new to the USA. Surprisingly there was another Cairn Terrier named Janie in our beginner class. Her owner and I became good friends through the bonds of terrier ownership. Morgan quickly learned how to perform the various obstacles – jumps, tunnels, dog walk, seesaw, A-Frame, and the pause table. In her mind, any sport that involved training and rewarding with food was fun!

Mac running up the A-Frame in Masters. Photo by PawPrints

NADAC was the first agility venue that we competed in. They are known for smooth, flowing courses so the dogs can run! We did not qualify that day, but we did come home with some big, beautiful ribbons as well as some great pictures. A few months later we entered our first AKC trial where Morgan qualified on 3 of her 4 Novice runs. The next weekend she finished her Novice Standard title. We were now officially hooked and looking for more local trials to enter!

About this time a local agility training club was holding their agility pre-test to determine which dogs would be added to their beginner agility classes. This club taught with more of a competition focus than our current class, and I wanted to sharpen our skills. When I showed up with a Cairn Terrier, many people looked doubtful and warned me that the test might be too hard for us because it looked at the basic obedience skills the dog had. However, Morgan passed with flying colors and earned a spot on their wait list.

This club used positive training methods and food rewards which Morgan loved. Their classes were also more structured and started by teaching us Foundation skills. These included the dog heeling on either side of the handler and the handler moving from side to side in front of and behind the dog. This got them used to front and rear crosses. Back then the blind cross was a popular handling option which worked very well for Morgan. We did not do much work on contact performances for the dogwalk or aframe because “small dogs never miss the contact zone”. LOL! Since Morgan was the first dog I had ever trained, we learned so much together from the various instructors, classes, trials, and runs.

When I added another Cairn Terrier to my family, Mac, many of my friends and acquaintances were shocked and surprised. Since I enjoyed agility so much, they assumed I would switch to a Sheltie or Border Collie for my next dog. However, Morgan and I were having so much fun and success in agility, that it never crossed my mind to change breeds. Mac benefitted a great deal from what I learned with Morgan – not to show disappoint when an error was my fault (98% of the time), to always keep it fun even when my dog did not do what I wanted on course, and to be able laugh at at myself, my Cairn, or both of us when things did not go our way.

One thing to be aware of is that not every agility instructor enjoys working with terriers. Cairns can be tough because while smart, they are independent thinkers. Things need to be kept different and interesting to keep them motivated. Incentives that work with the retrieving breeds do not necessarily work with terriers. Some agility skills and handling moves need to be repeated in training, but most terriers do not enjoy basic drilling the way other breeds do. It is important to find someone who wants to take on the challenge of working with a terrier. I found someone who loved working with Mac and really helped me develop the distance skills that we needed to succeed in USDAA Gamblers and AKC FAST. Many people do not think little dogs can achieve the distance skills necessary for these classes but Mac proved them wrong.

One of the things I love most about agility are the great people who participate in it. They each love their own breed, but cheer for others when they succeed. One of my favorite memories with Mac was running USDAA Master Gamblers one morning. The entire Performance 3 (i.e. Masters Performance) class had failed to get the gamble. I had not realized this until I stepped to the line and someone mentioned it. Great! Not what I needed to know right then. The timer said go and I directed Mac around the course to acquire the points needed in the opening. The horn signalled time to attempt the gamble, I sent Mac out to it and he nailed it beautifully and crossed the finish line under time! What then made my day was the huge round of applause that everybody gave to Mac for a job well done!

Morgan was still working on the points for her MACH when she was retired from agility due to back issues. She earned her AAD and Relay Master title in USDAA which was the first Master games title earned by a Cairn Terrier. Mac became my first MACH dog. He eventually added the MACH2 and PAX titles to his name and was the first Cairn Terrier to earn the AKC Master FAST title. He was the first Cairn to earn other Master & Champion titles in USDAA and is the highest titled Cairn Terrier in the USDAA Championship program.

Over the years more and more Cairn Terriers owners have discovered agility and their Cairns have proven themselves very successful at it. Cairn Terriers now compete in all agility venues and have earned titles at all levels. They have represented the breed at the AKC Invitational and the AKC Agility Nationals for several years. Since courses are different each time we compete, this really suits our smart little Cairns who always like it fresh and different from the last time. The handlers receive green ribbons to mark their success, while our little friends enjoy the dog treats or squeaky toys they have earned even more.

Over the past fifteen years of training and competing in agility with a total of four dogs, the most important thing I have learned is to enjoy the journey. It is over with each dog much too soon. Both Mac and Morgan are gone now, but I thank both of them for what I learned from them and from so many others in the world and sport of agility.