Photos by Great Dane Photos
Veterinarians have recently been in the spotlight in United States Dog Agility Association® (USDAA®) news and social media as the organization thanks professionals for their service during particularly challenging pandemic times. And, veterinarians don’t just treat and care for the canines participating in the sport—many are competitors themselves! In addition, they attest to the value of dog agility as an outlet of stress relief from their daily practice.
What is Dog Agility?
Dog agility requires dynamic physical and mental engagement for dogs and humans alike. Guided only by voice and movement cues from their human partners, the canine athletes compete against the clock—flying over hurdles, weaving between poles, racing through tunnels and bounding onto the see-saw. Obstacles are set according to the dog’s height and experience level, allowing dogs of all breeds and sizes to compete.
The human partners are critical members of the team, as they train the dogs, learn and memorize courses, strategize to tackle each obstacle and race alongside, guiding the dogs to success. Whether at a local club event, at the Dog Agility World Championships or in their own backyard, the teams have to be prepared to do their best in any environment.
Agility benefits are not just for those who compete, however. Recreational agility can also improve one’s health and wellbeing.
Benefits of Dog Agility
In a 2018 survey conducted by the United States Dog Agility Association, respondents cited numerous advantages to participating in the sport, including physical and mental exercise, socialization and building relationships, bonding with their dogs, satisfaction of meeting challenges and goals, and stress relief.
In addition, the benefits of ongoing interaction with dogs alone are well documented: decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness; along with increased opportunities for exercise, outdoor activities and socialization.1
There is no better way to understand how the sport has helped a number of veterinarians relieve job stress and enjoy their own dogs than to hear their stories.
Meet Kathy Wells
Kathy Wells of Southfield, Michigan is one of the sport’s most accomplished competitors and veterinarians. She works at Wyandotte Animal Hospital in Wyandotte, Michigan and credits agility with helping her find a work-life balance that she said is a “huge challenge” in the veterinary profession.
Kathy graduated from Iowa State University in 1990 and as a student remembers reading an article in Dog Fancy about the new dog sport, agility. Several years later, a training facility posted an advertisement for an agility open house at the clinic where she was working in Toledo, Ohio.
“I had never forgotten the article I had read and couldn’t wait to attend the open house. My dog, a Husky mix, was a natural, and we were hooked. My life path took a complete turn after that night,” Kathy shares.
“I never realized how much I relied on agility to maintain my sanity and help me to be able to handle the strain of this job, until it was absent from my life,” she adds.
Kathy currently competes with Fargo, an eight-year-old Border Collie, and together they have earned numerous championships: “He has earned LAA-Diamond and ADCH-Diamond, he’s been on the IFCS World Team since 2018, we won a silver medal in Italy in 2018, and competed in the Netherlands in 2019,” she says.
While she’s proud of the agility titles, Kathy keeps it in perspective and appreciates how the sport and her profession complement each other.
“I have had the philosophy, when competing, that agility isn’t life or death, unlike many of the decisions I make daily being a vet,” Kathy continues, “so I guess being a veterinarian has helped me with my mental game. I do think that being involved in dog sports has made me a better veterinarian.”
Meet Jean Lavelly
Jean Lavelly attended Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, graduating in 1998, and is now a small animal general practitioner in Murfreesboro, Tennessee where she enjoys building relationships with her clients and their animals.
“I most enjoy long-term client relationships with families who’ve come to our practice for years and who trust me. The most stressful part for me in my early years was feeling I had to prove myself. With the long-term clients, they know I just want the best for their animals. I also love the variety of issues that I see, so no one day is the same,” Jean shares.
Like everyone, Jean’s business surged during the pandemic as more people got new puppies.
“Combined with the growing shortage of veterinarians, it has made our jobs much more demanding and stressful, which is also causing some veterinarians and support staff to leave the profession early,” she said.
She then explained that her involvement in agility has been a coping mechanism: “I think the most important benefit of agility with my dogs is the unique bond we form through training and competing together,” continues Jean. “Agility is also my main motivation for staying fit which means it’s a driving force to help me stay healthy.”
Jean actually considered leaving the sport early in the pandemic after the sudden loss of her six-year-old agility partner, Sprint, to GME (Granulomatous meningoencephalomyelitis).
“Losing a dog so young is always traumatic, but the added loss of our working relationship was almost too much for me. I seriously considered quitting during this time, but my agility friends were such an important part of my recovery. I was able to regain my love of the sport. The friendships developed over the years really are an important part of agility for me,” she concludes.
Meet Heather Venkat
Heather Venkat of Surprise, Arizona completed her DVM at the University Of Illinois College Of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. She has been Arizona’s State Public Health Veterinarian for four years, tracking and investigating diseases like rabies and plague, while still providing preventive veterinary care to dogs and cats with a mobile veterinary clinic called VIP Petcare.
“I love the variety that I get from my job (each week is a new adventure) and being able to help both pets and people,” she shared.
Heather is a relative newcomer to dog agility who started taking classes in 2017 with a friend and their rescue dogs.
“The bond with my dog, Luna, became even stronger and I saw how much she enjoyed agility, and that’s when I got hooked and worked towards starting to compete a year later. Luna is a Border Collie/Australian Cattle Dog mix who was found as a stray in the town of Douglas at the Arizona-Mexico border. She’s now almost eight years old so most of our training is for maintenance,” Heather says.
Like many of her clients, in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Heather got a new puppy; a Border Collie/Papillon cross named Lyla who is excelling in agility foundation classes.
“I am participating in both live events and USDAA@Home. Arizona trials have been very safe and are organized outdoors while following mask and social distancing recommendations,” she says.
Speaking to other pet care professionals, Heather added: “It is important for animal care professionals to create boundaries between work and home. We must advocate for ourselves to find time to do things we enjoy and prevent burnout. I like relaxing activities such as reading and writing, but agility relieves my stress by getting my blood flowing and heart pumping. The exercise that both me and my dogs get from doing agility is a win-win!”
If you are interested in learning more about dog agility or looking for a way to get involved, visit the United States Dog Agility Association at usdaa.com which includes a listing of local clubs and events. +
1. How to Stay Healthy Around Pets. CDC. www.cdc.gov/healthypets/keeping-pets-and-people-healthy/how.html