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The 'art' of being a dog agility trainer

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Debbie Heifner walks with her dogs Rango, Fizzle and Spur through the woods

Debbie Heifner walks with her dogs Rango, Fizzle and Spur through the woods behind her home. “The nice thing about any sport that you do with your dog is that you’re going places with your dog all the time; you’re hanging out with them,” Heifner said. “As long as you’re making it a positive event for your dog, you become really, really close to your dogs.”

Debbie Heifner has always enjoyed competition. So does her dog Rango, one of fastest Labradors in the country.

Heifner, a Columbia resident, dove into dog agility in 2000 after witnessing a competition in Arizona. When her children left home years ago, she decided to transition from her previous hobby of showing horses to dog agility.

Since she started, she has trained and retired Spur, a border collie. She currently runs Rango in competitions, and she is training Fizzle, a golden retriever, for his debut in the ring.

Heifner describes her competitive nature this way: “Winning makes it the best competition,” she said. “Success makes it a little brighter.”

But there’s more: “You know — I said winning makes it good, but really, it’s the people.”

After COVID-19 disrupted everyone’s life, agility competitions, like other large gatherings, changed. Organizations such as the United Kingdom Agility International and United States Dog Agility Association have adapted to allow video submissions in place of in-person competitions.

Laurie Donn, left, and Debbie Heifner strap sandbags on to the tunnel

Laurie Donn, left, and Debbie Heifner strap sandbags on to the tunnel as the dogs run through for the UKI U.S. Open. Due to the proximity of both St. Louis and Kansas City, Heifner is able to train and compete year-round. “We have judges comment a lot on how well-prepared and how well-trained Missouri dogs are compared to a lot of places,” Heifner said.

Heifner recently competed via video in the UKI U.S. Open Agility Competition with Rango and her friend’s dog, Spark, in November 2020.

Her life is entwined with her dogs. She spends her days training and bonding with them at her home agility course and in the nearby woods. She also volunteers at the Columbia Canine Sports Center, assisting other trainers and running the course with her own pets.

On most weekends, she travels to St. Louis or Kansas City, spending all day at an arena. Competing in weekend trials earns a dog special venue-based titles and points that accumulate toward additional titles.

“It’s really all about the camaraderie,” she said. “We spend the whole day chatting, just having a good time with our friends and cheering each other on. That’s the best part.”

Heifner says she will always focus on having fun with the animals. “The art to doing this a long time like I have (and) still really enjoy it is to make sure your dog is still having a blast.”

Laurie Donn, left, and Debbie Heifner, mark and measure out

Laurie Donn, left, and Debbie Heifner, mark and measure out where the jump goes for the course in preparation for the UKI U.S. Open agility competition. The United Kingdom International and United States Dog Agility Association launched an at-home video submission program in place of in-person competing to allow competitions to still take place during the pandemic.

Rango, 8, one of the fastest Labradors in the country, speeds through

Rango, 8, one of the fastest Labradors in the country, speeds through the weave poles in a practice run at home. Rango is in the top division, Masters, and working towards Championship title. Despite the pandemic, he earned his UKI International Champion title and won second place in his division in the National Championship via video.

Debbie Heifner instructs Rango to jump during his run

Debbie Heifner instructs Rango to jump during his run for the UKI US Open on Nov. 13. Debbie adopted Rango after her friend’s dog, Josie, had puppies. Josie was the second dog in Columbia to get Master Agility Champion. Heifner says her dogs know it’s time to go as soon as she grabs her agility travel bag. “(Rango) is so excited he just shakes,” she said.

Wells photographed this story as a student in the Picture Story and Photographic Essay class, taught by Associate Professor Jackie Bell. This story was edited by Jacob Moscovitch. Supervising editor is Brian Kratzer (kratzerb@missouri.edu).

  • Missourian Reporter, Spring 2021 Missourian Photographer and Photo Editor Fall 2019/Spring 2020 Reach me at aw5q7@mail.missouri.edu or in the newsroom at 882-5700

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