NEW ULM - When Sport hears the release word "Break," she is off like a rocket. There is a blur of black and white fur streaking through poles and tunnels and flying over jumps, and it's easy to see how Joni Steinbach and her border collie Sport placed 4th at the AKC (American Kennel Club) National Dog Agility Championship in Reno, Nevada out of a field of 267 dogs in their jump height class.
Joni, who lives in New Ulm, started competing with her dog Simon, a blue merle Border Collie, in 2003.
"He was nice because I could keep up with him and learn with him," said Joni. "He did really good. He's not very fast, but he's really consistent. We got a lot of local bigger titles." Now Simon is ten years old and has decided to let Sport take over the spotlight.
Submitted photos of Steinbach and Sport competing in Reno Nevada
Sport came from a breeder in Washington state when she was just eight months old. She is now four-and-a-half years old and will be turning five in August. Joni began training her for competition right away.
"The first year is all about relationship," Joni explained. "They can't jump until they're a year old, so you start training with puppy stuff. A lot of tugging and games, building the relationship. Everything you do with them at that age affects them the rest of their life."
Joni knew that she had something special on her hands.
"I put a lot of work into her. Whenever she was out of the kennel, I was doing something with her. I put 200 percent into it because I knew that down the road I would have this," she explained.
And it is a lot of work. Joni has a course set up in her backyard, and also goes to a trainer near New Prague. Besides running and jumping, Joni also uses swimming as a workout for Sport.
"It's so low-impact. It's really good for her. I try to go once a week," said Joni. She works Sport's core muscles with a stability ball workout, and she does grid work to keep her dog strong so there's less chance of injuries while competing.
In agility competitions, the handler must direct the dog through a series of obstacles in a race for both time and accuracy. If the dog misses an obstacle or drops a bar during a jump, the run won't count. However, Joni and Sport are to the point where they're concentrating on shaving off tenths of seconds by working on things such as tighter turns.
The dogs are divided into height groups during competitions. They are measured at the peak of their withers (shoulders). This is to keep the competition fair for dogs who might have an advantage because of size.
"You see every breed out there," said Joni. "Little ones and big ones like German Shepherds and St. Bernards."
While timing is an important part of the competition, accuracy is also crucial. Sport depends on Joni to direct her to the correct obstacle and to tell her what to do. To do this, Joni uses both verbal and physical commands.
"Motion is 90 percent of it," Joni explained. "Motion overrides verbal commands."
Depending on whether Joni moves her arm a certain way or which way she turns her body, Sport will know which jump to take and how to jump it. She always keeps her eyes on Joni. It's Joni's job to stay ahead of Sport during the run.
"With a fast dog, it's not a matter of me running fast, it's a matter of sending her out to stuff. I'm supporting her and saying 'Go get that jump,'" explained Joni.
Joni and Sport need to work well together to ensure success on the course.
"You don't want to run through the course, you want to flow through the course. She watches me, and I feel like we're one. We're connected," Joni explained.
During training, Joni has made sure to get Sport acquainted with the various obstacles such as the teeter-totter and the high A-frame.
"You want them daring and not afraid of anything because they get on this stuff and it's really high," said Joni. However, there is never any negative reinforcement while training. "There's never any hitting or yelling," said Joni. "To a dog like this, negative reinforcement would be to stop running. It's the worst thing - they don't get to play anymore," she explained.
Joni and Sport work on things like running, jumping and handling, but they also make time for a lot of playing.
"Sometimes I take her over to the park and just throw a Frisbee," said Joni.
Joni and Sport go to about two competitions a month. In August, they will be heading to Kansas City for the regional competition.
The competition world is fierce. There are different venues that include big names such as the AKC and the USDAA.
"Think of it as the AFL and NFL and the Canadian League when it comes to football. They're just different venues," Joni explained.
A standard course usually includes a teeter-totter, an A-frame, a dogwalk, and jumps, but competitors don't know what the course will be like until the day of the run. The judge gets to design the course to their own choosing. "Every course is different," said Joni.
A competitor must qualify in the local trials and get a certain number of runs to make nationals. However, nationals are a whole different game than local trials. Joni said that the best thing she can do is try to be prepared.
"You want to build up a tool box as they call it. I go to seminars, we do conditioning, we go swimming, we build skills, we keep up with the training. I try to build my tool box so that when I get to a trial I can say, 'I can do that,'" she explained.
Joni makes sure that Sport can perform certain skills that not every dog can accomplish in case a judge ever asks for them during a run.
At these big championships, Joni and Sport are up against some of the best dogs and handlers in the nation. "There's a lot of pressure and you get nervous just like any other sport," said Joni. "Even the finals are hard just to get into. You have to be perfect, and you have to be so fast."
Last year, Joni and Sport made it into the finals during the AKC National Agility Championship.
"It wasn't my first nationals, but it was the first time I made the finals. I ended up in 20th place," said Joni. There were over 300 dogs in Sport's jump height alone. Overall, there were over 1,000 dogs at the trial.
Joni and Sport also managed to snag 5th place in the USDAA Grand Prix Finals during the Cynosport World Games in Lexington, Kentucky last year.
The next big event that Joni and Sport are training for is the USDAA Nationals in October in Denver, Colo. However, Joni would ultimately love to be on the World Team.
"They take the best from the U.S.," she explained. "They have the tryouts in Hopkins, Minnesota, and they only take four dogs from each jump height class. That's kind of my next goal," she explained. "Obviously, I still want to win nationals. And I know that we can do it because we're not that far off."
To watch Joni and Sport in action, visit her YouTube channel (jpstein84).