- Associated Press - Sunday, February 16, 2014

SOMERS, Conn. (AP) - After three years of training, a border collie from Somers competed in the first Masters Agility Championship at the famed Westminster Kennel Club’s 138th Annual All Breed Dog Show last weekend in New York City.

The four-year-old purebred border collie named Ffynch was guided through the course at the prestigious show by his owner, Suzann Milheron. And although Ffynch didn’t make it past the two qualifying rounds, Milheron said she had no regrets.

“It was an excellent experience for both of us,” she said.

The new agility contest was held at Pier 94 on 12th Avenue, while the rest of the Westminster dog show was held at the traditional site of Madison Square Garden, where the best in show was crowned.

In the first qualifying round, Ffynch finished second in his height class behind the dog that would eventually win in the mixed breeds category, Roo!, a husky mix from San Francisco.

As for the second round’s jumpers with weaves course, Milheron said Ffynch was eliminated after he knocked down a bar on the first jump.

The overall champion was a 7-year-old border collie named Kelso of Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

The Westminster agility championship showcased 225 dogs representing 63 different purebreds and about 16 mixed breeds.

Ffynch was randomly chosen from a pool of more than 1,200 dogs for the agility championship. Dogs whizzed through tunnels and ran over jumps and around poles before the crowd.

Milheron said Ffynch had already been competing at the masters level with the American Kennel Club when she decided to enter him into the lottery for the Westminster agility competition.

“I really didn’t expect to get in,” said Milheron, 51, who works at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford as a document control specialist. “I did it on a lark.”

For the first time in Westminster’s history, mixed breeds were allowed in the show’s new agility championship, although not in the traditional All Breed Dog Show.

Milheron said she was notified in early January that Ffynch had been chosen, and they began preparing immediately.

“This is a huge, huge deal in the dog show world,” she said.

Some fans may see dog shows as beauty pageants for well-groomed and superbly behaved dogs. Agility competitions are something else completely.

The athletic events are modeled on horse-jumping contests, with owners guiding their unleashed dogs through obstacle courses full of jumps, ramps, poles, and tunnels.

The dog with the fastest time, and no mistakes, wins.

The sport began in the 1970s in Europe and has grown into a hugely popular international sport. In the United States agility competitions are largely sponsored by the American Kennel Association and the U.S. Dog Agility Association.

Milheron said she and Ffynch have traveled as far north as Maine and as far south as Maryland for competitions.

“He’s been winning,” Milheron boasts. “Quite a bit, actually.”

Milheron said Ffynch has won 80 competitions throughout New England in the last three years, with 60 of those wins coming at the masters level.

The qualifying rounds at Westminster included a standard agility course and one jumpers with weaves course.

“It all happens very fast,” Milheron said. “I liken it to a very high risk stock. If it goes well, you have a huge payout, but it can be a train-wreck really fast.”

She said the fast pace of the competition is what makes it so exciting for her.

“You don’t have much time to think,” Milheron said. “If you come up with a plan you have to stick to it. There’s never a Plan B.”

It was Ffynch’s second national competition. He competed in the United States Dog Agility Association Nationals this past October in Tennessee, where Milheron said Ffynch didn’t place very well.

“It wasn’t our best show,” she said.

Milheron said his best finish in one event was 28th out of 300 dogs, but said the two made sure to have fun.

Competing in agility competitions isn’t new to Milheron, who’s been having her dogs compete since the late 1990s.

Milheron has two other dogs - Zyggi, a 10-year-old standard poodle and Dusty, a 6-year-old Shetland sheepdog - but she’s currently only training Ffynch for national competitions.

“It’s always been a great way to make friends and spend time with my dogs,” she said of the competitions.

She cautions that the sport isn’t something people can “dabble in” since it requires training and a certain fitness level for dogs and their owners.

“It’s now an addiction for me,” she said. “I’m not ashamed to admit it, either.”

Milheron said competing is a hobby for her and a game for Ffynch.

“He absolutely loves it,” she said. “He’ll know exactly what we are doing. When he gets near a ring he’s pulling at his leash and chomping at the bit.”

For Milheron, training with Ffynch twice a week and keeping him healthy is the key to success.

The pair practices fundamentals and aspects of the agility course that are tough. Practicing is split between the Double “SS” Stables LLC in Somers, where they train in an indoor riding ring usually used for horseback riding, and Clean Run, a venue in South Hadley, Mass.

Milheron said last weekend at Westminster would help prepare her and Ffynch for the American Kennel Club’s Agility Championship in Harrisburg, Pa. in March.

“Westminster will prove to be a training ground for my own nerves and mental preparedness,” she said before the competition. “Ffynch has always been ready. He was born ready.”

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Information from: Journal Inquirer, https://www.journalinquirer.com

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