Gosia Skowron of Salt Lake City got her first dog when she graduated from the University of Utah more than 10 years ago. Soon after that, she got into playing a kind of relay race for dogs called flyball. From then on, she's been hooked on competing with her dogs.
"Little did I know it would develop into this obsession," Skowron said.
Now, Skowron and her 3-year-old border collie mix, Riot, are on their way to the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge in Las Vegas, the second year in a row that the pair will appear in the televised regional competition, which Riot won last year. A sort of canine Olympics, the challenge involves a variety of dog competitions that include high-flying disc routines, head-to-head weave pole races and dog diving.
Riot specializes in a sport known as agility, in which the dog navigates an obstacle course of tunnels, ramps and weave poles, taking cues from the trainer on the right path to take. At only 2 years old, Riot last year won the Purina regional competition in her category in Denver and went on to take second in Purina's national competition in St. Louis. That same year, Riot also made it to the national finals of the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) think the NFL of canine obstacle-course challenges.
Now Riot has been invited back to the Purina regional event in Las Vegas. This year, she and Skowron will be joined by two Utah natives: Keith Highly, also of Salt Lake, and Bridget Hulslander ,of Taylorsville, and their respective canine companions, Cisco, a 4-year-old cattle dog and corgi mix, and Willow, a 3-year-old Chihuahua and Yorkie mix. Both Cisco and Willow were rescued by their owners from animal shelters.
All three will be competing in agility and the "30 Weave" competition, a head-to-head race where dogs have to weave through 30 poles, up and down the course.
This will be the first time competing in the Purina event for Highly and Hulslander.
Highly said that while the Purina isn't a national qualifier for the USDAA competition, it's an invitation-only event that most competitors are honored to take part in. Riot and Willow went to the USDAA national event last October, and all three hope to make it to the 2013 nationals slated for this fall.
Highly's Cisco, who's fairly new to the agility game, is "right on Riot's heels," he said.
Traveling around the country for competitions isn't exactly a cheap hobby, and if there is any prize money to be won, it's usually just enough to cover some of the expenses, according to Hulslander. But the competitors don't seem to mind.
"The people who do it usually do it for the fun, the experience and being with their dogs," she said.
Highly agreed. "There is very little that comes close to that rush you get … when you have a really good run," he said.
It takes a certain amount of competitiveness in dog and trainer to keep up with the circuit's demands, Skowron said, and Riot seems just as determined to win as she does. If Skowron doesn't cue Riot to make a turn or to prepare for an obstacle in time, she'll get a couple of stern barks from her competition partner.
"Yeah, she gets annoyed," Skowron said with a laugh. "And rightfully so."
Cheer them on
The Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge will take place on March 1 and 2 at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. It is scheduled to air on television sometime between April 6 and May 26. Check local listings. A local dog competition is also scheduled for March 2 and 3 starting at 8 a.m. at the Legacy Events Center in Farmington.