Shetland Sheep Dogs, also called Shelties, originated in the Shetland Islands of Scotland. Bred to herd sheep, they have lots of energy and love the game of chase.
Since there are no sheep that need herding in Christine Tarantino’s neighborhood, she involves her three Shelties in the sport of Agility. It’s a competitive activity during which dogs run through a timed and numbered course where they go over, around or through obstacles in a correct order in a certain amount of time. The dog’s owner runs with the dog, giving instructions via motion, verbal cues and hand signals to indicate what the dog needs to do at each point.
At competitions, participants can win prize ribbons for their performance, but Agility is basically an international sport that dogs and their owners participate in for fun, Tarantino says. It’s good exercise for humans and dogs, and “the dogs love it.” Any dog can do it, she says, as long as they are structurally capable.
It typically takes two years to train a dog for the sport, and based on their ability, they compete at novice (beginning), open (intermediate), and excellent (advanced) levels. Tarantino’s dogs have different levels of ability and also different personalities that are reflected in the sport.
Nine-year-old Jax competes at the excellent level. “He’s a mama’s boy, always close to me,” she says. “But he loves to run and jump, and loves Agility. He is shy, but not on the Agility course.”
Bryce, 6, competes at the open level,” he is my crazy dog,” she says. “He’s very driven and loves the sport so much that he sees the equipment and gets very excited.”
Regan is outgoing and loves the sport too, although she is only a year old and still in training. She is as quick to learn and as enthusiastic about the sport as Jax and Bryce.
Tarantino is a member of the Pals and Paws Agility Club, where she trains her dogs weekly at the Jacksonville Dog Fanciers Field in Orange Park. Members and their dogs practice performing the obstacles that include an A-frame (mountain-type obstacle), dog walk (bridge-type obstacle), a see-saw/teeter, jumps, tunnels and weave poles.
The challenge is that every dog must be given instruction differently, Tarantino says. “Jax is not as fast as Bryce so I might have to give him information two obstacles ahead.” Her dogs are all fast, “so their handicap is me,” she says. “I’m not as fast as them so I have to think quickly to make sure they have the information they need to complete each obstacle.”
Some owners take their dogs to national and international competitions, but Tarantino is content, for now, with local and regional ones, which involve traveling the state of Florida as well as to Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
“We just do it for fun,” says Tarantino. “I love it, my dogs love it. There is nothing I’d rather do than be outside on a beautiful day with my dogs.”