Aging Well With Agility

Running obstacle courses with your dog will get you in shape, too

Jack Cotter, 65, runs along as his dog Tucker takes a jump at Sunrise Arena in Liberty Lake. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Jack Cotter, 65, runs along as his dog Tucker takes a jump at Sunrise Arena in Liberty Lake.

Tucker looks like he could implode at any second. His body is shaking and his tiny tail is wagging so fast it’s blurry. He can’t stop hopping up on his hind legs and looking at the maze he’s about to negotiate.

Finally, it’s time.

He sits in one place, but he isn’t still. He shivers with excitement before his tiny frame cannons over a plastic jump, then another, then two more.

Three and a half years ago, Jack Cotter, 65, couldn’t walk from one jump to another, he says. But tonight, on a chilly Tuesday inside a covered barn near the state line, he’s running alongside, even slightly ahead of his fuzzy, wirehaired fox terrier, Tucker.

Cotter had both hips and one knee replaced. He broke parts of his back twice while serving in the Navy from 1965-70, and doctors told him he’d probably be in a wheelchair by now, he says. But these days he’s running with Tucker in agility classes twice a week and regularly competing.

“If I could do five nights a week, I would,” Cotter says.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, founded by a veterinarian and Ironman triathlete, estimates that 54 percent of American pets are overweight. (Meanwhile, 35.7 percent of U.S. adults are obese, according to the CDC.) Obesity in pets, like humans, can lead to plenty of other health problems, including high blood pressure, breathing problems, kidney disease and shortened life expectancy. Along with food choices, exercise is a huge factor in how humans affect their pets’ health.

Spokane veterinarian Sara Shaw says while human health isn’t her specialty, there’s no question about the benefits of good exercise.

“I’ve never seen a dog who does agility who’s overweight,” she says. “Any training you do with a dog definitely increases the general happiness the dog and the owner have.”

Agility classes can help owners as much as they help pets, whether for weight management or mobility.

Barb Davis, who teaches classes at Stride Ahead Agility and has competed in agility competitions all over the world, says many of her students wouldn’t be exercising if they weren’t doing this activity with their dog.

Her classes are designed to improve dogs’ skills on the agility course, but exercise for both pet and owner is a healthy side effect. It’s not uncommon to hear that you’re more likely to work out if you have a friend to endure the pain and sweat with you. Pets are no different, Davis says.

“It’s an interesting little bond you have leading your dog around like this,” she says. “People enjoy the physical and the mental part of it. It’s a friend of theirs, and they pull it off together.”

Before each class, Davis walks through the course with her students.

“It really helps if you can get your butt up here ahead of your dog,” she tells Cotter’s class. They all nod.

But there’s more to these evenings in the barn than just running around with your dog.

“It’s a very mentally challenging sport as well,” she says. “That’s what drew me to it. I really enjoy the puzzle of figuring out how to send your dog where you want them to go.”

Phyllis Miller, 70, says she, like the two dogs she has in Davis’ morning agility classes, wouldn’t be exercising if she weren’t enrolled. She’s been taking agility classes for about 20 years and is convinced they’re keeping her body and mind agile.

“It keeps you moving, and since you have to memorize your courses it keeps you functioning,” Miller says. “You’re getting out there. You’re running and doing things. It keeps you young.”

As the students wait for class on this Tuesday night, the covered indoor arena smells like meaty dog treats and sawdust. Cotter fills his pocket with treats he made at home from beans, yams and pumpkin, and leads Tucker inside, where seven other owners and a few of their dogs wait patiently. (Most of the dogs, like Tucker, get so excited they have to be kept in the car until it’s their turn to run the course.)

Cotter’s excited, too. He taps his index and middle fingers against his thumb as he walks the course and works through it in his mind. Participants don’t know what the order of the obstacles will be until they show up for a class or competition.

Cotter started the classes on a whim, but now says he’s addicted. He says they’ve been a way to strengthen his health physically and mentally, even improving his memory. He tells of forgetting his son’s order every time the pair goes for coffee. On their most recent outing, he didn’t forget.

“Then I just said it: ‘And a white coffee and peppermint mocha with nonfat milk,’” Cotter says. “Things like that, day to day, you notice it.”

On the course, his gait is a little wobbly, but he keeps up and his concentration is sharp as he flicks his wrists from the hand signal for “jump” to the one for “tunnel.”

Tucker understands. His furry, tan body flashes into a tarp-like vinyl tunnel before a few more jumps, a teeter-totter and a bridge. The pair finishes the course. They both look excited — and out of breath.

“My doctor told me about three weeks ago that I’m in better physical shape than I was 20 years ago,” Cotter says.

He looks down at Tucker, who’s sniffing the ground near his shoe and whipping his nub of a tail back and forth.

“I thank him every day.”

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About The Author

Heidi Groover

Heidi Groover is a staff writer at the Inlander, where she covers city government and drug policy. On the job, she's spent time with prostitutes, "street kids," marriage equality advocates and the family of a 16-year-old organ donor...