(photo by: Samantha Dillard)
It’s 7:00 am on Monday morning, and I’m caring for patients at a nursing home. The television is on at the bedside when my ears perk up because I hear the words “dog” and “agility” coming from the mouth of Robin Roberts, a co-host of ABC’s nationally televised Good Morning America. While Delaney Ratner and her fantastic border collie Kelso won the first annual Masters Agility Championship at Westminster (aired on Fox Sports), Stacey Campbell and her mixed breed Roo was the talk of the morning show.
As the overall winner, Kelso has received a lot of attention from large media outlets, as any google search for “agility and Westminster” will show you, and rightfully so. Still, Good Morning America chose to focus on Roo’s story–why?
The media creates compelling stories about overcoming adversity or turning a passion into success by finding heroes that appeal emotionally to a broad and diverse audience. Roo is an SPCA rescue “mutt” who defies decades of barred entry by Westminster, and achieves the dream of every underdog (pun intended)! Of course, it helps that Stacey and Roo are really good at agility.
For the casual television viewers who love their dogs, seeing dog agility on television and highlighted in the post-weekend news media outlets offers a radically different view of the human-dog relationship, which hopefully leads to the thought, “My dog can do that, maybe. Let’s try it!” Growing the sport by adding new competitors and dogs is vital to the interests of everyone associated with agility–from the organizations to the vendors to the competitors themselves.
How will the dog agility community greet these potential newcomers? We all have the ability to bring a new person into our agility community, or to turn them away. As an instructor, your goal should be to create an incredibly fun, rewarding environment for both the person and dog. Lectures about overweight dogs, handling theory, and why they can’t get on the dogwalk during the first lesson can wait. You will definitely have newcomers unfamiliar with the power of positive reinforcement, and coming down hard on them on the first day would be a mistake. As an instructor, you might look at that person and think “good riddance–we don’t want that kind of person here” but I see a missed opportunity to impact that dog’s life, and the lives of any future dogs that person or their children may have.
In 2003, Chris Moneymaker, an accountant and amateur poker player from Tennessee, shocked the world by beating a field of 838 players, mostly professionals, to win the World Series of Poker Main Event, winning $2.5 million. ESPN (now owned by ABC) covered the story of Moneymaker versus the pros, creating a huge surge in popularity of the game, both on line and in casinos. The flood of new players brought billions of dollars into the industry and revolutionized the game. Today, people in the poker industry refer to that influence as The Moneymaker Effect.
Will the Masters Agility Championship at Westminster eventually have a similar impact on the agility world? I hope so, and I will be sure to call it The Roo Effect. Before we become overly critical of the event coverage, the way it was run, which dogs were shown, and so on, remember that this event may be a critical point in our sport’s future that we should nurture, and not destroy.