French Agility Dogs
"Perhaps in the past people just bought a dog and thought, "Poof! There is the dog. He will guard the house, now we go to the beach!" But now they look a different way," says Cathy Barbusse.
She should know. An extremely doggy Frenchwoman, she runs the only agility and obedience training club in her area of southern France. (Some people undertake a two-hour drive to get to the club in Alès because there isn't anything nearer.)
"Some of our members enter the local dog competitions, but really we're here to help families live in harmony with their pets. We're a non-profit-making association. We don't train animals for serious competition."
The club charges a registration fee of approx £15 and thereafter £70 a year, which covers insurance, rent of the training ground and purchase of equipment.
Trainer Pascale Desmerges is another toutou-mad Frenchwoman, and a far cry from our traditional image of a French dog-owner being an elegant Channel-clad fashion-victim carrying Fifi The Fluff in her arms. Pascale wears army fatigues and is currently training two crossbred GSDs - both of them at under a year old already responding to an enormous range of commands.
Today's class is the last before the summer break so it is small - perhaps twenty dogs and their owners instead of the usual fifty or so. It is enlivened however by Melissa, a two-year-old St Bernard who is busy tying her owner in knots. Once he is well and truly off balance, she knocks him over and attempts to charge off on her own business. Pounced upon by Pascale, Melissa stands waving her tail and panting gently as if to say that she was only joking.
The class progresses through heel, sit, lie down and stay, with varying levels of success. This isn't a smart club full of pedigree animals and perfect dog-owners. The only really posh dog is Lestor, a beautifully turned-out black standard poodle with impeccable manners and a joyous approach to life. The rest of the dogs are the usual mix of mongrels and Heinz 57s - some playful, some old, some disgracefully out of control, some just plain lazy.
The class is moving on to a dominance exercise now; straddling the dogs as they lie between their owner's feet. Watching Melissa's owner attempting this is funnier than watching a whole pack of circus clowns. Whoops! Her owner has just lost his balance again. Melissa, explains Cathy, doesn't accept her owner as the pack leader. Er, no. Evidently not.
Meanwhile, the babes-in-arms are watching from their bench: Patsy and Philia the puppies. Too young to join in, they survey the proceedings from their mistresses' laps.
Obviously, to prevent the spread of disease, all the dogs here have to be tattooed and vaccinated.
"We have had owners say their dogs are vaccinated," says Cathy, "but then we see that the certificates date from the first injections. They've never had their boosters. These owners simply don't realise that the vaccinations have to be repeated annually."
So if nothing else the "Amicale Canine Cevenole" in Alès ensures that their members' dogs are all properly tattooed and vaccinated.
"The first discipline!" says Pascale.
The second is that no dogs are allowed to relieve themselves in the training area. Any accidents have to be cleared up by the owner.
The obedience training is finished now and the beginners are going home. There is no point in staying because you can't teach agility to a dog who doesn't listen, dives after every cat and only ever comes home for dinner.
Melissa's owner achieves the incredible and manages to persuade her to squeeze into their Renault 5 without fussing. We have to laugh but in fact, Pascale assures us that the St Bernard has already made huge progress. Apparently only six months ago, all three dog-trainers used to have to manhandle her in and out of the training ground.
The dogs are getting impatient. They really love agility and can't wait to get going. A sweet-natured Doberman is twitching his ears, a pair of GSDs are humming with eagerness and a gang of smaller dogs are racing about under everyone's feet, yapping with excitement as the equipment is set up.
Finally it's time to start and the first dog is a large black sheepdog called Lucky who shoots through the canvass tube, flies through the hanging tyre, leaps over the jumps and hops onto the table where he dances up and down as his mistress counts to five. Then he's off again, weaving through the poles, scooting up the ramp, onto the seesaw, through the tunnel, over the walkway and past the finishing post with his plumed tail waving in triumph.
"Yes," says the trainer. "It's very good but he's going so fast that he's missing the zones!" These are the green painted parts of the obstacle course, which must be touched by the dog: mostly at the base of the ramps. Some of the little dogs also have a tendency to miss the zones and leap straight from one thing to another. Lucky tries again, this time with his owner encouraging him to go slowly and sure enough, he makes all the zones except the last one which he misses
because he jumps off early for pats and applause.
But it doesn't matter - he'll get it in the end. And if he doesn't, so what? No-one here is aiming for stardom.
"We live very close to our dogs," says Cathy. "They are part of our family. If we get results, tant mieux. If not, we are still closer to our pets - which is the important thing."
Clearly, no-one here regards their dog as just an animal to guard their house while they are on the beach. In fact, the members of this particular club are far more likely to be found training their dogs than sunbathing.
"You see," smiles Cathy, "we just love dogs!"
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