CAPE ELIZABETH — Cindy Ratner has been running dogs in agility competitions for 20 years. Her daughter, Delaney, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, has been doing it for 15.
Together, they’ve trained countless dog handlers, competed across the country, and won national championships.
But there will be something a little extra special about Saturday, Feb. 8, when they travel to Pier 94 in New York City for the first annual Masters Agility Championship, the Westminster Kennel Club’s first-ever foray into agility competitions and its first show in decades to include non-purebreds.
“Westminster has its own mystique,” said Cindy, a Cape Elizabeth resident since 1990. “I think it’s really exciting, and it’s definitely historic.”
Between them, the Delaneys will run five dogs: Zep, a Shetland sheepdog and speed freak who comes from agility royalty; Kelso, a border collie who lives with Delaney at school and took home a national championship in 2012; BAM!, a high-drive border collie who, at 12, is the group’s elder statesmen; Jonesy, a miniature schnauzer, the most talented and temperamental of the bunch; and Pyro, a golden retriever who belongs to a friend from Orono.
“You never know what can happen.” Delaney said. “And hundredths of seconds can make the difference. But between the two of us, I’m pretty confident we’ll get one dog” in the finals, which will be broadcast live on the FOX Sports 1 cable network at 7 p.m.
Dog agility bears no real resemblance to classic conformation shows, in which dogs are judged on how well they exemplify breed standards. Rather, it borrows from equestrian jumping and features a dog and its handler running together through a timed obstacle course. The fastest clean run wins.
“I really like seeing my dog learn and succeed, and figuring out ways to communicate with them that we both understand,” Delaney said of her affection for the sport. “And I’ve always been super competitive.”
Cindy teaches agility across southern Maine, at locations including Finish Forward Dogs in Saco, Mainely Agility in Raymond, and Tree Frog Farm in North Yarmouth. Now Delaney, a managerial economics student, has followed suit.
“It’s been great to see her grow as a trainer and handler,” Cindy said. “She really is one of the up-and-coming young handlers in the country. She’s been on the podium three times now, with three different dogs, and she’s not 21 yet.”
Last summer, when Cindy, 53, was recovering from knee surgery, Delaney taught all her classes. This summer Delaney will train handlers in Maine and in Canada.
“It’s a great way to learn about your dog and to learn about yourself,” Delaney said. “And there’s a flavor for everybody. Most of my students are retired people who just want something fun to do with their dog. Other people want to compete internationally at world championships.”
Clearly, the Ratners fall into the latter category. For them, agility competitions have meant a lot of long, early morning road trips out of state – a lot of 12-hour days at competitions, trying to keep dogs loose for their one or two 30-second runs.
But they agree it’s helped them bond with Kelso, BAM! and the rest of the gang, and, most of all, with each other.
“I was lucky to have a teenager who wanted to go away on weekends and do dog agility,” Cindy said.
For many of the uninitiated, the thought of dog competitions conjures up images from Christopher Guest’s 2000 film, “Best in Show,” which spoofs conformation shows and their eccentric contestants. Delaney is quick to point out the differences between conformation and agility, and the over-the-top nature of the movie, but even she admits it may contain some kernels of truth.
“I mean, I spend an exorbitant amount of time with my dog,” she said. “We’re a bunch of crazy dog people. So you do get some characters in there.”
Cindy Ratner, of Cape Elizabeth, competing in an agility competition with Zep, her 4-year-old Shetland sheepdog.
Delaney Ratner, 20, talks to Jonesy, a 9-year-old miniature schnauzer, at a dog agility competition.