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Courtesy of Linda Schertz
Living in the middle of Alaska can be isolating, but training groups like 40 Below – Let’s Go know how to have fun.

The success of any American Kennel Club sport is built on teamwork, trust, and tenacity between handler and dog. But sometimes accessing nationwide competitions can be a challenge, especially if you live hundreds of miles away from a national championship and can’t quite hop on a flight.

This rings true for Agility competitors at the Tanana Valley Kennel Club in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is approximately 4,539 miles from Ocala, Florida where the 2022 National Agility Championship was held this year. So, when the opportunity to compete on a national level without leaving the state came up through the AKC Agility League, the club hopped on it with their team “40 Below — Let’s Go”.

Courtesy of Linda Schertz
Hearty Alaska Agility competitors don’t let a little rain slow them down.

“We are a group of handlers that get together in the summer and train every Wednesday morning and Sunday afternoon followed by a potluck dinner,” says team captain Linda Schertz. “When AKC asked our club if we were interested in competing, we said sure.”

Launching May 30, the new pilot program will have teams from across the nation, from Hawaii to New Hampshire, run the same six courses during a 12-week period where both teams and individual dogs are ranked based on performance. It was a no-brainer for a team that has a limited window for competition.

While most serious agility teams compete pretty much year-round in the Lower 48, this group is limited to a four-month season: June through September. For the remainder of the year, when it gets too cold, the club rents a nearby horse barn for practices.

“It is narrow and dusty, and we must set up and take down the pattern every time we use it,” Schertz says. “And it’s cold.” But some of the retired team members extend their season by flying to the contiguous US states for the winter with their dogs and entering competitions there.

Even with their short outdoor training season, the club members are confronted with weather challenges from rain to scorching heat. But it’s a fun-filled summer with 15 AKC trials approved at the club because the next closest trial is 350 miles away.

Occasionally, they’ll get a surprise visitor, too.

“One day we showed up in the training yard to set up the course,” Schertz says. “We look up and see a 1,500-pound moose on the other side of the fence. We moved and waited for him to finish eating leaves so we could get back to work. You don’t mess with those guys. They can be aggressive.”

Courtesy of Linda Schertz
A moose is peering across the fence of Alaska team captain Linda Schertz’s backyard fence where the group was about to set up a course.

What Is the AKC Agility League?

While Agility often seems like an individual sport between dog and handler, the AKC Agility League hopes to create a community both between the team members and those competing throughout the country.

The idea is the brainchild of Gina DiNardo, AKC executive secretary. “I always thought that AKC sports were missing the team aspect of competition that so many of us have enjoyed by competing in other sports, whether be adult softball, bowling, rugby, archery, you name it,” she says.

Thinking Agility could have a similar league competition, she set out to establish a program in 2019 with Penny Leigh, CPDT-KA and program manager for AKC Canine Partners and the AKC GoodDog! Helpline, Seth Fera Schanes, Director of Strategic Planning and Operations, and Kassandra McCombe, Senior Business Intelligence Analyst.

Together they developed the concept, business plan, rules, and procedures and sourced tracking software for inputting scores, tracking team rankings, and signing on new members.

The final step was the AKC board’s approval of the league as a pilot program and that came in January. There will be nine regional groups with 18 clubs in total competing in the AKC Agility League and will receive a new course to run every two weeks for a total of six courses.

Throughout the competition, captains will submit scores from qualified judges, and AKC will release rankings of both teams and individual dogs in each jump height every two weeks. Virtual spectators can check in then to cheer on and see how their regional or local team is doing in the competition.

After the season closes in mid-August, AKC will name the top three regional teams, the top team in each region, plus the top dog in each individual jump height, both in Regular and Preferred heights.

Related article: Junior Handler Spotlight: Agility Star 15-Year-Old Reagan Wallace
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