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UMass student’s dogs impress at legendary Westminster show

“I knew they had a shot,” the Maine native said in an interview at her Amherst apartment Monday. “Really, I just wanted to be on TV. Winning was the icing on the cake.”

Westminster, famous for its Best in Show competition, added agility and mixed breed events for the first time in its 138 years. The Master Agility Competition took place Feb. 8.

It’s been a buzz of phone calls and TV and newspaper interviews ever since for Ratner.

“It’s historic,” said her agility circuit peer Ann Peereboom of Leeds, who was not at the competition.

Ratner “is a great competitor, a gracious winner,” Peereboom said. “She deserves the attention.”

Ratner’s 7-year-old border collie, Kelso, who took Westminster’s top agility honors, had won first place in the United Stated Dog Agility Association’s national competition in 2012, a bigger deal in the dog agility world, Ratner said. So he knows how to be a champ. He’s even getting good at posing for photos, she said, though it’s hard to get him to put his ears up on cue. But still, acing Westminster was fun.

After the win, shown on Fox Sports 1, Ratner’s cellphone began vibrating with a barrage of buzzes and dings that forced her to give up trying to make outgoing calls. “It was nuts,” she said. “It still is. Westminster is such a household name. The agility community was really excited to finally be in the public eye.”

A lottery system was used to pick the dogs who competed at Pier 94, the day before the Best in Show got under way at Madison Square Garden. Any dog who had reached the Master or Excellent level on the competitive circuit could be entered into the drawing.

“We just happened to be a lucky envelope,” Ratner said. She and her mother entered five dogs.

Running, jumping, weaving

In agility competition a dog is guided to run as fast as it can through a course of 18 to 20 obstacles: tunnels, seesaws, ledges, bars and poles. The dog jumps, weaves and scampers its way to the end while its handler runs ahead or alongside giving verbal and body cues.

At Westminster, Kelso did that better than all 224 other dogs — 63 breeds and 16 mixes — in a shade over 28 seconds. Jonesy, a miniature schnauzer who is Ratner’s mother’s dog, also competed in the show, guided by Ratner, beating the dogs in his height class while completing the course in 30 seconds flat.

Ratner, 20, learned agility training from her mother, Cindy Ratner of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, who has been doing it since the 1980s and teaches as well as competes. Ratner said when she was 5 or 6, her mother let her begin doing drills in the backyard with a sheltie named Shane. Ratner was 6 when her first qualifying leg was recorded. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t running a dog,” she said.

The other dogs she and her mother work with either belong to Cindy Ratner or are shared by mother and daughter. Besides Jonesy, there is Zep, a Shetland sheep dog and BAM!, another border collie.

But Kelso is all Delaney’s. Kelso is usually with her in Amherst in the third-floor apartment at Echo Village on Gatehouse Road she shares with two roommates. Kelso’s brown fleece bed is beneath a window covered by a shade that bears three ribbons he won at past competitions.

The Westminster ribbons are much bigger and grander — the best in the agility height class, one each for Kelso and Jonesy, are blue and gold, and Kelso’s best overall ribbon is purple and gold. They’re too heavy to hang on the window shade. “I’ll send them home eventually,” Ratner said. “But I wanted to keep them for a while.”

Kelso’s big win also netted a trophy — an engraved silver tray.

Keeping in shape

Kelso already has gone home to Maine for a month to allow Ratner to focus on studying for midterms exams. She is a resource economics major. The hardest part about keeping a competitive dog at school, she said, is simply tending to the basics — getting home from class to let him out, making sure he gets his daily walks.

Weekend competitions, often in New Hampshire, are frequent, Ratner said. Her job is to ensure Kelso stays in shape through those walks and hikes — Mount Norwottuck, she points out, is not far from her apartment. She also practices a variety of tricks with Kelso to keep his learning skills sharp — he can walk on just his hind legs and she’s working on getting him to stand on just his front legs.

But there isn’t much work done on agility routines. For at least three weeks prior to his wins both at nationals in 2012 and at Westminster, he did no work with the equipment, she said. “I guess not training my dogs before big competitions is a good thing.”

Kelso, though, has been trained since birth. He originally belonged to a couple from Michigan, accomplished agility trainers who had much stronger dogs than Kelso in competition. “He is such a weenie,” Ratner said. “He was just getting lost in the sauce. He needed to be the only dog.”

Ratner and her mother knew the couple and the dog well from the agility circuit. “I really liked him. He really liked me,” Ratner said. And so, in 2010, when Ratner was 16, the couple gave Kelso to her. “It’s worked out really well, obviously,” she said.

In the zone

Ratner said the crowds and cameras at Westminster didn’t faze her.

“When I’m out there running the course I don’t hear the background noise,” she said. “I tend to get in the zone, block everything out. It’s like I’m in my backyard.”

The beauty of Westminster, she said, is how the show’s lofty reputation drew attention to agility competition. “It looks cool, but it’s tricky to pull in spectators,” she said. “To have crowds six or seven people deep was crazy.”

Ratner said her animals tend to do well in competition because they are efficient. Other dogs may seem faster, she said, but hers make tight turns, shaving off fractions of seconds. “It can make all the difference in the world,” she said. “At nationals in 2012, Kelso won by 0.07 of a second.”

Ratner said her mother began doing obedience work with dogs in the 1980s but switched to agility when one of her dogs proved to be more suited to it.

“I like it because it requires so much learning and it keeps everybody fit,” Ratner said. “Taking an 8-week-old puppy and building it up to be an international-level competitor is the coolest thing in the world. It creates such a strong bond between trainer and dog.”

As for the dogs, “It’s fun. It’s like a playground basically and when they do it right they get food or toys afterward. They are pretty pumped to do whatever.”

Ratner said agility is a sport that most any dog owner can enjoy. “I obviously want to win worlds someday, but even for people who just want to have something fun to do with their dogs that keeps them both active, it’s great.”

Ratner and her mother have a full slate of competitions for Kelso and the other dogs over the next few months, including qualifying events for national and world competitions. They have to pick and choose which dogs to bring — it gets expensive at $175 to $200 per dog plus travel and lodging expenses. Their teaching, both at Cindy Ratner’s facilities in Maine and at workshops and events elsewhere, helps supports it.

Ratner hopes her economics degree will help her land a job someday that will allow her to make enough money to continue competing and teaching on the side. Making agility training a career could lead to burnout, she said. “But I’ll be doing dog agility for a very long time.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.

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