At 80, Marge Yonda is looking forward to leading her standard poodle through the fast-paced agility competition — a pursuit Yonda took up when she stopped running marathons at 73.
There's plenty of variety among the people, as well as the dogs, participating in American dogdom's most prestigious event next month. It will feature two new breeds and a bigger lineup of dogs in an agility contest, which brought new dimension to the show last year and marked the return of mixed-breed dogs for the first time since its early years.
Emma will face much older handlers and show a dog over twice her weight, so big that Emma has to lift hard to position the legs of the Dane, named Joy. But Emma's used to the double-takes and unfazed by the competition.
"With Joy, she's easy — most of the time," Emma said Wednesday after appearing at a news conference with her twin sister Faith and 17-year-old sister, Sophia, who also are showing dogs at Westminster. The Columbus, New Jersey, family's pastime started with a suggestion from Joy's breeder, and mom Kim Rogers soon came to see the benefits: "It teaches responsibility and winning and losing gracefully," she says.
Over 2,700 dogs are slated to compete in the traditional main event — breed judging — at Westminster's 139th annual show Feb. 16 and 17. Making their first appearances are the coton de tulear (pronounced koh-TOHN' du TOO'-lay-ahr), an easygoing companion breed known as the "royal dog of Madagascar," and the wirehaired vizsla (pronounced (VEEZ'-shlah), a stalwart Hungarian hunting dog. It's related to the more widely known vizsla.
There are only about 2,000 wirehaired vizslas worldwide, said owner Anton Sagh, whose dog Falko is entered at Westminster.
"That's why I'm trying to promote the breed," said Sagh, a Hungarian-Canadian of the Montreal suburb of Laval.
Meanwhile, the Feb. 14 agility contest will feature 330 contestants, up from 225 in last year's debut.
After knee surgery ended her marathon running, Yonda tried dog agility to stay active. It suits both her and her dog, Maggie, a poodle that eagerly leaped jumps and pranced around poles in a demonstration Wednesday.
"It's a very intricate, complex sport," said Yonda, of Ridgefield, Connecticut. "We're learning all the time."
Organizers noted that for the first time, the agility competition will coincide with the American Kennel Club's non-competitive "Meet the Breeds" event, previously held separately in the fall.
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