Radence Tsow hurdles over competition with his dog

Michelle Lum

Eyes trained on his red-and-brown Border Collie, junior Radence Tsow guides his dog Ammo through obstacle after obstacle laid out on a grassy field. The stakes are high at the American Kennel Club (AKC) European Open Junior (EOJ), an international dog agility competition, and spectators watch intently as it all comes down to these two on the course.

In dog agility, handlers and their dogs navigate through a series of obstacles, ranging from jumps to contact obstacles like seesaws, as quickly and accurately as possible. Handlers do not touch their dogs, but instead use body language and verbal cues to direct them, as dog agility courses are designed to be unnavigable without human assistance.

Before the competition, handlers perform a walkthrough of the course to plan the path that they and their dogs will take. During the runs, penalties are taken for faults such as dropped bars, when dogs knock down bars that they are supposed to jump over. Dogs and handlers may compete based on their experience levels in the novice, open, excellent or masters classes and are also split into different classes depending on the size of the dog. Ammo has a Master Agility Championship (MACH) title, while Tsow competes in the masters and large dog class with him.

When Tsow was 10 years old, his aunt introduced him to the sport. Over the past six years, he has been an active competitor, usually attending regional competitions around every two months. Tsow has won second place at a trial hosted by the Puli Club of America and first at two trials hosted by the Sacramento Dog Training Club.

To prepare for competitions, Tsow usually practices every week at a dog agility field with a full course or at a local park with various obstacles. During practices, Tsow works on difficulties he and Ammo face in training, such as Ammo’s abundance of energy, which is an advantage in terms of speed but also often leads to reckless running. Practicing allows him to hone small details that can make a big difference in competitions. His bond with his dog is integral to their performance on the course.

“When I am out there on the course, I am mostly focused on the course and where my dog is,” said Tsow. “I have to maintain that connection with my dog to make sure he does not go off course or drop any bars. You have to train the dog to recognize your cues, and you also have to be able to coordinate with the dog to give the cues at the right time.”

All his training culminated in Tsow participating in the EOJ agility competition in Luxembourg this past summer as one of the four boys on the USA Junior Handler Team, which is comprised of boys and girls between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. Since he does not usually train with a coach, Tsow was given the unique opportunity to work with experienced coaches, such as Head Coach of Team USA Susan Cochran, at the EOJ.

“In the short time that I spent with Radence, I saw his focus and determination on the agility field grow,” said Cochran. “His desire to do well was very evident. He was attentive and readily took advice, easily applying it to the agility course. He is somewhat of a natural in handling his dog. I would love to see Radence continue in agility, and I believe he could become a top handler.”

Although Tsow did not perform as well as he would have liked to at the EOJ, he has remained positive, as this summer’s experience was only his first international competition. He hopes to return to the EOJ and do better, and his performance so far is promising.

“Radence brings a lot to a team,” said Tsow’s EOJ teammate Natalie Spinsby. “He seems to have a good knack for training and works really well with everyone. During competitions, Radence kept his head very well and even though his timing on the course was not always great, he was able to remain positive and take home a lot to work on from the experience.”

It is not just about winning, however. Through dog agility, Tsow has grown closer to Ammo and gotten to know handlers from all over the country. He and his teammates have created a tight-knit community, with many of them having become some of his closest friends.

“I made many memories with Ammo and my teammates at the EOJ and I hope to continue to allow those friendships to grow in the future,” said Tsow. “Personally, I am just glad that I can create this bond with Ammo and help him do what he loves. The adrenaline and excitement of being out there on the course is amazing, but in the end, no matter the outcome, what matters is that Ammo and I enjoyed ourselves and had fun.”

Dog agility truly is a sport like no other. For Tsow, the activity has a special meaning, having helped him grow personally and bond with teammates while discovering what it really means to have a connection with man’s best friend.