The athletes all had one name, four legs, unbridled energy and a seeming love of the game.

The sport is dog agility trials, a high-octane event where dogs race around an obstacle course, running over ramps, jumping hurdles, racing through tunnels and weaving through a stand of plastic poles.

"It's the most fun you can have with your dog," said Deanna Fairchild of San Jose, whose dog, Arrow, is an 8-year-old American Indian dog. "It builds a bond you wouldn't believe."

Arrow was one of 205 dogs competing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Sunday in a qualifying event for U.S. Dog Agility Association regionals, which will next be held in February in Gilbert, Ariz.

Sunday's event drew competitors from as far away as Carson City and Santa Barbara, their RVs lined up like a wagon train circling the Lyttle Cow Palace.

Competition, however, is a relative thing.

"The prizes are ribbons. It is all for the love of the sport," said Holly Newman of Petaluma, who is a member of the board for The Bay Team, the Bay Area club that put on the event. "It is an amateur thing to do. There is no professional agility, per se."

"It is really friendly, it is not cut-throat, there are no Tanya Hardings," said Jim Basic of San Jose, whose dog, Sweep, a 6-year-old border collie, has earned the championship level. "It is having fun with your dog; it is not like sports where it is you against someone else."

The majority of the dogs are border collies, which are herding dogs that are very active and smart, the traits that seem to make them naturals for agility trials competition.

"If you have a border collie, they have to have a job," said Nora Bieber of Woodland, who had a 4-year-old border collie named Ricky in the trials. "This is one way of keeping their body and mind in action. If you don't, they will and you won't like it."

A border collie can cost $900. Training begins when they are pups, but they are not allowed to compete until they are 18 months old. The majority are 4 and 5 years old, but one competitor Sunday was 13 and another was 15.

"You start by liking dogs, then having something to do as a team with your dog is rewarding for the dog and for the person," said Kate Wheelock of Sebastopol.

Wheelock's dog, a 5-year-old border collie named Ruby, ran the course and then went to a nearby field for a game of catch.

"Playing Frisbee is his reward," Wheelock said. "We teach them from puppies to enjoy play and that's what drives them."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or

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