330 dogs leap, zip and whirl in Westminster agility contest

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 10: A dog competes in the Masters Agility Championship during the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on February 10, 2018 in New York City. TBest in show at the 142nd Westminster dog show will be awarded at the end of the competition on Tuesday, February 13. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Leslie Holm has no trouble pulling together a big-time performance. She spent 19 years as a lighting technician and electrician on tours by acts ranging from Beyonce to Bon Jovi.

But guiding her dog, Riley Nico, through the Westminster Kennel Club agility competition? “This gives me butterflies,” Holm says.

She never envisioned herself doing something like this before adopting the mixed-breed dog and seeing her jump over benches and weave around people at a pooch park.

Three years later, in her first turn Saturday at the nation’s most famous dog show, Riley Nico finished racking up points to be at the “master agility champion” level.

But Holm says the biggest reward isn’t a ribbon or title — it’s a connection.

“You’re teammates. It’s not just like having a pet,” says Holm, who’s now an electrician for conventions so she can be home more with her dogs.

As many as 330 dogs, from Yorkshire terriers to German shepherds, and their human teammates navigated jumps, turns, ramps and tunnels as the show opened Saturday, aiming for the nighttime, televised finals. (Not to be outdone, some pedigreed cats had a go at agility at a companion event next door.)

The show, now in its 142nd year, added agility in 2014, incorporating an increasingly popular sport — and with it, mixed-breed dogs. A record 29 of them signed up to compete this year.

The more traditional part of Westminster, featuring 2,882 entries, begins Monday morning and leads up to the best in show pick Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Agility winners so far have all been purebred, and the sport definitely has its breeds-to-beat. Just ask these 55 border collies, 34 Shetland sheepdogs or 18 Australian shepherds, for instance.

But contestants like Zuri the basenji and Valur the Saluki came from breeds seldom seen at agility trials.

Greyhound-like Salukis have speed and stamina but are known for independent-mindedness. So Christine Klein figured out how to get Valur engaged: make sure training isn’t repetitive, and don’t bother correcting him if he makes a mistake.

“He doesn’t like to be wrong,” the Sharon, Vermont, woman chuckled.

On the other end of the lankiness spectrum is Spec the longhaired dachshund — or “the Weavin’ Weiner,” as owner Carole Krivanich calls him.

He has to overcome short legs and an extended torso. And then there’s his scent hound’s nose.

“For him to run along the ground and not stop and smell anything is a challenge,” said Krivanich, of Milton, Delaware.

Westminster’s agility competition is separate from the more traditional, sedate purebred judging that goes toward the coveted Best in Show trophy. But 6-year-old Chester, a Doberman pinscher, is doing both at his first Westminster.

Owner Steve Garcia got Chester as a pet, with no thought of dog sports until he saw how much the Doberman seemed to enjoy a basic obedience class.

That led to agility, scent work and a therapy-dog certification. Garcia, of Massapequa, hopes Chester can “be the ambassador” for a breed sometimes perceived as threatening.

Inspired by interest in dog agility, cat fanciers began holding agility competitions in the early 2000s, largely with the goal of getting people to play more with their felines.

Spots had never tried agility before Saturday at “Meet the Breeds,” a Westminster companion event involving both the American Kennel Club and The International Cat Association.

The 4-month-old Bengal kitten initially seemed a bit puzzled by the obstacles. But she quickly seemed to get the hang of it — mostly — after a few times following a toy-dangling trainer through the course.

“People used to think you couldn’t train cats,” said Spots’ owner and breeder, Vicki Jeffers of Califon, New Jersey. “But they can see that you can.”