December 01, 2022 6 min read

HEST had the privilege to help sponsor a local UKI Dog Agility event, leading up to the UKI US Open, the biggest, most competitive dog agility event held in North America. We asked dog trainer and agility coach, Darcy Ernat, about her experience with her 8 year old Border Collie, Lolo, and how she keeps her pup comfortable during hectic competition days.

Your name: 

Darcy Ernat 


Durango, CO 

Dog name and breed: 

Lolo, Border Collie, 8.5 years old

What is the UKI US Open?

The UKI US Open is the biggest, most competitive dog agility event held in North America. Each year it is held at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center in Jacksonville, FL. This year there were nearly 1,000 dog/handler teams entered representing Canada, The US, Mexico, Germany, and several other European countries! The competition spans 5 days. We begin our course walk throughs at 7AM each day and first dogs are on the line at 8AM. Finals runs take place 4 of the 5 days, so some teams have to run as late as 9 or 10PM!

How did you begin your journey with agility competitions?

My parents owned a large dog boarding and grooming facility in the Midwest and my dad trained retrievers, so dogs have always been a part of my life. I thought the obedience and field disciplines were boring and wanted to try other dog sports though. When I was finishing college, I brought home my first border collie, Tripp. Together we tried disc, herding, trained all sorts of tricks, and eventually found agility. It didn’t take long before I was completely hooked on agility! 

How old was Lolo when she began training?

Lolo was my second border collie, so I knew long before I brought her home that I wanted to excel in agility with her. Her breeder did a great job of raising well adjusted pups and her foundation work began at 8 weeks old when she came home with me! I start with lots of relationship building, building toy and food drive, socialization, doing body awareness tricks, and as the puppy develops, we continued with age appropriate training that eventually transferred to “real agility.”

What are the judges exactly looking for during the trial?

I feel like it might be beneficial to provide a little background before answering this question. First thing in the morning, competitors are given course maps for the day. They have approximately 15 minutes to study the maps and develop a rough plan for how they would handle their dog on each course. A handler then has approximately 8 minutes to walk each course (without the dog) and develop a plan for how to navigate the course given their skill as a handler and the trained skills their dogs have. Courses are numbered 1-20+/-. In order for a team to have run “clean,” obstacles must be taken in the order AND direction as they are numbered, the dogs must not show hesitation immediately prior to completion of an obstacle, jump bars must remain in place, and all obstacles must be performed to completion (ie; all 12 weave poles must be performed, dogs must exit the A Frame down through the yellow zone, same with teeter and dog walk). Once it is time to run the course, the dog and handler team enters the ring and the handler should execute their plan to the best of their ability. A clean run doesn’t necessarily earn you a win though, a team must ALSO be the fastest! Judges are watching the dogs to assure they are meeting the aforementioned criteria. If there are faults or eliminations, they will communicate such to the score table with a series of hand signals. They are also watching for things like good sportsmanship - no matter what happens on course, it is important that the dogs are treated well. Poor sportsmanship isn’t tolerated.

What was the high point of the competition?

For me, the high point was running in a team event with two other handlers that I really respect and admire and making it to a highly competitive relay final and landing on the podium with them. While I’m super proud of many other accomplishments we had at this event, we did not manage an individual podium. This was my very last run of the week, so I was really happy with that result. 

Low point?

While I maintained a good headspace throughout the event, I was admittedly a little disappointed in my “biathlon” finals run. It was a massive course - 240 yards of running - between a quick moment of disconnect and a tired pup, we earned ourselves an elimination. One of my goals for the US Open was to run clean in my biathlon courses, so I was bummed I couldn’t check that box.

Anything you’d do differently if you did the competition over again?

5 days was A LOT and the days were long. This year I stayed off site in an Air BNB that was 30 minutes away. Next year I will definitely try stay on site. This will allow me and the dogs to sleep in a little bit and rest comfortably during the day. This event is truly a marathon, not a sprint! The mental component is no joke and I have to prioritize mental breaks to stay sharp. I believe the same is true for my dogs. For those of us who stayed off site, we crated our dogs and rested up in covered horse stalls. (This meant napping on our super comfy HEST beds!) It’s truly impossible for every competitor to stay on site, but I felt like the energy of the environment was still palpable when my dogs and I were trying to rest.

What’s the next competition on the calendar?

We are now on an official winter break! Just like human athletes, dogs need periods of rest after heavy training and competition. In agility, this is largely self regulated as there is no “season.” Events continue all year and one could, in theory, train just as much! My next competition is early February. Just a local event in Southern New Mexico to start getting us warmed up for Spring!

Advice to people/dogs getting into agility training?

The number one thing I would tell people getting into agility is - it should be fun for the both of you! This means finding a program/trainer that uses positive reinforcement and encourages liberal use of treats and toys. Dogs would never run over and through these crazy obstacles if there wasn’t a reason to! Be patient - with yourself and your dog! It takes time to get the hang of it and to develop some level of proficiency. Finally, prepare to become addicted!! 

Tips on dog training in general? What are some things you’ve learned through your dog training journey? 

Always put the dog first. How do you like to learn? Do you appreciate a patient teacher who is willing to show you the steps? I think most of us have dealt with people who just expect you to know things and it’s frustrating for both parties! So, try to keep that sort of thing in mind. It takes time to become a good teacher. Our dogs are so patient and we are their entire world. They deserve to be treated well. We all have hard days when it comes to training and if I find myself getting frustrated, I have found that the best thing to do is just walk away, breathe, and reflect on what I can do to be better next time. 

Why is comfort important for your pup? How do you keep your dog comfortable and calm in different stimulating competition scenarios and on the road?

Every year I find that I become more and more in tune with my body and I’m more sensitive to things like getting adequate rest and proper nutrition and exercise. If I don’t have those things, I don’t feel great! Why would my dog be any different? I value rest and recovery more than ever - for myself and my pups! My dogs become accustomed to travel at an early age. I use crates at home, in my car, and at competitions to not only keep them safe, but as a space they know they can turn off and relax in. And they do just that!! I brought our new HEST dog bed (for Lolo) and Foamy (for me) to the US Open and we both appreciated having serious comfort in a crazy competition environment. The medium bed fit inside her crate, so she had optimal comfort in her down time! I even rolled the dog bed up and brought it ringside so she didn’t have to lay on the hard ground before her run. I set up a cot with my Foamy and HEST Pillow, laid back, got some shut eye and was the envy of my stall block!