Furry, energetic Ketch was immediately put to the test on a brisk midday morning.
The brown cocker spaniel waited for the signal to navigate a tricky obstacle course sprinkled with ramps, jumps, tunnels and weave polls.
Quick on her toes, Cathy Percy, the dog’s owner and handler, followed, commanding Ketch to dart from one obstacle to another. The dog responded, swiftly completing a practice run at one end of a large, covered outdoor arena.
Observing was Sandra Katzen, an Auburn woman who has been training and judging agility dogs of all breeds, shapes and sizes for 30 years, the last 18 at her outdoor Vortex Agility and Dog Training center on Kent’s East Hill.
Katzen, whom her peers have described as a pioneer in the sport, was pleased with the progress Percy had made with her two cocker spaniels, Ketch, and Kleo, the latter a national champion.
“I don’t push people to compete, but the majority of my students do,” Katzen said. “I like watching people have fun with their dogs.”
As Percy explains, Katzen is one of the best at her craft, a maker of many agility champion canines.
“She challenges us, which is good,” Percy said. “She uses positive training methods, which we appreciate. She’s been great to work with over the last 18 years and has helped us achieve our goals.”
The Kent-Auburn area is home to many training grounds for agility and non-competitive dogs, but few trainers have the background of Katzen, 68, whose contributions to the sport have spanned many roles – from competitor and teacher, to club founder, board member and judge. She has represented the sport as a teacher or judge throughout the world, serving in Australia, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Finland, and most of the United State, including Alaska and Hawaii.
Recognized for her efforts, Katzen was recently inducted into the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) Hall of Fame. Katzen specializes in teaching the fundamentals of dog agility, but she also has been active in sheepdog trailing and competed in obedience and disk dog competitions.
USDAA President Ken Tatsch described Katzen as “a trail blazer whose accomplishments … have contributed to the sport and the organization’s development and growth, and are deemed to have lasting, historical significance, either regionally or nationally in scope.
“Sandra is a great role model as competitor, event organizer, judge, volunteer and leader, while contributing selflessly for 30 years in support of USDAA,” Tatsch said. “Her contributions have greatly impacted the development of the sport of dog agility in the United States and North America.”
The award surprised and humbled Katzen.
“It was quite an honor,” she said. “I love what I do.”
Lifetime with animals
Katzen, who was born and raised in Palo Alto, Calif., before coming to the Pacific Northwest, has studied and worked with animals most of her life. She earned a degree in animal science, with a minor in biology, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo.
Looking for a change, Katzen moved to Bellingham 40 years ago before settling in Seattle and eventually Auburn.
Katzen discovered agility dog training 30 years ago when she was attending a seminar with her Australian Shepherd, Kodi, who became her first agility dog and a national champion. Intrigued, Katzen soon joined a group to form the Rainier Agility Team while she was working for the University of Washington in diabetes and endocrinology research.
“When we started, no one knew what they were doing, but we just started teaching classes to the best of our ability from the seminars that we had taken,” Katzen said of agility dog training.
Katzen was a quick study and soon helped launch other USDAA clubs in the region. She became a USDAA judge in 1992 and since then has hosted clinics for future generations of judges.
In 2000, a veterinary hospital asked Katzen to build a dog training program that offered agility instruction. She did, briefly working there before deciding to establish her own training school, Vortex Agility, in 2001. She’s been teaching students and their dogs ever since.
Working well with others
Katzen brings a gentle approach to her work, adjusting to the capabilities and personalities of handlers and their dogs. Positive reinforcement during difficult training stretches is one of her keys to success. To stay current, she attends seminars to grasp the latest techniques in the evolving sport.
“You can be frustrated … but I really try hard not to show (it) because (the dog will) think it’s them,” she said. “We’re not curing cancer, we’re having fun with our dogs, so it should be about having some fun, and that’s how I approach it.”
Each dog, each handler is different, Katzen said, making the sport challenging and the rewards great.
Dog agility requires physical and mental engagement for dogs and humans. Guided only by voice and movement cues from their human partners, the canine athletes compete against the clock, fly over hurdles, weave between poles, race through tunnels and other equipment. Obstacles are set according to the dogs’ height and experience level, allowing dogs of all breeds and sizes to compete.
When she isn’t teaching, Katzen competes locally and nationally with her border collies.
What she enjoys most about agility is “the bond you develop with the dogs and the fun you both have in the sport, as well as the incredible friendships with folks from all over the world.”
She continues to have fun.
“(Agility) makes such a strong bond between the human and the dog because they’re having fun together,” Katzen said. “I teach a lot of ground skills that don’t have much to do with the equipment. But once they start doing the equipment, I enjoy just seeing almost the wonder on the handlers’ faces when their dogs do something. (They’re like), ‘I didn’t even think he could that.’ And they can, and they do. … It builds confidence in the dog, it builds confidence in the people.”