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First they zig. Then zag. Finally, they wag.

Alan Silvey was running alongside his Australian shepherd, Mystic, during a canine agility trial in October when the heart attack hit.

When Silvey came to, his first words were: "Did I qualify?"

Agility trials are all about confronting obstacles.

Just ask Silvey, 54, of Clearwater, who returns to competition this weekend when he and Mystic take part in the National Agility Championship, part of the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship dog show in Tampa.

"I was thrilled to walk off the course and not have to be carried off on a stretcher," Silvey said Saturday after making a run with Mystic at an agility event at the Bonjon Shepherd Ranch in Tampa.

Agility, though relatively new, is called the fastest-growing canine sport in the United States. Some 750 dogs will compete for titles this weekend at the Tampa Convention Center.

"This is the biggest number of agility competitors we've ever had," said Doug Hurley, a Palm Harbor resident and co-chairman of the AKC National Agility Championship.

"Last year, we had 520 (entries), and if you qualified you were in," Hurley said. "This year, we had almost 1,000 entrants, and we had to cut it off."

Unlike other dog show events, appearances don't matter. It's dexterity, speed and smarts.

Agility is known as a "time and fault sport." Dogs sprint through tunnels, leap over hurdles and zigzag through weave poles, among other obstacles. Time faults are given for every second a dog goes over a preset course time, and penalties are assessed for mistakes such as missing an obstacle.

Handlers are beside their dogs all the way, signaling the next obstacle.

In AKC competition, dogs are classified by height to make the contest fair between the different-sized dogs. The canines begin competing at the novice level and work their way up to "open" and then "excellent" level.

Agility got its start in 1978 in England when dogs would leap obstacles as entertainment between breed judging. The AKC held its first trial in 1994.

AKC agility competition is open to all 156 registered breeds. But mixed breeds can participate in agility competitions held by the United States Dog Agility Association, the North American Dog Agility Council and the United Kennel Club.

Last weekend, the 40-acre Bonjon Shepherd Ranch in Tampa resembled a campground as people, from teens to seniors, set up shade tents, portable chairs and dog pens to participate in a trial, a warmup for this weekend's National Agility Championship.

Bonnie McDonald, owner of the training ranch, remembered the first agility trials held several years ago.

"We had one ring, one judge, about 50 dogs, and it was held on one day," she said.

In the event, nearly 250 dogs competed in two rings for three days.

Her son, Daniel, 19, grew up among the citrus groves and agility rings on the ranch. He started training and showing dogs when he was 8, and now is recognized as one of the nation's premier handlers. His male shelty, Gabe, has placed in the top 10 in the nationals for the past two years and will be competing again this year.

Daniel now teaches at the ranch.

Kris and Clark Osojnicki, both 41, journeyed from Minnesota with their six dogs to compete with their border collie in the nationals. They estimate they spend about $15,000 a year on the sport.

"It's worth it," Kris said. "It's a great social sport. We've developed a huge group of friends, and it's something we can travel around and do together."

Agility aficionados say the sport is physically and emotionally rewarding, and strengthens the bond between owner and dog.

"Running with your dog is so much fun and once you start entering trials it becomes very addictive," said Mike Fritz, a Palm Harbor resident and agility director at the Upper Suncoast Dog Training Club in Clearwater. "It's the only sport I know where you can pay a lot of money (for lessons, trial fees and travel), screw up, get a zero and still have a ball."

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