Megan Sapsford, whos been a student at Pinnacle Dog Sports for two years, leads golden retriever Benny as he weaves through an obstacle and on to the next one.

Four men and women stand by their dogs with dreams their puppies will one day be champions in Agility, a popular obstacle course sport for dogs. But before they run through tunnels, weave around poles or leap through tires, they have to learn how to sit.

That’s where Pinnacle Dog Sports on Crocker Road comes in.

“The first year of that dog’s life is the most important. When you get your dog as a puppy you need to put it in a class if you’re even remotely interested in showing it,” said 64-year-old Helen Kurtz, the founder of Pinnacle Dog Sports, which opened earlier this year. “Their brain is like a sponge; the first two years of life are the most important.”

According to Kurtz, a dog’s early years are especially important if they want to compete in agility and win. Agility is a sport where the owner directs their dog through an obstacle course randomly chosen before the dog’s run. The dogs compete for the best time and accuracy of the course and earn titles known as Master at Agility Champion (MACH) or Preferred Agility Champion (PACH).

Four nights a week, Pinnacle Dog Sports offers a wide range of classes for dogs. Newcomers looking to get their puppies into the sport can begin classes and work their way up to the master classes taught by an experienced staff. Kurtz also offers private lessons for your dog, all charged by the month or $90 for four weeks and $110 for five.

“She doesn’t sugar coat things, she tells you what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it,” said Mary Crowley, who along with her dogs, Chessie a doberman pinscher and Oliver a miniature Australian Shepherd, have been taking classes at Pinnacle for four years. “If you can’t do it on your own with her verbal training, she’ll get in there and do it with you.”

Kurtz also periodically changes what she teaches and takes classes herself every month. This allows the students an opportunity to learn a different variety of new skills and techniques.

“Like everything, agility evolves and your style changes, new things prop up all the time. So, you have to keep evolving,” Kurtz said. “You can’t be an instructor and show your students the same thing from 20 years ago. You have to be up on it.”

Agility is an all-day stand-alone sport. Events start at 8 a.m. and sometimes go until 6 p.m. depending on how many runs and participants she has, which can sometimes max out at 90 dogs. Every course is different and depending on the day can change up to eight times during a trial.

Currently there are American Kennel Club (AKC) trials going on all throughout July and August that Kurtz and her students will compete in. After that, there’s the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) trials, so there’s always something going on.

However for Kurtz, all of this is second nature. When she was younger, she was an equestrian and competed in dressage going all the way through the Grand Prix. On top of that, her horse was named horse of the year five years in a row.

“You start to get older and you realize you can’t do certain things anymore,” said Kurtz. “My horse turned 24, and it was time to retire him. After that I literally went to the dogs.”

She got into the sport 20 years ago while putting one of her dogs through obedience courses. During that time, an instructor suggested that she get into agility with it.

“It was an adrenaline rush and it was fun, and it was exciting getting through an obstacle course,” said Kurtz. “It’s good exercise if you do it right and it’s really good for your brain because you have to memorize a course within 8 minutes, and you meet a lot of nice people along the way.”

Not long after, Kurtz began instructing others, first at Cleveland All Breed and then the now defunct Canine University where they suggested she start her own training facility - Pinnacle Dog Sport.

Throughout her years as a dog trainer, Kurtz had worked with some of the top ranked dogs in the United States. This includes the No. 1 lab, beagle, American Eskimo, Shiba Inu and Foxhound.

Wanting to start hosting agility trials, Kurtz began searching for a new home for her organization, which she found in Westlake.

Initially, she had to jump through what seemed like the same kind of obstacles her students. The city required she get a conditional use permit due to concerns over hazardous products generated at her facility, namely dog feces.

“That took almost a year with the city,” Kurtz said. “That’s a big deal. I’m on people all the time about it. If I see anyone not picking up, they’re out. It’s important.”

The 14,400-square foot practice facility has a colorful past also, once belonging to Bonne Bell Cosmetics as a manufacturing plant. It also served as a storage space for JCPenney and Sears for their computer products.

An almond and white painted wall overlooking the main course of the facility is lined with 31 photos of dogs and the achievements they’ve won. There’s another eight she has yet to hang.

These photos are near a literal coat rack of awards and ribbons that her two dogs have won, including a small trophy case nestled to the right of the racks.

“When I went to my first trial, Helen actually went as well and helped me the entire day,” said Michelle Saladino who’s been training with her dog Rocket, a border collie, at Pinnacle for five years. “She was showing also but we set it up to where we could both go, and she walked me through everything step by step.”

Despite this however, competition isn’t everything to Kurtz and her students. Instead, many of who attend classes at Pinnacle are there for the comradery.

“We really are like a big family, we all help each other,” said Saladino. “Regardless of whether you just joined Pinnacle or you’ve been there, when you have everyone rooting for you no matter what level and you all get along and you’re having fun together it makes you feel proud.”

Contact this reporter at Akamczyc@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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