Selecting the Next Agility Champion

By: Cherie Fischer

After Sherman finished his MACH3, I again had many people asking me about those characteristics that I look for when seeking out a Papillon for agility. As always, the request took me aback, as there are so many things that go through my mind…. So, I have decided instead, to share my thought process, at the risk of getting “beat up’ by other people’s approaches. Please remember that these are “OPINIONS”, not the 10 Commandments, and as such, they are not cast in stone. This means that in 2 years, I might have a different opinion, or I might have changed one of these (gasp!). Also remember that we are talking about AGILITY – it is my passion, my sport, my hobby and a good portion of my life, but it is NOT, the cure for cancer, or the formula for World Peace.

Most frequently asked question….. Must the new dog be a young puppy?? My answer is NO. Does it help to have a younger dog? Hmmmm, sometimes…. It is easier to teach a younger dog the “learning process”, easier to get the dog to try to figure out what I am asking, and easier to get it to participate in the process. Sometimes older dogs are less willing to try new behaviors, for a variety of reasons. But most often, that reluctance is caused by the dog’s failure to understand “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me?). WIIFM could be a treat, a toy, or praise and celebration expressed by the human.

Also, an older dog often does not know “how to play” with it’s human. Playing, for me, is an important part of training. I have had breeders tell me that “the dog loves toys and plays with them all the time” – MAYBE – but, that is not the same as the “give and take” of playing with a human. It is not same as the ability to use the toy as a reward for the learning process or to use the toy to enhance the behavior (read: speed up, add enthusiasm). I have trained several Papillons for both agility, and as my personal pets. Two of those were dogs I acquired at over a year old. Both were smart & learned very quickly. Neither knew “how to play” by MY definition nor had any performance training. One of those 2 dogs (Turbo) is probably the best agility Papillon I have ever seen and will ever own. The other is now in a pet home where her biggest job is to jump up on the sofa. Another of my Papillons (Rocky) started agility at almost 5 years old (I had, however, owned this dog since 6 months of age). At age 9 he finished his MACH, at 9½ he was a finalist at the AKC National Agility Championship. Sherman, the only one that was acquired very young, and who started his training early, is my most titled Pap, but he is NOT the best worker, nor the most focused. He is, however, the most social, happiest and friendliest little dog I have ever known.

So, how did I “select” these awesome agility dogs? Let me share with you how MACH dogs are picked……

ALWAYS LOOK FOR STRUCTURE – Remember, Form Follows Function:

MACH Rocky was 4 months old when I first laid eyes on him. He was playful, high energy, and sitting in a cage in the pet store at the mall. I never go into pet stores. Never. Not then, not now. But here I was, out with a friend who had decided I needed to get out of the house and on the road to recovery. I had spent months feeling sorry for myself after a massive personal tragedy, and a serious health problem that resulted in major surgery and extensive recovery. It was Friday, December 30th, a day before New Year’s Eve, and it was my first time out of the house in two and a half months. I have no idea what caused me to go into this pet store. I remember being surprised at seeing a Papillon there. I asked to see him, and he wore a plastic collar with his birth date on it. He was born on August 17th! That was the same birthday as BOTH my husband AND my Father! It was a holiday weekend, and he was “marked down” because he was getting older. I knew that he was meant to be mine – all the guys in my life were born on August 17th! As I looked at his crooked little front end (“fiddle” front), his barrel of a chest and his tenacity, I handed the clerk my VISA card and closed the deal. I later discovered that in addition to his terrible front, he also had one weak patella…. So much for selection based on structure.

ALWAYS LOOK FOR “FOCUS” – Remember, a naturally focused dog is a dream to train:

I met Papillon breeder Maxine Gurin at a dog show. I was shopping for my second Pap, Rocky was now 5 years old. I had already spoken with some other breeders, one of whom felt it necessary to tell me how flawed and awful my “Rocky” was. Maxine did not criticize me, or my dog. I told her I wanted another Papillon, and that I would probably do agility with it. I volunteered to have her come and visit my home, to see how and where her dog would live. I said that I was NOT interested in breeding, and that I always spay/neuter my dogs. I said that I preferred a larger Pap, but was not determined to have a specific color. I asked her opinion. MACH3 Sherman was 10 weeks old when I first saw that smiling red and white face! On the day that Sherman was born, Maxine called and said “I have a large male puppy. When this bitch throws a large male it stays large… He has wonderful structure, if you want him, he’s yours.” By this time, Max and I had gotten pretty friendly. I agreed to come and check out this new puppy, but before I “got around to it”, 10 weeks had gone by and Max brought “Sherman” to my house for me to see.

He was fat, round, happy go lucky, and couldn’t keep his mind on anything for more than a second or two. Life was his oyster, and every sight, every sound required his attention, at least until the next sound or smell distracted him. As he ran around the backyard, just enjoying everything and everyone, he ran right into the pool, sinking under the water. I screamed and rushed to scoop him up!! Sherman, however, was completely nonplused by this, he bobbed up to the surface, started swimming, tail wagging, towards the next thing that caught his attention – the screaming blond! As I picked him up, he continued to wag his entire fat body, licking and squirming to get down and continue his investigation. He couldn’t stay focused for more than 10 seconds on anything, but I was smitten! He was darling, with the best front I’d ever seen, happy and loving, a real crowd pleaser! He immediately started coming to agility trials with Rocky and I, and of course, everyone loved this personable and happy, wiggly little dog! He learned early that if he wagged at someone, they swooned, and he got LOADS of attention. To this day, Sherman uses his charm on everyone he meets, no matter where he is at the time! He will wag and grin at the judge while on the seesaw, he’s tempted to leave the weave poles if there are spectators nearby, he’ll stand on the top of the A-frame and wave to his fans…. I, on the other hand, have never worked so hard in the ring. This is a dog that, if human, would be on unemployment, or would be a politician, where personality would enable him to get by without working. So much for selection based on focus!!

ALWAYS BE SURE THAT A NEW DOG WILL “FIT IN”- Remember, to only take a dog when you are really “ready”:

Turbo is the most naturally talented agility dog I have ever owned. He is fast, focused, and brilliantly smart with tons of drive. So, what helped me to select him? You’ll be amazed at my gift of foresight… Turbo was about six or seven months old when I first saw him. Max was disappointed that although he was lovely in many ways, she was not going to be able to finish him with his elongated nose and leggy 11″ frame. We admired his huge ears and lovely graceful long neck. We were awestruck by his movement! She asked if I wanted another agility dog. I didn’t. My Keeshond had died, I had Rocky and Sherman both showing, and I was showing a Border Collie for my friend, Sheila Kulak. Both Rocky and Sherman were now working toward the new AKC MACH title, as was Travis, the Border Collie. I wasn’t ready for another dog yet, but when Travis finished the MACH, Sheila was not going to continue in agility with him, so I wanted another BIG dog.

Several months later, Max again asked me if I was interested in Turbo. By now he was about a year old. She reiterated that this was a wonderfully put together dog. He needed a job. I reiterated that I was not ready, and not interested. Again several more months go by, and, while visiting Max, she again asks about taking Turbo. I again say I’m not ready, but, this time, I agree to take him with me, where I will seek to place him in a performance home for her.

When I get him home, he does not get along with my Paps. This is NOT a puppy – he is aloof, dominant, and LOUD. He wants nothing to do with my husband. My husband is not happy about another dog arriving, and a fairly unfriendly one at that. I will admit that he is loyal. And focused. He NEVER takes his eyes off me. He does not want to play. He is not interested in food. If I raise my voice, he slinks off to a corner.

Well, let’s start with something that he’s already good at and maybe that will enable me to reward him. I took him out to the barn. He followed along right behind me. Even without a leash, he had no desire to lose me. I set up a jump and lured him over it – boy, could this dog jump! Eight, then twelve, then sixteen inches – effortlessly, fast and focused. And all he needed from me was praise!

Next I tried the tunnel – brave, fearless, and again FAST. As I watched, I realized that when this dog was trained he would easily beat my Paps. I had nothing this fast. Who could I give him to that would recognize his potential? Who would maximize this dog? As I pondered this, I put him in the crate for a moment. I started to walk out of the barn and he OPENED THE CRATE and followed me! The more time I spent thinking about what to do with this dog, the clearer it became that I needed to keep him.

I DID offer him to two trainers after that. One was a “World Team” agility competitor. She said he was too small – she wanted a larger Pap who could do 16″ (Interestingly, Turbo competed through the Masters level exclusively at 16″). At any rate, he eventually learned to get along with my other two, and would watch as they worked.

When I finally brought him out to train the weave poles, it was apparent that his “watching” had paid off!! He seemed to understand the concept immediately. I was awestruck. It was then that I decided, ready or not, this dog was staying. So, as I said, be sure a you are READY for a new dog and that it will “Fit In”..

So, what is the moral of the story??? What are the all important indicators??

First, despite Rocky’s success I feel strongly that a healthy structure is critical in an agility dog. Remember that when I took HIM home, I’d never heard of agility. Beyond that I think any Papillon with a modicum of speed or drive can MACH… IF you (handler) are willing to train, practice, cheer-lead and RUN.

Secondly, find a breeder you trust. Ask his/her opinion based on what your GOALS are. Be honest about your expectations. If you are dead set against co-ownership, or spay/neuter agreements, or whatever else, SAY SO! Be willing to let the breeder be just as selective about YOU as you are about the breeder. Let them see where the puppy will live, and how… Let them meet any other dogs you already own. If you want a “show quality” dog make sure the breeder knows that.

Last but not least, which ever dog you take, train it with love, enthusiasm and commitment. The success of the dog has a great deal more to do with good training and practice than with the selection process!