Posted Date: October 29, 2012
Deborah Davidson Harpur continues her chat with Elicia Calhoun, an internationally successful agility competitor. Learn more about Elicia, including her "handling system" and what she thinks about when walking the course!
On Thursday, we started a new interview series with part one of a conversation with Elicia Calhoun, an internationally successful agility competitor who is also known for her canine-related charity work. While Thursday's chat broached many subjects, today's (and next Thursday's) portion will focus on Elicia's thoughts on and experiences in agility.
Deborah Davidson Harpur: How and when did you first become involved in the sport of dog agility?
Elicia Calhoun: It actually all began while I was in my senior year at Cornell University. Several of my roommates and I were watching a TV show called That's My Dog and we joked about how after college I would get [my dog] Jettie and I on the TV show and they would join me so that I could win a year's worth of dog food and we could get on TV. After I graduated in 1993, I was working in Houston, Texas, and I wrote to the TV show to find out if they were doing auditions. Although I missed the auditions, the coordinator for the Houston area told me about this sport called "dog agility" and that she was offering classes. After speaking with her on the phone, she encouraged Jettie and me to come to class to see what the TV show was based on with the idea being that if I practiced the skills in the sport of agility and I would be ready to go on the auditions. By the time I left that evening, we were hooked and we were doing obstacles like the A-frame and jumps. And basically two weeks later I was assisting in classes and two months later I was driving from Texas to Florida to go to competitions. The rest is history!
Elicia and Tobie at the 2011 Cynosport World Games. Photo courtesy of Karen Moureaux, ContactPointPhotography.com.
What dog were you working with at the time?
Jettie, my 26" Lab-Greyhound mix, who I found on a beach jetty.
How did you go from being an engineer to being a full time agility instructor?
In '96 I moved to upstate New York and began doing some teaching myself. And after moving to New Jersey for my job I quickly found that I was living for the weekend competitions and using the work week to recover. When the semiconductor industry took a downturn and I experienced being laid off for the first time, I took that as an opportunity to teach full-time. My thinking was that because I had my degree in mechanical engineering, I could go back to the corporate world at any time that I wanted. That obviously never happened! Little did I know at the time that I love teaching. And although for the next few years it was a struggle to make ends meet, it was fulfilling my passion to work with dogs and play in agility. Because of the support of my aunt and uncle, I was able to stay with them in order to save all money that I earned in teaching to pay for entries and food and gas and tolls to get to other areas for teaching classes. I even camped or slept in my car and used a propane grill to cook Dinty Moore stew for meals while at the shows to be able to afford being at the show. I basically lived on everything I made, which wasn't very much for about three years, and I went from renting a room out of my aunt and uncle's house to a friend's house and then I was finally able to afford my own apartment after that.
So you could say I went from trying to get my dog on a TV show to win a year's worth of dog food to trading in an engineering career to be able to play agility! I've always loved working with people and working with their dogs to help those people.
Were there any mentors, trainers, or competitors that left a lasting impression upon you?
Stuart Mah, Dan Dege, and Nancy Gyes for their experience and understanding of the sport. I attended their seminars and eventually went and trained with Nancy Gyes and Jim Basic for a few weeks to better understand training and competing.
Do you use a "system?"
Yes: the "Dog's System." Based on the dog's perspective and my background in physics and engineering, I've been able to create a communication/handling system based on understanding what is natural for the dog and handler. Keep it simple and consistent! This allows each agility team to modify their communication system based on their strengths, even if one of the team members has physical limitations. I've worked with handlers who are blind in one eye, have no arms, and who work in wheelchairs. I've worked with dogs who can only see in one eye, who are deaf, and who have restricted joints. Every team had their own system and used it to be successful in reaching their goals!
How many dogs have you competed with over the years?
My own five and my clients' six.
Who are you competing with now?
BreeSea (who's moving towards retirement after her next litter of puppies) and Tobie (3 1/2-year-old Border Collie).
Do you prefer a specific breed over another?
I LOVE my Aussies! They're sassy, fun, and have a truly warped sense of humor. They constantly challenge the rules just to make sure the rules have to be followed today (laughs). They push back... and competing with them against the Border Collies makes winning that much more fun! It's a challenge but one well worth it to prove that other breeds can be competitive in agility too.
We all have a moment that was embarrassing when it happened, but pretty darn funny now. What is yours?
Too many to name just one....
Elicia and Suni. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Reed Photography.
Some might remember the 2001 Grand Prix finals in San Diego, California, where I was on a winning run and accidentally released Suni prematurely from the table in on the "G" of "Go," not the "O" of "Go."
Some might remember the 1999 AKC Nationals in Denver when I fell down making a front cross 15' from the last jump, losing by a refusal as Suni checked if I was okay before taking that jump.
Some might remember the "capital v-point" from the 2000 AKC Nationals in Boston when I had a 7-second lead, and all I had to do was run clean to win the championship. [Editor's note: this run was televised and much of the agility world watched Elicia's unique approach to the opening of the course fail when she had an off-course and lost the championship.]
And then there was the time I tripped over the timing device of the last jump after Suni and I had most amazing run ever. This was in 2003 at the World Championships held in Dortmund, Germany, losing what could have been the winning run.
There are lots of highs and lows in this sport, and although I've lost more Championships than I've won, anyone who was at the events will remember our runs. We gave it all we had and had fun doing it.
Name three of the "tools" in your agility handling tool box.
Whirlie Twirlie Toilet Bowl Swirley (only those from my seminars know this one). This is a fun application of one of the special turns I teach. It helps the handlers to learn their foot placement and how to maneuver their bodies for the desired amount of time from the dog.
Tuck Back. This is a type of the turn as well; it's descriptive of what the handler does relative to the dog.
Reverse Wrap. The reverse wrap is a specialty turn for when the dog goes to the backside of a jump and wraps towards the handler and the handler quickly moves in and beyond the dog for a very fast and tight performance.
What songs are on your iPod or in your head (or what are you thinking) when you are walking a course?
When walking the course, I'm in my four stages of course analysis (either the dog or the handler). The main thing about walking the course is that you need to consider the perspective of the dog to make your decisions for how you should handle the course. I have simply broken that process into four steps so that the handler can easily work through that system. "Where does my dog NEED me to be?" is the only question I'm attempting to answer. I actually enjoy the silence when walking the course. [Editor's note: the four stages are explained at Elicias' "Get in the Game" workshops.]
Elicia and Nika on course. Photo courtesy of Ian Watts Photography.
Check back on Thursday for the conclusion of this interview.
Deborah Davidson Harpur has been competing in agility since 1998. She currently handles 16 dogs of various breeds including Rat Terriers, All Americans, French Bull Dogs, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a Shetland Sheepdog, a Border Collie and more. She enjoys competing in USDAA agility and is the proud mom of USDAA roving reporter Rickie Roo. Her dogs are all proud canine ambassadors for the Active Care line of dog food by Breeder's Choice and for ilovedogs.com, tj.la, and ilovedogsdiamonds.com. You can learn more about Deborah and her dogs at pm2dogagility.com.