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Richard Dennison: the 2013 Spirit of Agility Award Winner

USDAA competitors in the New England area awarded long-time and well-loved agility competitor Richard Dennison with this honor. By Brenna Fender

At the New England Agility Team (NEAT) trial on May 18, 2013, in Greenland, New Hampshire, competitors gathered together to present the first annual Spirit of Agility Award to beloved agility competitor Richard Dennison. Kelly Wilson, who created the award, credits Lauren Stein with helping the idea of the award come to fruition, and Sandi Bixler for obtaining the amazing ribbon. Wilson says, "I thought of this award especially for Rich. I have never ever seen anybody with so much love for this sport, [playing] with his dogs, and hanging with all his agility friends. He always says 'good girl' at the end of every run, no matter what. For me, that is most important. He adores his dogs and his agility life. He's a great man, with an amazing spirit. He truly deserves this award that we will carry on every year to someone who exudes their love for this sport and their dogs." Chris Frado, who made a brief speech while presenting the award, says, "Rich has been such an inspiration to us in New England/Northeast. He competes almost every weekend. USDAA is his venue of choice." 


Rich and Gabby. © Barry Rosen Photography,

What makes Rich's dedication to the sport and to USDAA exceptionally inspiring is that fact that he's been suffering from pancreatic cancer for the last several years. He's been through round after round of chemotherapy, devoted to getting well. While fighting his battle, Rich has still been heavily involved in agility. Frado says, "Rich had a shirt made saying: 'My dogs are helping me fight pancreatic cancer.' He has a good attitude and talks openly about his cancer." In fact, Rich says (chuckling a bit), "When I was first diagnosed with terminal cancer, my first thought was that I wouldn't be able to do agility any longer! It's strange, but it's got that big a hold on me."

Rich's longtime friend Guylaine Doyon confirms that Rich indeed made exactly that comment when telling her about his cancer. "Of all the things a person could do on their bucket list, all he wanted to do was agility," she says. "One thing about Rich is he just loves USDAA. He lived for the weekends to do agility. He found agility late in his life, but he is so blessed that he found it; it gave him the spirit to fight cancer and set goals for himself. I still remember the first time we went to a USDAA trial together in May at Granby, Massachusetts, hosted by Ace Agility Club. He was on cloud nine at that trial [because] he was able to run Gabby more than two runs per day. I knew then that I had lost him to USDAA. A few months went by and the next thing I knew, he was running four dogs! He would brag on how many runs he would do in one weekend and laugh at my four runs [in AKC]. Richard lives for agility," says Doyon, who also points out that "Richard could not have done any of this without the love and devotion of his wife Bernadette!"

What was it about USDAA that captured Rich's interest and held it over so many years? "It's not like running in the other venues. I've run almost all of them! It's a combination of the challenge, the competitiveness, and the people. You wouldn't believe all of the things [USDAA competitors] have done for me over the years, particularly the past two or three, encouraging me and everything. In New England, it's more like a family, almost. When you go to a USDAA trial here, it's like going home. We all know each other; we all root for each other, constantly encouraging each other. The other thing I really like about USDAA is having multiple levels per day. I liked having many classes a day. A lot of people underestimate the fun of Pairs. They worry about hurting their partner, but people in New England, we understand that things happen. We laugh at the faults, we laugh at our own mistakes. I really feel the friendship. I wouldn't have known half the people I know now without agility. I've always connected to the people. The biggest thing about USDAA is the people," he says.

Rich and Gabby on course. Photo courtesy of Donna Kelliher Photography,

About a month ago, Rich, who began agility in 2002, realized that he was not going to be able to continue competing because of his health. "I can't do it anymore. It's kind of frustrating that I have got a dog that's fabulous and I can't do it anymore," he says. He still loves the sport, of course, and wants one of his dogs, a yellow Labrador Retriever named Gabby, to finish the Lifetime Achievement Award-Gold that she and Rich have almost completed (Rich's dogs have all been Labrador Retrievers; his current two competitive dogs are Miranda and her mother, Gabby and other dogs were Natalie, Xena, and Moses). Friends have stepped in to help out, running Gabby and Miranda at local trials. Frado says, "He told me that it was hard to decide whether to let others run Gabby to get the Qs or to still have the fun of running with her. He [had] been doing both. There's no lack of folks eager to run the fast, fun, and responsive Gabby: me, Kelly Wilson, Seth Dunn, Lauren Stein, Sandi Bixler, Melanie Behrans, and the list probably goes on."

The pinch-hitting handlers all have great things to say about running Rich's dogs. Wilson says, "It's great to help out Rich by running Gabby for him. But, she is so darn fun! And well trained! I have to say, I run her for me too." Frado says, "I have run Gabby in Standard and Speed Jumping. It meant the world to me that Rich would entrust me with his phenomenally responsive dog. She's lovely, incredibly fast, happy, and such an athlete. She will run for anyone but wants to know where Rich is and that he's OK. Gabby made me look like a rock star by turning in a lovely Standard run for a Q and accepting a challenging start line immediately to a far-side tunnel entrance for the Speed Jumping course. I will treasure those runs and Rich's trust in me doing the right thing for Gabby." Dunn says, "I ran Gabby in two PIII Snooker runs. It was a privilege to help run an amazing dog for an outstanding friend who has fought so hard for so long." And Behrens says, "I ran Miranda, Rich's younger dog, at a trial on May 5th. I was honored that he entrusted me with his girl and thrilled when she gave me an amazing standard run for a Q. I was so impressed with Miranda's training and skills and how very fast she was! The best part, and what I will remember forever, was the brilliant smile on Rich's face when we finished the run. That moment is one I will treasure forever."

Stein, who has also run Gabby at trials for Rich, created four styles of purple bracelets that say faith, hope, strength, or survivor and has been selling them at trials. Some of the money goes to the Spirit of Agility Award (which will be given annually) and the rest will go to cancer research. Stein says, "I plan on sending a lump sum check (after the NE Regional Event) to the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.  My personal goal is to raise over $1000."

These bracelets are popular! Photo courtesy of Lauren Stein.

Rich still attends trials when possible. "We need 13 more Qs for the LAA-Gold. We've come a long way. I don't know whether we will make it or not, but we're going to keep trying. We've got some wonderful people here to help," he says.

Of course, receiving the Spirit of Agility Award means a lot to a man so devoted to the sport. Richard says, "I'm very humbled. The New England agility people are just an amazing group. Really amazing. They have so much compassion; they just take my breath away."

A still from the presentation of the Spirit of Agility Award presentation, showing the competitors applauding one of their favorite agility people - Rich Dennison. Watch the presentation of the Spirit of Agility Award at

UPDATE: Richard Dennison passed away on June 2, 2013. He will be sorely missed. The USDAA community sends its condolences to Rich's family and friends.

Brenna Fender is the editor of news page and newsletter, among other things. She can be reached at

Special thanks to Chris Frado, Kelly Wilson, and Guylaine Doyon for their assistance with this article.  


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