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Sometimes it Takes a Village

Jim Allaire shares the story of how many handlers pitched in to help his dog earn her Agility Dog Championship.


This is a story about a guy who's getting on in years, a dog that loves doing agility, and a group of their friends. I am a few years ahead of the oldest baby boomers so, as in many areas of life, I expect there'll be others in the future who'll find themselves in the same place I was in a few years ago.

My wife and I have always had rescue dogs and, from late in 1994, I always did agility with whatever dogs we had at the time. When I retired, I decided that I would get another dog, but this time only if the rescue dog seemed like a good agility prospect.
 
Meadghbh (aka: Ms. M), a Shetland Sheepdog with drive and attitude, came to us through the local Humane Society after a tip by a friend who saw her on their webpage. Her name is Gaelic, because the original language of the Shetland Islands is extinct. It was the name of a mythical Queen of Connacht, who had a pretty interesting life. On Wikipedia, they have her story under the archaic spelling of "Medb." It is pronounced "Meeve" and is the origin of the English name Maeve.
 
Meadghbh arrived at our house in January 2006. At the time, we had an elderly Collie and an energetic, 12-year-old Schipperke. Ms. M hung out mostly with the Schipperke, which probably increased some aspects of her "attitude." We started training immediately with an obedience class and then got into the beginner agility class at Canine Agility of Central Minnesota (aka: CACM).
 
Going into 2009, I had been thinking that it might be the last year I'd be physically able to do agility. Unfortunately, that spring Ms. M beat me to it and started limping. It turned out she had a luxating patella. The surgery and recuperation kept us from competition for most of the year. When we got going again in late 2009, my ankles bothered me a lot. X-rays and MRIs showed I had no cartilage, with bone spurs and bone chips in both of my ankles. In November of 2010, I had surgery on the worst ankle.
 
In 2009 I'd thought about quitting agility, but Ms. M enjoyed it so much and so many friends and acquaintances were agility people, I decided to try and keep her in the game by asking experienced people to run her. She had experience running with others in CACM's programs for Returning Veterans and for some residents of the St. Cloud Children's Home, so I didn't think she'd have any problems running with experienced handlers.
 
Since I intended to have only experienced people run USDAA with Ms. M, I started thinking of myself as her manager and manager of a loosely organized team of handlers, but not as a coach. Some rules I set for myself were: (1) I would not put pressure to be successful on anyone who agreed to run Meadghbh, although, if I thought there was a real problem we'd talk and move on, either together or not. (2) There would be one main person as her handler and trainer and others who knew Ms. M and had seen her run would fill in as needed. (3) I could offer advice before a run, but, normally, wouldn't comment on problems I saw during the run. If the handler started a conversation about the run, I would always answer questions and make sure I got my thoughts into the mix. (4) I decided, right away, not to track who got how many Qs with her. The object was Ms. M running and enjoying agility, so there wasn't any reason to have her handlers competing with each other for Qs. (5) Ultimately, agility is just a game; if it ended up not being fun for Meadghbh, it would be time to go home.
 
I think I kept to those rules for the most part and the folks who are Team Meadghbh did great and, I believe, a good time was had by all. 

Meadghbh, from six months of age on, had trained with Loretta Mueller, either through Canine Agility of Central Minnesota (CACM), or in recent years, through private lessons. Loretta stepped in at the first trial where I was physically unable to continue with Meadghbh. That was an emergency solution only, given the number of dogs Loretta competes with. Thinking about it, I felt that another student of Loretta's would be best as Meadghbh's main handler. After discussing it with Loretta, I decided to ask Sue Kobus, who, then, ran German Shepherds, to be that handler. That meant possible ring conflicts but no height conflicts. Sue accepted and became the handler who trained with Meadghbh and Loretta one hour a week.

Meadghbh also knew Carol Voelker from Tails in Motion and as a winter instructor with CACM, so she was another likely suspect for Team Meadghbh. Randy Holford was added at a show where Sue was absent and Carol V. wasnt available for all runs. Jerry Simon got involved when one of the other people had ring conflicts at a show.

During the summer and fall of 2011, I started doing some of Ms. M's runs again. Just Pairs and Gamblers at first, because they are shorter. At that point, what surprised me was how good Meadghbh had gotten during the year and a half or so that I didn't run her. It was as if we'd started college together, I'd taken Sophomore and Junior year off, and then when I returned for Senior year, after doing nothing for two years, I expected no problems and was surprised I didn't know as much as she did.

None of us had paid much attention to what Qs Meadghbh had gotten, although we knew there were a bunch. At some point in 2011, we realized that all that remained for Meadghbh to get an ADCH were four Gamble Qs and her Team Qs. Then, as now, I couldn't guarantee that I would be able to run a full day of team agility. When I asked, I was told same dog and handler for all runs is a requirement for team, unless it was an emergency situation. I decided I'd get the Gamble Qs (short runs) and Loretta asked her husband, Andy, if he would run Meadghbh on a team in January 2012. He did and Meadghbh got her needed Team Qs at that trial. I then got to work on the remaining Gambles. On August 12th, she and I got the last Master Gamble Q needed for an ADCH.

An unforeseen result of running with Team Meadghbh, Ms. M got to run with Siegfried (aka: Ziggy) Clever of Australia in a CACM USDAA trial on the tournament day before the 2012 IFCS World Championships and in the IFCS competition as well in Ft. Worth, Texas, in May of 2012. She and he came in 6th Place overall in the 16" jump height. There were 16 dogs in that jump height and, since all but two or three were running with their normal handlers, 6th place was pretty good in my book.

Team Meadghbh, from left to right: Siegfried (aka Ziggy) Clever, Ms. M, Jim Allaire, Sue Kobus, Andy Mueller, Carol Voelker, and Randy Holford.

The rest of Team Meadghbh: Loretta Mueller and Jerry Simon.

What I did may not be everyone's cup of tea but, for Meadghbh and I, it meant she got to continue doing something she loves and I got to stay somewhat involved in agility. Was it worth it? Would I do it again? Absolutely, without any hesitation at all.

A few thoughts from Meadghbh's handlers:

"My thought on Meadghbh: she is an amazing little girl who let a stranger from the other side of the world come and play agility with her. She gave her all asking for nothing more than a pat and a treat! Love that little girl!"

--Siegfried "Ziggy" Clever

"Meadghbh really is a once in a lifetime dog. On the road to her ADCH, she has adapted to many different people handling her; some that could run fast, and some that had to use only distance and verbals. She was always game for the challenge and never gave up. Jim Allaire is the same way; even through all the physical challenges that have been presented to him through Meadghbh's career, he has kept moving forward. I am so very proud of both of them for this accomplishment and grateful I have been able to help them grow as a team. Jim has put so much work into training and running Meadghbh, and how far they have come is a testament to what determination will do. I also see this Championship as just a preview of what is to come for this team in the future."

--Loretta Mueller

Jim Allaire got his first dog in 7th grade from the ASPCA in Briarcliff, New York. From then on, with a few exceptions, there were always dogs in his life. All but one of them were rescues. He began doing agility in 1994 to better socialize Ruffles, an eight-year-old All-American. After two years of keeping Ruffles on a short leash, he was fine around other dogs and most people. He retired early and then got back to competing when USDAA started the Performance Program. Ruffles got his third P1 Q a couple of weeks after his 15th Birthday. Jim's next dog was a farm collie that was only able to do agility for a few years due to Lupus. In the second half of the '90s, Jim got several adult Schipperkes. He says, "A word of advice: if you are tempted to do agility with Schips, start with young puppies." Meadghbh was his next dog after the Schips. He also has another rescue Sheltie, Chance, that does agility with a friend but doesn't have the focus Meadghbh has. Jim says, "That doesn't stop him from having a ball at both at practice and at trials."

All photos courtesy of author except that of Jim and Meadghbh which is courtesy of Loretta Mueller.

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