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Personality Profile: Rachel Sanders (Part 1)

Deborah Davidson Harpur presents an in-depth interview with Rachel Sanders, who is an internationally successful competitor, author of many agility articles, instructor, and IFCS World Team coach. Learn about what makes Rachel so good at what she does!

Rachel Sanders is known in the agility community not only for her successes on the course, but also for her service to USDAA's IFCS World Agility Team in 2012, agility training articles and videos, her excellent seminars, and the success of her many students. Learn more about this longtime agility competitor during this extended interview. 

Name: Rachel Sanders

Occupation: Agility Trainer/Dog Trainer

Hometown: Atascadero, California

Current Dogs: Trump, Fable, Better, Stuie, Gifted, Rummy, and Nellie (who actually belongs to her significant other, Michael Zuber) 

Photo courtesy of Rachel Sanders.

Agility Life:

Deborah Davidson Harpur: What accomplishments you are most proud of in the sport of agility?

Rachel Sanders: My dogs and I have won four national titles, been a member of the IFCS World Team, and had many other finals placements, etcetera. However, it's not the major wins that I think about when answering this. I have two accomplishments and it is hard to choose between them. First is Whist's third place at the USDAA nationals in San Diego in 2001 (I think it was 2001) that I am most proud of. I believe that that run was just about as perfect a run as we could have had. I don't have any video of it but from the way it felt while I was running, I believe it was the best it could have been. The second is helping Stuie go from a dog who ran from the ring to my car every time someone blew a whistle or yelled to competing in the Performance Speed Jumping finals last year in Denver, and having her run so well with all the cheering and whistling. We came second!

How and when did you first become involved in the sport of dog agility?

Sometime shortly after I realized that US obedience was not going to satiate my need for fun, competition, and challenge, sometime in 1994-ish.

What dog were you working with at the time? 

I was working with Spinner and had just got Whist from England. Whist was under-socialized and a little nervous and I knew she and I would not take to the formality of US obedience. We needed something that was more fun! 

Were there any mentors/trainers/competitors that left a lasting impression upon you? 

There have been so many people who have offered me help and advice and who I have learned from. Often it would be in a conversation over dinner and a beer or two, or a passing remark during a walk through. Two of my best friends are Jen Pinder and Mary Ellen Barry, who are just fantastic to share ideas and problem solve with. But if you pin me down to specific people who have deeply effected my training and competing.... 

In England, I competed in obedience and worked with Sylvia Bishop. Sylvia is an instinctive dog trainer and I watched her for years working with all sorts of dogs. I remember how she could take someone's dog and it would be just captivated by her. Through her I learnt how to get dogs to play, how to get down to the dogs level (often literally), how to be fair when training, how to balance play and learning, and most importantly, to be flexible and adjust when the dog needs you to. She is brilliant and I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from her. 

Bob Bailey - Bob Bailey is just amazing. After attending his workshops, I felt I had so much more theoretical and practical knowledge to help me with my training. Now I understood why some of the ideas I tried in training worked or didn't. Here are just two of the many things I took away from those chicken workshops. "Good behavior comes to she who waits...."  He wrote this for me on the block of wood my chicken tugged to win the tugging contest at chicken camp! It was in response to something he had witnessed me doing earlier with one of my chickens. If I remember correctly I was about to click and treat my chicken for doing something that was not as good as she had done before just because she had been offering me other behaviors and was about to do something that was closer to what I wanted but not as good as she had done in the previous training session. I was about to give her a semi "desperation click" and Bob stopped me and a few seconds later she gave me the behavior I had been looking for. 

Kathie Leggett and the long conversation she had with me about believing. I was in Minnesota at the end of World Team tryouts with Whist. Back then, I think the World Team spot was won by the team who had the best overall score from four rounds. Day one I was in fourth place and by the end of day two Whist and I finished at some unmemorable placement much lower than fourth just because I couldn't stop my mind replaying the previously heard comments of others that running four clean rounds was so difficult, not easy, really hard, nearly impossible etcetera, etcetera. Following my disappointing performance on that second day and the conversation with Kathie that evening back at the hotel, we went on to an AKC trial where I ran six classes (Jumpers/Standard and two ISC classes and had 6/6 clean rounds. That was the last time I listened to others about how those sort of results were too hard to achieve and the first of many perfect weekends. 

Linda Mecklenburg has given me two statements that have stuck with me and changed how I think about things. One during a walkthrough at World Team tryouts with Whist when I expressed my concern over a handling maneuver possibly causing a bar to fall, she replied saying that "you cannot be concerned with a knocked bar if you compete in Europe you just need to handle" or words to that effect. She was right and since that day I never use the phrase "I'm worried about that bar" or "I would do that but my dog may drop that bar." I discourage my clients from saying it and tune out others who mention it during walk throughs, it's just not helpful! The second pearl of wisdom she told me was during a private lesson with Stuie. She said, "she is not wrong, she is unforgiving" then either she or I added "you/I just have to be perfect." Once I took that statement to heart, my handling with Stuie improved and she and I started to do much better in competition. 

Do you use a "system?" 

Agility needs a balance between dog training and handling. For my handling, I am influenced by Linda Mecklenburg and recently by Jaakko Suoknuuti and Janita Leinonen from Finland. I think it is really important to choose a system of communication that your dog responds to well, rather than have a theory and then spend years trying to mold your dog to that theory. I am not a purest and try to be flexible and adjust to the dog I am running and the handler/dog I am teaching. I'm not a rules kind of person, and that is what I like about Linda's system, it allows for flexibility. I have my own training foundation for puppies which balances control exercises, tricks, and games using toys and food as reinforcement. Some of the training methods I use for puppies I have been using for many many years. I have a recipe to teach the variety of obstacles used in agility including my running A-frame method but, like all good recipes, the basic ingredients are the same but sometimes you add a little more or less of something here and there.

How many dogs have you competed with over the years? Tell us about them.

Bella and Smarty - competition obedience in England. Bella was a fantastic GSD (German Shepherd Dog) who loved to work and even more loved anything I was holding in my hand. I was given her as an older dog, she had had several homes prior and I had a great time competing with her in obedience. Smarty was a BC (Border Collie) who at the time was way, way, way too much dog for me. He was clever, naughty, and I had some really bad ideas about not putting any control on him or having any consequence for doing anything wrong. Through these flawed ideas I raised a horribly insecure, badly behaved dog that I credit for the dog trainer I am today. 

Spinner was a brilliant, endearing BC that I credit for introducing me to agility. I had intended to compete in US obedience with him but we found it so terribly boring in comparison to English obedience that I started to dabble with agility. I made so many mistakes with him because I was just not serious about agility back then. I would sit in a chair drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette teaching him to go over jumps, through tunnels, and weave. When I finally stood up and ran with him is was in the next county! We had a lot to retrain but he went on toget his ADCH (Agility Dog Championship).

Whist was a gentle, trusting lady who I owe for the agility career I have today. I got her from England in 1994 when she was seven months old. Initially she was very nervous and the first thing I taught her to do was jump up and be petted without slinking to the ground; the next thing I did was to teach her to play. She was Spinner's constant companion and as he was so confident I was happy to let her latch on to him and this helped her gain her own confidence. 

Trump is a playful and good tempered Jack Russell Terrier who was a fantastic demo dog and a great deal of fun to train and compete with. There was never a dull day with him and I will always remember the strategizing that went on to get him to stick to the rules in competition. The funniest memory was one year in Massachusetts at the AKC nationals he qualified for the finals. The finals were being held in a separate building. I took him over to the new building to take a look around but as soon as we entered the arena he started to scream. I knew I was in trouble and it didn't get any better than that - he broke the start line, raced off course barking at me, and proceeded to fly off every contact as if he had never been trained - he was wild!

Fable is driven to do this sport like no other dog I have owned. She taught me that there were other ways to handle; she needed information earlier and I needed to learn how to harness her speed and help her to turn. 

Who are you competing with now?

Stuie and Gifted. I am a great believer that we all get the dogs we need (not want!). Stuie has been a lifetime project to teach and compete with in agility. I will never forget the weekend when she ran out of the ring to hide in a crate in my car everytime the judge blew a whistle. I was devastated; I had bred Stuie and had waited eight plus years to have a puppy from Spinner and here she was scared to death and even worse running to my car not to me! I remember being non-functional and had to ask Nancy Gyes to run Whist in a Masters Standard class. My somewhat catatonic state only lasted a hour or two and then my inner terrier kicked in and I set about to help her be the most confident dog I could. Apart from that time and maybe one or two others, it really has been a labor of love and a process that I have enjoyed - although I never want to repeat it. I have a huge sense of achievement with her. Today she can stay in the ring with whistles going off, weave at a show, stay at the start line, go forward to a jump on cue (or cues) and made it to a USDAA Finals in Denver. However, in Denver she also reminded me that she's still Stuie and I best not get too cocky/confident when running her. In Grand Prix semis, she was within inches of the red, straight tunnel when, immediately after I said "tunnel," she pulled off to look back at me, probably costing us a GP finals spot!

Gifted is my youngest dog and again I'm learning a big lesson with him. He really is a perfect dog, he's easy, learns quickly, has none of the weird fears that Stuie had. But, he's too careful with me. However, he loves Michael and will weave faster for him, drive through tunnels faster for him, and do jump grids with drive and enthusiasm for him! It has even been suggested that Michael learns to handle and I give Gifted to him to run.... I don't think so (see, here comes the terrier in me again). I have a dog who has great contacts, hits weave entries and stays in them, rarely knocks a jump bar, and is mentally stable. I'm not passing that over to Michael. Instead, I'm working on Gifted enjoying running with me. We're getting there and this year he is already approximately three seconds faster on course than he was last year. 

Do you prefer a specific breed over another? 

I love Border Collies. I have always been around them. I like that they all look different, I like their sensitivity and intensity, and that they have an off switch. In addition, I have a special draw to terriers. Someone told me once that it was probably because I too have BC and terrier qualities. They said I had the work ethic of the BC and the tenacity of the terrier. I don't think I have ever been paid a nicer complement. When I teach, I like many types of dogs and I don't think it is the breed, I like more the temperament of the dogs. I like to work with shy dogs, naughty dogs, boisterous dogs.... The only type of dogs I don't gel with are the pouty dogs.

Name 3 of the "tools" in your agility handling tool box. 

My sense of humor, my eye for detail in training, and I'm honest.

What do you do to relax at a major trial? 

I like to wander around, watch my friends run their dogs, nothing specific, I'm normally fairly relaxed. At major trials, I am more focused in my walk throughs and my warm-up time with my dogs. 

What are your agility goals short term?

Get qualified for all the national and international events I want to compete at next year. 

What are your agility goals long term? 

Win another national title and be a member of another international team. To enjoy training and competing with my own dogs and continue to enjoy teaching others.

How often do you trial?

Between seminars, camps, and the luxury of staying home on a weekend - not that often.

Check back here tomorrow, July 2, for part two of this three part interview with Rachel.

Deborah Davidson Harpur has been competing in agility since 1999 and is known as a handler of a wide variety of breeds of all shapes and sizes. She offers agility training classes in the Port of Los Angeles area for both recreational and competitive agility students. You can find her on facebook at or read about her dogs at


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