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Dice's Journey to Performance Dog Champion

Christy Skinner shares the extreme challenges she faced while earning the PDCH title with her dog, Dice.


At a recent agility trial, someone asked, "Why all the tears?"

The beginning of Dice's story, like that of most rescue dogs, is one of neglect and a narrow escape from a death sentence. December 17, 2009, my husband and I responded to a desperate plea on a Border Collie message board to save a young male Border Collie at the Allen Animal Shelter. He was to be euthanized the next day. 

Dice

We decided we could pull him from the shelter and foster him long enough to find him a new home. In the drizzling rain and sleet, an emaciated Border Collie who was terrified of everything came home with us. Immediately, it was obvious he had never been for a car ride, or even in a house. The slightest normal "house" noises frightened him.  When a cabinet door was shut, a toilet was flushed or a faucet was turned on, he would dive behind the couch in terror. But after a while, he began to realize the joy of indoor living, and he flourished with good food, warmth, patience and compassion. We knew he would remain with us the rest of his days.

Despite this initial improvement, the outside world remained a major source of fear. The presence of anyone he wasn't comfortable with (meaning anyone besides family) would cause him to do his best to melt into the grass or pavement.  A stranger trying to touch him would send him over the edge.  He made an art form of shutting down.  

Hoping to help him overcome this fear through socialization, Dice was enrolled in the Dallas Dog Sports agility program.  As expected, the beginning was frightening for him, and concentrating on basic commands proved to be extremely difficult. Over time, with patience, perseverance and lots of love and kindness from all his agility instructors and friends, Dice began to walk with his head and tail held high. His love for the sport and its participants triumphed over his fear. At the start of 2011, he had found his confidence in the ring, as evidenced by each new title he earned, soaring through the Starters/PI classes. 

Agility gave Dice a new level of confidence.

On September 24th, I had a car accident with Dice and my German Shepherd Dog both in the back seat, unrestrained. (Lesson learned: never allow your dogs to ride free in the car.) I was lucky. My dogs survived, but Dice was limping. He was seen by vet after vet with no clear diagnosis. Through this process, we learned that Dice had osteoarthritis and it was suggested he shouldn't train or compete in agility any more. I was devastated, but the agility community encouraged me to find out more. My best friend and fellow agility competitor shared something she had never shared with me before: she suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis. She told me that it was inactivity that caused her the most pain. Moving is what kept her suffering to a minimum, and, most of all, kept her spirits high. This gave me new-found hope for Dice. After five months of minimal/control activity, he was ready for agility training again.

Dr. Douglas Stramel, a pain management specialist at Advanced Care Veterinary Services who helps me manage Dice's arthritis, supports Dice's agility career, as long as I watch him closely. Dr. Stramel believes that the more active and happy Dice is, the less pain he is in.

In the late spring of 2012 Dice and I walked into the ring together again. Again, he began to gather title after title in PII and PIII, Performance Speed Jumping Qs, Performance Grand Prix and PVP Team Qs. He had all his PIII titles with the exception of one elusive Super Q and one PIII Pairs Q (which we were saving for his PDCH victory lap.) 

Fate seemed to be working against Dice and me. Sunday, October 20, 2013, while warming up before the DAWG Trial in Denton, Texas, Dice went down while trying to catch an poorly-thrown frisbee.  I immediately knew the injury was bad. With help from my wonderful friends, I was quickly packed up and headed for the emergency room. The emergency vet couldn't find anything wrong with Dice, and sent us home with some pain meds and 48 hour crate rest. I was relieved, but after a few hours of listening to my beloved dog cry in pain, I knew there was something seriously wrong. I took Dice to another vet that night, but he sided with the ER vet, and decided nothing was wrong. The next morning, I called my pet vet and he wisely made an appointment with an orthopedic specialist. It was Tuesday morning that Dice's true diagnosis was made. He had dislocated his hip. The ball of his hip was jammed under his pelvis and into a hole called the obturator foramen. It was the result of him falling into the splits while trying to catch the frisbee. The vet was going to attempt a closed reduction, meaning he would manually force the femoral head back into the acetabulum. A closed reduction has only a 50% success rate but it is much less invasive than an open reduction requiring surgery.  

In the left side of the photo, Dice's dislocated right hip is obvious.

Thankfully, the closed reduction was successful. Dice spent the next two months in hobbles and on strict crate rest. He was allowed out of the crate only to potty. My husband would carry him out to the yard to relieve himself and then back in the crate he would go. Dice was an exceptional patient. Once the hobbles were removed, he remained on strict crate rest for another six weeks. We covered our hardwood floors with area rugs to reduce the chance of him falling. Any little slip could result in the hip popping out of place again.  

Dice wore hobbles for six weeks.
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He came to work with Christy every day for six weeks so that she didn't have to leave him wearing a cone.

After four long months, the vet finally released Dice for normal activity. However, his muscles had atrophied so severely that he was on a long road back to what he once was. The orthopedic vet wouldn't tell me if he could ever play agility again. He said that there was a good possibility his hip would dislocate again due to the arthritis, and he was unaware of any rehabilitation for hip reductions. So, with no rehab advice or instructions available from a licensed professional, I decided that building his core strength, hip and leg muscles were essential to getting him back to what a young Border Collie's normal activities should be. I promised myself that if it appeared that Dice wasn't capable of returning to agility it would be okay with me. I just wanted him to enjoy his life again. So, for the next two months, we worked on strengthening and conditioning. After six months away from agility, Dice and I hesitantly returned to agility class, now running in the 16" Performance class.  

At the end of April, 2014, Dice and I stepped into the agility ring together again. I wore a T-shirt with my favorite quote on it: "The REAL JOY is in the PRIVILEGE and ABILITY to step to the start line with YOUR DOG BY YOUR SIDE, not in crossing the finish line victorious over others. --Gail Storm." This quote is ever ingrained into my mind, encouraged by both Dice's tribulations and the tragic loss of my young dog in the same year. I started off 2013 with two young, healthy, vibrant, dogs that did agility and ended the year with neither. As I entered the ring with Dice that day, I cried because I knew this injury could have easily taken away his ability to play this sport, and I was so thankful for another chance for us to be a team.

Since that day, that we have chased that elusive Super Q. Yes, we had many more Qs and ribbons on the wall, but that one, we just couldn't seem to catch. We were now competing with all the wonderful, talented and experienced dogs that had moved down to P 16" after so much success in the ever-so-competitive 22" Championship class.  Trial after trial, we were unsuccessful.  

In February of this year, Dice and I were invited to enter Pairs Relay at the Dallas Dog Sports trial on Saturday with our classmates Aimee Legendre and Abby. Before Dice's hip injury, I had been holding out on our last Pairs Q in hopes of getting the Super Q first, so that we could celebrate with our victory lap. After so much heartbreak with my dog, a harsh reminder as to what the enjoyment of the game of agility really is, I agreed. The time in the ring with my dog was more important than a victory lap. Saturday, Dice and I enjoyed a wonderful Pairs run and Q with our friends, but the Super Q eluded us once again. 

On Sunday, we had another try. Snooker was the last run of the weekend. The Performance dogs were first and Dice was the first dog in the running order, followed by a couple exceptional agility teams who had bested us in Snooker countless times before. My good friend Rachel Pearson noticed my concern and talked me into believing Dice and I could complete this run well, and we could do it that day. She told me I had to have faith in myself and in my dog. She was right!  We executed my plan perfectly, in what was a gorgeous, flawless run, and Dice got 49 out of 51 possible points. After all the dogs had run and all the scores were in, it was Dice, SUPER Q! The ring was held so that Dice and I could have our much dreamed about victory lap together. Patty Drom presented us with a Dallas Dog Sports bar and huge, beautiful, PDCH Ribbon. 

Receiving the bar and ribbon. Photo courtesy of Lisa Jarvis.

I had always dreamed of getting Dice's PDCH at a DDS trial. I wanted a DDS bar and ribbon. It was my beloved club, where we had trained and developed lifelong friendships. It's where I had spent countless Friday nights and Sunday afternoons playing with my dogs. It was a day I will never forget and always cherish, knowing it could easily have never been granted to us. It was a harsh, but important, lesson to learn: don't ever take your dogs' health, or yours, for granted. Cherish them and love them, and most of all, enjoy them.

The author, Dice, and judge Susan Mottice. Photo courtesy of Dori Page.

Dice triumphed over long odds, which is undoubtedly the result of his involvement with agility. It has given him the confidence and joy for living that every dog deserves. 

Thank you to DDS and all my agility friends for helping to res-Q my beloved boy!

Christy Skinner a commercial building manager by day and makes collars and leashes by night as the owner of Muttnut Creations. She started agility with her white German Shepherd, Lily, in 2009. Christy says, "She wasn't as crazy about it as I was. I often compare her doing agility with my husband going to a chick flick. Both love me enough to do it but it isn't their most favorite thing. Lily prefers to go to the lake with my hubby but Dice prefers doing agility with me." 

Photos by author Christy Skinner unless otherwise noted.

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