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Lily & Jo: The Road to Agility Dog Champion

The story of Jo Unbehaun and her Westie, Lily.

By Valerie Evans

Sometimes we pick our dogs, but more often they "pick" us. They put their complete faith in us, and we are challenged to do likewise with them. In agility, that can be amplified when one chooses a breed that isn't considered one of the top in the sport to reach for those coveted top-tier titles. Some dare not even dream to go so far. And so it was for Jo Unbehaun and her (at the time) 8-year-old Westie, "Lily."

Just for Fun

"Some breeds just seem to be more of a challenge to train," mused Jo, who started in agility in 1991. "I did not have any huge goals. I just wanted to have fun with my dog; and if we got any titles along the way, that would be the cherry-on-the-top."

Lily showed a level of promise that made Jo take notice. In 2005, she became the first Westie to earn the title of Master Agility Dog. She holds the record for Westies in the 60-Weave-Pole Challenge at 17.43 seconds; and earned a spot in 2006 at AKC's first Agility Invitational. What started out as "just having fun" was becoming something much more thrilling. But did the team have what it takes to go all the way to the top?

Just One Q Away

"I never dreamed that we could actually get three Snooker Super Q's, with all of the great dogs in our class," Jo stated, "but when we did, I thought that maybe there actually was a chance for us to (earn our ADCh.) We got all of the hard stuff along the way ... but that Jumpers Q turned out to be the elusive one."

Keeping Focused

The team experienced many "so close" moments, running clean but being a second or two, or even just a hundredth over time. Despite those deflating moments, Jo kept faithful to Lily. "I always told her that she was the champion of my heart -- title or not. I still got to go home with the dog that I love."

Jo kept walking Jumpers courses with a positive frame of mind. "I did not allow myself to think negative thoughts," she recalled, viewing difficult sequences as "challenges," but not "un-doable." There were times when it seemed that last Q would never come. But Jo always bounced back to thinking positive.

April Showers - Lily Flowers

Saturday, April 25, 2009 dawned with the hope of that elusive Jumpers Q. The sky was overcast in Garland, TX, at the Center for Canine Sports, only mildly grumbling a threat of rain, and keeping the air cool. Lily was running great, and both Jo and Lily were going fast towards the finish, but when Jo made the turn to the last jump she was right in front of it and did not have time to turn. So, what's a girl supposed to do -- Jump the hurdle! Lily was clean and under time, but Jo going over the jump disqualified them! The next day, Sunday, Jo and Lily took their spot at the start line and together took off like a shot. Jo kept focused throughout the run, and ran a route to keep Lily motivated. Fellow competitors chanted, "Go-go-Jo!" and "Run, Lily, run!" for the 30-some seconds which must have seemed like an eternity. As Lily crossed the last hurdle, the crowd burst into cheers as the team finished fast and clean. Under judge Peggy Hammond, Lily White, MAD, MX, MXJ, CGC became the first Westie to earn the title of Agility Dog Champion!

The Meaning of "Champion"

What most don't see outside of agility is Lily's marvelous temperament, and the integral role she played in Jo's day-to-day life. "Some evenings I am tired and exhausted from the day. But when I go to class I just seem to get revived and regenerated being outside running with the dogs."

Jo's other Westie, "Buddy," has big paws to fill. Because in the Unbehaun house, love and faith lead to a higher understanding of what it means to be "champion." On September 20, 2016, at the age of 15-½, Lily went to the rainbow bridge after fighting health issues for several years. She left a big hole in Jo's heart, and will always be remembered as the Champion of her heart.

Jo and Lily trained at DAWG with Elizabeth Hezeau of Center for Canine Sports in Garland, TX; and Elizabeth Evans of Best Friends Fun Farm in McKinney, TX. (Jo trains with Buddy at DAWG with Lisa Jarvis and Best Friends with Elizabeth Evans)

Photo by Fast Clicks Photography

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