Agility Dreams: Achieving the AKC's MACH Agility Championship Title
At the Start Gate
I walked into the agility ring with nine-pound Sheltie Aslan in my arms.
“Breathe,” said Dave, the gate steward.
“Yes,” I thought. “I really need to breathe.” But I was finding it difficult. Nerves were pressing down on me, making each breath labored. I could feel Aslan tense with his usual excitement. He was about to run another agility course. That’s all he knew. He didn’t know that this course was a lot different than the courses we had run to date.
It had been four years since Aslan and I traveled to Enid, Oklahoma, for our first agility match. Four years of triumph, excitement and even tragedy. A roller-coaster ride, to be sure. Aslan started his career much like any other dog. His speed and enthusiasm for the game set him apart, but he didn’t zoom through the ranks. We worked hard to improve our skills, and improvement did come, albeit slowly.
After two years of hard work, Aslan and I had earned our agility Masters title, and we were ready to begin tackling the MACH - the Agility Championship title offered through the American Kennel Club. Titles recognize the achievements each dog has made in the sport of agility, and the MACH (Masters Agility CHampion) is the highest title available. We needed something called Double Qs, meaning we successfully passed two different types of agility courses on the same day, to earn this title. These precious Double Qs that fast teams covet were beginning to roll in. We were clicking, and things were looking good.
Then, I got the flu. During an extremely violent coughing spell, I tore my interior carotid arteries. As dangerous as it sounds, I was at high risk of stroke and death. Fortunately, I didn’t know for almost a month why I was so light-headed, couldn’t see well out of my left eye and kept hearing my heart-beat in my left ear. I couldn’t train, and I couldn’t even teach. Finally, the doctors found the dissections, and I was banned from running agility until the carotids healed. After the first month, my risk of stroke greatly diminished, and the waiting game for healing began. During the waiting time, good friends ran Aslan for me, keeping his skills sharp and his enthusiasm for the game evident until I could return to the sport.
It took me almost a year before my neurologist cleared me to run agility again, but even then, there were restrictions. I had to wear a heart monitor to keep my heart rate from going too high. If my heart rate went over 160, the monitor would begin beeping at me, and our agility run would be over. I was out-of-shape from my long layoff, and my heart rate would go high in Standard runs where I had to cover more distance over a longer period of time.
So I trained Aslan to help me out. An incredible dog who already had killer contacts and huge distance, I trained Aslan to work even further from me, so I wouldn’t have to cover as much territory in a run. In addition, I trained Aslan to go to the end of the contacts (see video below) and hold two paws on the contact and two paws on the floor for many seconds while I would catch my breath and lower my heart rate. I would also use that time to slowly walk forward into the ideal position for the next section of the course. Since he was so fast, the extra 10 to 15 seconds we would burn for this process still kept us well under time.
Aslan was beautiful at these skills. He seemed to know I was injured and needed him to rise to the occasion. He seemed to know more of the burden of the team would be placed on his tiny shoulders. But he didn’t mind. While he loved running with my friends, he was ecstatic to have me back as his handler. After all, I had trained him. I was the hand that fit perfectly in the glove that was Aslan. We had learned each others’ idiosyncrasies on the course, and we could read each other like no other could. It’s that way with every agility team. The best handler for any dog is the person who trained that dog.
So after almost a year, Aslan and I began showing again. I could see he was visibly excited to have me back as his handler, and I was just as thrilled to be back on the agility course with him. What I wasn’t prepared for were the Double Qs that started rolling in. Almost immediately, we began qualifying at an astonishing rate – a testament to my friends who kept Aslan in tip-top shape during my absence. I returned to the ring in late January, and by March we had already qualified for AKC Agility Nationals, earning 6 Double Qs and 300 speed points.
But the ride wasn’t over. The Double Qs had continued. And here we were, walking into the ring in Enid, Oklahoma, where it had all begun four years previously. We had garnered 12 Double Qs since January, and if we qualified on this Standard course, the 20th Double Q would be ours, along with the title of MACH.
I set Aslan down at the start line and told him to stay. Again, the excitement of the game caused him to stand on tippy-toe, but he didn’t move. I walked slowly to lead out two jumps. The arena was dead quiet, as most of the audience knew our story. I could hear my heart beat in my left ear – a constant reminder of my former injury. I got into position and turned to face my sweet, talented partner. His focus was glued on me, waiting with extreme anticipation to run with me again. I said, “OK, over,” and he began his MACH run.
We MACHed that day, and took a truncated victory lap to the cheers of our friends and my students. I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes as Aslan and I got a hug from the judge and picked up that beautiful MACH bar right off the course.
What an incredible ride. But the ride has really just begun. Aslan and I will be going to Nationals in late March, and I am hopeful to continue the journey and get a number after our MACH, indicating another agility championship.
He’s an incredible little dog. I know that when I fail as a team member, he will be willing to be trained to take up the slack. He’ll never complain, and in fact, he’ll love doing it. See, for Aslan and I, there’s nothing more fun than running an agility course together – as a team. And we know anything is possible.
Aslan's MACH run and celebratory victory lap.
Aslan earned his first MACH in 2007, and he attended the AKC Agility National Championships for the first time in 2008. Since his first MACH, Aslan has earned three more MACHs and two PACHs, and he has qualified for the AKC Agility National Championships nine times, appearing in the Challenger's Class in 2013. He has earned 96 titles and certifications. Aslan is now 12 and due to retinal atrophy is only showing occasionally in the Preferred Jumpers with Weaves class.
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Other Columns About Aslan's Agility Career
- A Moment Frozen on the Brink: The First Agility Competition
A column about my sheltie's first agility competition back in 2003.
- Dog Agility Article: Overcoming Obstacles in Dog Agility
A column about the thrill of returning to dog agility competition after a year lay-off due to injury, and about the extra burden placed on the canine partner.
- Agility Teams: The Importance of Teamwork in Agility Competition and Training
An article about being the weak link in a partnership with a dog. It examines teamwork and the loyalty and love dogs have for their owners.