A Profile of Kristen Wheeler and her dogs Ash and Indie
Ash is a nine-year-old Chow mix that I adopted from the Humane Society of Southern Arizona back in 2008. I had planned to adopt a dog soon after college, and I had done some research on a few different herding breeds. I went down to the shelter and went to check out a few dogs I had seen online. While I was there, I didn’t really click with any of the dogs I had gone there to check out, and was heading to leave, when a volunteer was coming back in the door from a walk with Ash, and he immediately pushed up against me asking for petting. He climbed in my lap and gave me kisses, and that’s all she wrote. I had to take him home with me.
Ash’s favorite activity his entire life has been to run around in circles as fast as possible. When he was young, I would take him to the dog park, and he would run and run and run. Just running laps at top speed around the perimeter of the dog park. He didn’t need anyone to play with him, he just wanted to run. People would come up and tell me, “He’s so fast! You should do agility, you’d definitely win!” I had seen agility on TV, and had always been interested. We signed up for a class, and for a while, Ash was definitely the best dog in his class. He loved working for treats, and did everything at top speed. But then, once we moved onto to running full courses, Ash got way too excited and started incorporating his love of running around in circles into his agility runs. He was proud to be called the “king of zoomies” or the “comic relief” at a trial. At some point, the star of the class turned into an independent, stubborn Chow who wanted to have fun his way, not mine. It became a HUGE challenge to try to train him. Unfortunately, little did I know when I started, his love of speed, the thing that made people think he would be awesome at agility was actually the thing that made him hardest to train. All he wanted to do was RUN. Ash’s antics became quite frustrating, but I loved my dog, and loved seeing him have fun, so we kept trying.
Eventually, through a lot of hard work, I saw a lot of improvement in focus, and we started having a lot more good runs than bad. We got a lot of Qs in titling classes and Tournaments, got a lot of titles, and moved up to the Masters level in several venues. Then, two years ago, he started slowing down a lot. People would tell me “Ash has really matured, that’s great he doesn’t run all crazy anymore” but I knew something was wrong. It turned out that he had hip dysplasia caused by an injury to his left hip that had led to arthritis, which was severe for a 7 year old dog. The vet told me to keep doing agility to try to keep his muscles strong, but he couldn’t do more than 2 runs a day without becoming very sore. A few months later, he had hip surgery to remove the arthritic hip and had to sit on the sidelines and watch me run my other dog, Indie, at trials for about 6-7 months while he recovered. A year ago, we were okayed to start doing agility again, so we trained for a month or so, and then I entered him in a USDAA trial in just one run to see how he’d do. Ash was SO excited to get to trial again, it was the most zoomy disaster we’d had in years. It was a TERRIBLE run, but I left the ring so excited that Ash was acting like himself again after a year of being in pain. We had a lot of work to do again, but I was just elated that I could continue to run agility with him.
Ash has been a huge challenge to train over the 7 years he’s been doing agility. At heart, he is a stubborn, independent Chow mix who just wants to have fun. We have ongoing challenges and struggles, but we have an amazing bond and we love to have fun together in agility. Ash will always be Ash, but I love him dearly and have accepted that while there will still occasionally be off days and NQs, we always have fun together! We are both very excited to have qualified to compete at Cynosport this year!
Indie is my five-year-old spitz mix (not sure exactly which spitz type breed he’s a mix of, some possibilities are Samoyed, American Eskimo, Akita, or Finnish Spitz), who is competing in Cynosport for his and my first time. When I adopted him four years ago, he seemed to be pretty much exactly what I had been looking for in a second dog for nearly a year. Some fellow agility competitors who knew I competed somewhat seriously were a little baffled when I told them this, because they would have thought I’d be looking for a Border Collie or other herding breed, but I was primarily looking for a dog that would fit into my household and liked to play with other dogs, as I really wanted to adopt a play buddy for my other dog, Ash. The Petfinder description for Indie said that he LOVED playing with the other dogs at the shelter, so I thought that sounded perfect. I considered a dog to be a good agility prospect as long as it showed enthusiasm for learning and playing with me, which Indie did when I met him. So, he seemed like a great fit for me.
Indie was found by animal control as a stray, so I didn’t know much about his past when I adopted him, but I could guess that he probably did have a home at some point and had escaped from the yard, based on what he did after I brought him home. I unfortunately learned very quickly that he was obsessed with escaping to explore the neighborhood. He bolted out the front door the day after I adopted him (I opened it just a little for me to come in, and in an instant, he had pushed his way through and was gone.) As I lived on a busy street and he didn’t even know his name yet or have any sort of recall, this was a terribly stressful moment for me. He bolted down the block and disappeared around the corner. As I continued to run after him, I heard him coming up behind me–he had run all the way around the block and was planning on lapping me. He tried to speed on past me and keep on going, but I dove at him and managed to grab him and carry him back to the house. From that moment on, I was serious about training him to sit and wait at the door.
While we got the front door situation under control, unfortunately he was also intent on escaping from the backyard through a loose board behind some bushes that was very difficult to me to get to to fix. He would go through the fencing into the connecting neighbor’s yards to visit with their dogs. I kept thinking I had fixed the fence and he would find some new way to get through. I would only let him out into the yard with me standing there watching, but he would run around me and go through anyway. He refused to potty while on leash, so the situation became beyond frustrating. Not too long after, the neighbors replaced the fence and he never escaped again. Indie was very sad when that day came, but it sure was a relief for me. At this time, I had never had a dog that was so intent on escaping, but I certainly learned a lot from the experience. We worked a lot on recall and impulse control, and he doesn’t try to escape anymore (and he will even stay with me in the ring at unfenced trials!)
For the first five months I had Indie, I just worked on obedience and recall and did not start agility yet other than some basic foundation work at home. I discovered that he could not concentrate in obedience class because he would just stare at the other dogs and whine that I wasn’t letting him run and play with them. He had no interest in treats. I started foundation agility classes with him after I felt like I had made some progress with his focus, recall, and obedience commands in his obedience classes. He had started to do well in obedience, and the instructor loved to use him as his demo dog. However, unfortunately, as we started agility, all he wanted to do was pee on things (despite being neutered) and try to play with the other dogs. The first few months were really rough. He wasn’t learning much in his classes. My first agility dog, Ash, aced his beginner classes, so I was surprised when Indie struggled so much at the beginning. After doing a lot more work on focus as well as agility on our own at home and in private training without the distraction of other dogs, he learned the value of treats and started to do a lot better in agility. I think trying to learn new things with so many distractions was very overwhelming for him. After he had already learned the agility obstacles, it was easier for him to concentrate on doing agility in the presence of other dogs and their scents. He learned that agility was fun first, and then he was keen to do it without thinking too much about the other fun things around, like his doggie friends.
After training agility for about seven months, I entered him in one single run in a USDAA trial just to see how he would do. I wasn’t expecting him to do very well, but I felt like I needed a trial environment to gauge where he was at in his training and what we needed to work on. I was just hoping I had reached a point in our training where he would stay with me in the ring at a trial. I was really nervous and started to think it was a bad idea (I don’t condone entering a dog in a trial before they were ready, but it was just one run). Lo and behold he did great and got a Q in his one and only run! I was very proud of him.
As his confidence grew and he enjoyed agility more and more, he got a little more wild and crazy, so there were plenty of new challenges for us to work through. Indie gets very excited and still can have occasional runs that are a bit wild (perhaps with an extra tunnel or two), but I don’t mind having new challenges and issues to work on when we train and prepare for the next trial. I don’t expect a dog that’s perfect, I just expect a dog that really enjoys having fun with me in the ring. I pushed through our difficulties early in training not just for me, but because I knew I had a young, athletic dog that loved to run and play and could really learn to enjoy agility. Indie now loves doing agility, and I love running him. Even if we have a bad run, he’s still my goofy, happy boy, and he makes me laugh and we have fun no matter what! We’re excited to be competing in Cynosport for the first time, and hope to be back again!
Kristen Wheeler lives in Tucson, AZ and has been competing in agility for about six years with her two mixed breeds Ash (nine-years-old) and Indie (five-years-old). This year will be the first time at Cynosport for both her dogs and herself. Ash is competing in 12″ PSJ and Performance MC Biathlon and Indie in 16″ PGP and PSJ.
Photography credit for all the photos I submitted for both Ash and Indie goes to my dear friend and fellow agility competitor, Kim K Young, who tragically passed away earlier this year. She was a very talented photographer and she would have loved to see her photos used in the Cynosport rescue dog profiles. I would like to thank Kim for all the amazing photos she took of my dogs over the years.