A Whitesboro teenager is taking her love of dog training to a worldwide stage. Hannah Larson, 16, was recently accepted onto the American Kennel Club's Junior Open Agility World Championship team with plans to eventually complete against other trainers from across the globe.
Hannah and her two border collies compete in the sport of dog agility, which requires trainers to lead their four-legged partners through a series of obstacles as quickly as possible with as few mistakes as possible.
“You really could just about do it with anything that has the will to please,” Hannah said. “If they are willing to do anything you ask them to do, you can succeed at this.”
During competition, the animals are not given prior knowledge of the course, which could include obstacles ranging from a seesaw to a tunnel. The trainers are able to see the layout of the course with only a few minutes to prepare before the performance.
“There is no connection between me and the dog,” she said. “I am not allowed to have toys treats or leashes; most of the time I don't have the dog with a collar on.”
Hannah's interest in the sport started about four years ago when she was 12 years old. It was during a Christmas break that she found herself bored and started watching videos online of European dog trainers participating in agility training and courses.
“At the time I had a mini-poodle and I took him outside and did it with chairs and broomsticks,” she said. “I had wanted a border collie for several years beforehand, so I went to my mom and said, 'Mom, I really want one.' “
In an effort to convince her mother, Hannah made a series of PowerPoint presentations on why she should be allowed to get a border collie. This led her to get her first border collie, Koda. Later, she would adopt her sister and also train her for the sport.
While it is possible to complete with nearly any breed, there are favored breeds, especially with the more serious competitors.
“Usually you will see people who are more competitive with it run border collies, Shetland sheepdogs, mini-poodles.” ” They are fast, they are smart and they think of their feet. My trainer has been so successful with dobermans. You wouldn't think it, but they are fast and they are agile.
While it is her partner who runs the course, Hannah said it is a combined effort between her and the dog. Without the guidance of the trainer, the animal would not know the proper route for the course, she said, adding that she makes up about 25 percent of the performance.
“I step up to the line with my dogs knowing that she is going to give 100 percent of herself, but everything she knows came through me,” she said. “She didn't come out knowing how to sit and we have several criteria that take days, if not weeks to master.”
While she has been active in the sport for a few years, it was only recently she took the step up to wider competition. In December, Hannah attended a national-level competition in Florida that featured coaches for the U.S. national team. While she initially did not think she was ready for that level of competition, representatives reassured her and told her to continue practicing.
“It never occurred to me that they were of the skill level to go over there,” she said. “So, I continued to train them to where they need to be, sent in my videos, crossed my fingers. “When they called, it was a big stress relief and I cried like a baby.”
The world stage brings its own challenges as the courses typically are harder than American competition. Additionally, judges from across the world bring their own criteria and judging style that competitors must be able to appeal to.
“Every country runs differently and has different judging styles and we are having judges from different countries come and build those courses and judge accordingly,” she said.
Unfortunately for Hannah and the 22 other members of the team, the 2020 world championship was called due to fears over the Coronavirus.
While her role as trainer usually has her teacher her canine partner, Hannah said she has learned several valuable lessons from both of her dogs. Primarily both have taught her key lessons in humility and the key lesson that she can fail at things.
Both of her dogs have proven to be consistent in the things that they are both good and bad at, but Hannah said she has learned not to grow complacent in that.
“I came into this sport with a very consistent dog and we blossomed together. She had problems, but was consistent where she was bad and good so I could micromanage the bad because I knew how she was going to go,” she said.
However, Koda soon lost some of that consistency and Hannah had to spend more time retraining her rather than just coasting though competition. At the same time, Hannah's second dog was almost ready to debut.
“That dog really humbled me,” she said. “She taught me what it was like to have one thing go wrong and that be it.”
With her second dog, she had to train harder and change her methods to fit her dog's personality. In some cases, that included bridging the gap between training and play. Through this, Hannah also learned to relax.
“I thought that if I am going to do something locally, and do well at it, then I might as well go as big as I can,” she said. “That is what I am doing right now: I am trying to get as successful as I can at something that doesn't stress me out.”
“When you take the stress away from something you live, seeing how far you can get with it is part of the game,” she added.