Treasure Island resident Michael Collins holds his award-winning wire fox terrier Kiwi next to the medals they have won over the past two years.
TREASURE ISLAND – She’s a wire fox terrier, her name is Kiwi and she’s wound tighter than a drum, which is exactly how a championship dog should be.
Kiwi is anxious, unafraid and ready to tackle whatever her master says. That is why Kiwi is one of the top five dogs in her breed and she’ll be heading to Orlando Dec. 14-15 for the American Kennel Club Agility Invitational.
Treasure Island resident Michael Collins owns Kiwi. They have been a team ever since Kiwi was born, but never did Michael ever think she would achieve this level of competition.
“We started when she was real young, just 6 months old,” he said. “Then it was just obedience school, there were a lot of ‘sits,’ and ‘downs’ and ‘stays’ and we did that for a couple of years. But you could tell she was getting bored with doing the same old stuff time after time.”
It was then that Collins decided to move toward more advanced training.
“Two years ago we started agility training at the Dog Training Club of St. Petersburg and she loved it,” he said. “She thinks that it is a bit more fun and she had a good time even while other dogs were having trouble.”
It was then that some of the trainers urged Collins to move to having Kiwi participate in competitions and success quickly followed.
“Agility has two types of courses,” said Collins. “There is the standard course of obstacles and the jumper with weaves course. That course involves jumps and obstacles and poles through which she must weave.”
Kiwi won the novice title in both competitions, eventually getting a title in each category.
Pet owners in particular will be able to appreciate the difficulty in training a dog to run through these courses. Prior to a competition the participants are given a sketch of the course and are allowed to walk it, but without the dog. The first time the dog sees the course is at the beginning of the competition.
The course is a confusing maze of jumps, seesaws, tunnels, tables and poles. In addition there are some that are not in play for the competition but are there to further confuse the animal. Add a packed house and noisy crowd and you get an idea of what the dog must be feeling.
Then the competition begins with the handler, using hand signals only, directing the dog through the maze; jump this bar, go into that tunnel, ignore that bar but come back around, jump on that table, be still, weave through the poles, go again, another tunnel, another jump another table, more poles.
At the Excellent B, or Master Excellent level, which is where Kiwi will be competing in Orlando, no mistakes are allowed. Knock over a bar and the dog is disqualified, miss a weave, disqualified; jump over the wrong bar, disqualified. It is a tough, unforgiving competition. Despite it all Collins feels they are ready. In fact he says he is more the problem than Kiwi.
“I’m so anxious and overwhelmed sometimes that I think she senses it and then gets too cautious,” he said. “It’s like she’s thinking ‘if he’s worried then I should be worried too, what’s out there that will surprise me?’”
Collins says Kiwi has completed the course flawlessly on several occasions but usually falls short of the time limit, another obstacle to an already difficult situation.
“We come within six seconds usually,” he said. “Kiwi always starts slowly then, once she sees no surprises, she picks it up but by then it is too late.”
Collins blames himself for that.
“If I can show confidence right from the start I think she will too, I have to work on remaining upbeat and confident so she won’t be so cautious,” he said.
Collins and Kiwi now train with Gabrielle Blackburn in Wesley Chapel at the Impulse to Soar kennels. Blackburn and her Red Border Collie, Zing, have won national championships at the AKC (American Kennel Club) Nationals and the USDAA Nationals in steeplechase.
Compliments from Blackburn don’t come easy, but she has plenty for Kiwi.
“She is an exceptionally well-trained terrier with a sparkling personality and she has so much spirit,” she said. “She is very quick; up-down-stand, up-down-stand, immediately there is no hesitation. A lot of terriers are hard to train, they’d rather be chasing lizards or squirrels but Kiwi has so much focus.”
Kiwi’s focus might be because of the focus of her owner and handler, Collins. At 55 he’s a retired engineer from Raytheon and apart from his ham radio activities and some fishing, he’s devoted to Kiwi, which is something Blackburn noticed when they first started training with her.
“He’s the person; he’s very good to her. He’s a gentle trainer and very positive and you can see the bond, a very special bond,” she said.
Whatever happens at the agility invitational in Orlando we have not likely heard the last of Kiwi.
“We’re still training now and things are getting better all the time,” said Collins.
The big compliment comes from professional trainer Blackburn.
“She has a sweet temperament; I see a bright future for her,” she said.