Who doesn’t love dogs, collegiettes? This week, Her Campus sat down with rising junior Merritt Speagle to discuss our favorite furry friends and her experience living with *nine* dogs! Since the age of nine, Speagle has been training her pups to compete in agility! For dog lovers everywhere, this week’s Campus Celeb is a must-read.
HC (Her Campus): Tell me more about dog training and agility! What got you into agility, and when did you first realize you had a passion for it?
MS (Merritt Speagle): I used to ride horses when I was younger and was just overall obsessed with animals. I saw agility on TV for the first time when I was pretty young. It looked kind of like what I used to do with horses, so I thought I would try it. I think I was nine when I first decided to try to train my Shih Tzu, Stella, to do agility. I did an absolutely terrible job with her, but I later worked with some great instructors that helped me train my dogs. They were very supportive. She wasn’t very fast, so they let me run their faster dogs to practice my handling. I think I spent the entirety of middle school being that “weird dog kid” instead of the “weird horse girl.” I’m not sure exactly when I realized it was a passion. I was hooked from the start. All of my Christmas and birthday gifts from age 10 and on were various agility obstacles. I think it was probably when I adopted my next dog, Chase, that my parents realized I wasn’t going to get bored of it.
HC: What are the competitions like?
MS: The competitions look pretty strange to spectators. At the beginning of the day, you get a map that shows you the courses you’ll be running. When they set your course up, you get to walk around it for eight minutes without your dog to memorize it. The courses have to be different every time and are designed by the judge. Then you get to run around for about 30 seconds and hope that you did everything right! Clean runs are qualifying scores that go towards titles to add to your dogs’ names and qualifying for big events, like nationals. I start training my dogs when they’re puppies. We just do foundational stuff on the ground to teach them to follow my handling, and we do a lot of focus work and impulse control. When they’re about 13-15 months, I start training them to do the obstacles, and most of my dogs start competing from 18-24 months. The upkeep of the training is usually running full courses and shorter sequences, as well as conditioning my dogs so they don’t get hurt.
HC: How often do you compete? And how do you manage the stress of school work with competing as often as you do?
MS: I try to compete once or twice a month, but that doesn’t always work with school. Unfortunately, that means I’m usually scrambling for qualifiers for nationals until the end of the qualifying period, since a lot of the competitions are hosted partially on Fridays. I try to keep a balance between the training/competing and school, and I think it’s actually been a positive thing. I get to travel a lot, hang out with dogs all day, and spend time with friends who aren’t at Wake. I mostly come back from a weekend feeling a lot less stressed than before, even if I do have a lot of work to make up. But, it is pretty tiring to be at noisy shows from 8AM-5PM, and Mondays can be rough.
HC: So I know you have a lot of dogs! How many do you have exactly? What inspired your family to own so many!?
MS: I have nine! I know. My family has always owned multiple dogs. Things just kind of escalated when I started this sport. I adopted a dog to train, then we found one in a log, then I got a Border Collie puppy, then we tried to foster a dog but ended up keeping him, then my mom wanted to get a puppy for agility, and then of course my sister needed one too! Six of them are rescues, and three of them are from a breeder in Chicago. We are crazy.
HC: What would you say to people who believe using dogs in sport constitutes as animal cruelty? It’s obvious your dogs are very loved and well taken care of!
MS: Obviously, not every dog is going to enjoy it or is fit enough for it, and there is always going to be someone who forces this dog to do agility. This is pretty discouraged in the sport, and thankfully there are options to jump these kinds of dogs [through] lower heights to make it easier on them. Most dogs, nowadays, seem to really like it. My dogs bug me all day until I train them. One of our rescues, Gabe, used to obsessively chew his tail until we got him and started training him. I’d say, especially for dogs like Border Collies, this sport really improves their quality of life. They get to stay fit, get massages, get to hike, and most are trained using a lot of positive methods, unlike some of the more primitive training “alpha theory” techniques that are used to intimidate dogs into listening. I think a lot of people don’t get that this sport is just one big game to the dog, and the dogs don’t know if they messed up unless you tell them. My dogs want to do agility like any other dog would put a ball or frisbee in your lap to throw. Overall, the agility community is pretty positive to both its people and its dogs, and a lot of strides have been made to make the sport safe for the dogs.
HC: Lastly, do you have any funny stories about your dogs? I’m sure they each have their own distinct personalities!
MS: Oh boy. They’re all weird. I guess one time, the ring gates were lined with tennis balls. When my sister released Gabe from his stay, he ran over and took down the fencing to get the tennis ball off. Another time, our youngest dog, Velo, went to a practice match. She hadn’t really done agility anywhere except our yard before, so when she got let off of her leash, she thought it was a hike and just sprinted as fast as she could … away. She is feral, though – should have expected that! Thankfully she has a good “come,” and we got her back before she acclimated to life in the wild. Then my dog, Jeopardy … there is so much. One time I accidentally punched him while he was jumping at the US Open and made him knock [over] the bar on the jump. I’ve had a dog poop in the ring, and one jump on top of the tunnel (a tube that the dog runs through), and run across the top of it instead of going through it. You have to have a sense of humor to do this. They’re animals.