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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Unforgettable Student: Crystal West

When Cal and Crystal West first came to Leadership Class with their Shih Tzu a few years back, going to the National AKC Agility Invitational was farthest from their minds. They hardly knew what agility was. Their two dogs, Rusty and Casey, were just "family dogs," and they thought it would be a good idea for them to be well behaved.

On the last day of Leadership Class, I set up some agility equipment in the classroom, just so the students could see what it was all about. That's all it took for Cal and Crystal to get bitten by the agility bug. No one had told them that a Shih Tzu isn't a typical agility dog. No one told their dogs either.

Flash forward quite a few years to the present. The Wests now have five Shih Tzu, three of whom compete in the upper echelons of the sport. In fact, Crystal's top dog, Teddy, is currently ranked #2 Shih Tzu in the country in agility. Because of that, Crystal and Teddy have been invited to compete in the third annual AKC Invitational to be held in Long Beach in December. This championship will be broadcast on Animal Planet in February '09.

You have to have one of the top five in your breed to be invited to this prestigious event. Crystal and Teddy have worked hard to accumulate the titles, ribbons and points necessary to qualify. They frankly don't expect to win...not against the established superdogs of professional and semi-pro handlers. But they're honored beyond words, just to be invited.

"WhatI truly like about it," says Crystal, "is that all breeds are represented -- that person sitting at home with its little Bichon or Shih Tzu can watch it on TV and realize their little one(s) could be doing the same thing. It doesn't just have to be border collies, Aussies, or shelties. Also, I believe it shows that it's not just about having the 'bestest' and fastest dogs -- it's about a handler doing something fun and healthy with their dog."
Crystal has words of advice for anyone pursuing a new activity like agility: first, "Don't give up on your dog," she says. "Cal and I are living proof of that! It may take longer for some teams to come together, but be sure and enjoy the 'ride.' Good things come from being patient."

Second, she says, "In observing other teams over the past few years, I truly believe the bond you create with your dog should be an 'everyday, all day' occurrence. Don't' just pay attention to your dog and treat them when it is time 'to do agility.' They should always be special, not just at times when you are training. I truly believe they know the difference and give more when they know you truly love and care about them all the time, not just when you want something from them."

Crystal attests to the enormous role her dogs have played in her life. "Dogs can and do change lives! I am a living example. I went from a quiet, behind-the-scenes person -- uncomfortable asking questions, giving my opinion, etc., to a much more confident and stronger woman. It has spilled over to all the parts of my life, not just agility!"
Another word of advice from me, the observer: get your family involved in this sport! Both Cal and Crystal have achieved goals in agility they never dreamed possible. Together these two have become formidable competitors in the arena, with Cal running Casey (their original agility Tzu) and Crystal running the others. It's double the fun when your spouse is also involved!

All of Crystal's friends and fellow agility buddies will be thinking of her and Teddy Dec. 13-14 when they're competing in the "Big One" in Long Beach. Just a few short years ago, who would have thought it would happen! Regardless of how "clean" and fast Teddy's run may be, he and Crystal have already become big winners!

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