What’s the big deal, another dog with a MACH, right? How many pieces of friends’ MACH cake have we all consumed (and how many pounds have we gained in the process?)? How many times have we stood cheering while another successful team ran their victory lap, bar in hand?
n 2015, AKC allowed clubs to hold a special event each year. and awhile back, I shared a post on my Facebook wall about a northern club’s special event where competitors had the chance to earn two double Q’s in one day. I thought it was a great idea and was hoping maybe some clubs local to me might pick up on it. Almost immediately someone responded essentially saying they didn’t understand why this was “different” or “special.” Luckily that person deleted his posts before a brouhaha could start. Nevertheless, I was offended and it gave me pause for thought. To my way of thinking, that person may as well have walked into a Mass at a Catholic church and said there is no God. In AKC, the MACH (Master Agility Champion title) is the highest one can get, requiring 20 Double Qs (qualifying scores in Master Standard and Master Jumpers on the same day) and 750 MACH points. This has made AKC the Church of the Double Q. To have someone post on my wall that TWO doubles in one day wasn’t different or special, seemed sacrilegious.
So before we get too jaded, I think it’s important to remember that not every team has accomplished this. Some teams are just beginning their journey, other teams have had problems preventing it from happening. And some have had a very long journey to reach that goal possibly with several teammates. Behind every MACH team, there is a story. Some may be shorter than others but I doubt anyone got there easily. My own story is probably longer and maybe a bit more dramatic than most. It’s a story of paths chosen, some bad luck and lots of lessons learned. While it makes this particular MACH pretty darn special to me, it certainly doesn’t take away from anyone else’s. Because behind every MACH, there is a story. This one is mine.
My agility journey began in south Florida with a very special rough collie, named Maggie. She was my first agility dogand while I struggled to learn the lessons of agility, people kept telling me what an amazing dog she was. Of course, I couldn’t understand why they said that when I couldn’t get her around the ring successfully. But she was special. She was FAST and athletic, she was driven and she loved agility. Unfortunately, at her first trial, she measured (just barely) into the 24” height group. That was the year AKC had taken away the height challenge so you were stuck with what you got.
Maggie could jump 24 but it wasn’t easy. She was built to jump 20” and even though I didn’t know much back then, I did know that her health and well being was far more important than any titles or awards. So I elected to run her at 20” in Preferred, foregoing any chance at that coveted MACH (and this was before the PACH existed).
Over the next years, I watched the people I’d started with getting their MACHs and in some cases, even multiple MACHs. I bought them cakes, signed bars, made videos for them and cheered them on. Yep, always the bridesmaid and never the bride.
By the time Maggie was 6, I had gotten with the program and our Q rate was about 80-85%. And that was when AKC reinstated the height challenge. They also instituted the PACH title and I could have stayed my course and set my sights on that. But after watching so many friends get that long coveted MACH, I decided to take my chances. I successfully challenged her measurement and at long last we began our MACH quest even though we had to go back to Novice. And it was summer in south Florida so there were no trials at that time.
But it didn’t take us too long to get back into Master (Excellent B it was called at the time). Once there, Maggie did so well that she sometimes even placed in jumpers with the border collies. She really was an unusually fast collie. By her 7th birthday, she was halfway to her MACH. And that was when disaster hit. At an August trial in Concord, NC, she had some stomach upsets. She was running well but was just a tad slower than usual. Funny how you can sense the tiniest change when you’ve been running a dog for awhile. Her points were just one or two off. Friends told me it was just a tight wheel but I felt something wasn’t quite right. And when I took her to the vet back in Florida, it was discovered that she had an advanced, terminal cancer. Here again, evidence of the amazing heart of this dog. Sick as she was, to watch her run, you would never guess. There was nothing to be done for her and no sense in prolonging things. I did not want her to suffer one bit if I could help it so I let her go immediately.
During this time I was trialing my first border collie. Unfortunately, while he had amazing speed, he was a chronic bar knocker. I spent an awful lot of time and money trying to solve his bar issue to no avail. In his case, there was not one thing that was causing it but rather a combination of things and I couldn’t fix it. Obviously, there was no MACH in this dog’s future although he was a lot of fun to run and I sure learned a lot from the boy.
I had gotten Wing when I was running Maggie and Cirque – before I was really ready for another dog. I had wanted a pup from this breeding but learned of it too late to get on the list. Fortunately, Annette Alfonso knew of my desires so when someone had to back out of the litter at the last minute, Annette arranged for me to step in. I’m fond of telling the story because it was rather unique. I was at a trial in Miami, literally in the chute ready to step into the ring with Cirque. Annette had flown to Texas to choose her friend, Sheyla’s pup, and to pick up Momma Poison. As I was standing in the chute, Sheyla handed me her cell phone saying “Annette needs to talk to you RIGHT NOW.” Somehow I just knew. To the best of my recollection, I took the phone and said something like “Yes! I’ll call you back in 5 minutes.” And into the ring I went. But I digress….
Wing was my soul sister pretty much from the moment Annette placed her in my arms at 8 weeks. And Wing had her lessons to teach me. She was a soft girlie, not a very confident dog and I’d never dealt with that before. However, she was super easy to train. We had bumps in our road like anyone else, mainly due to my lack of experience in dealing with fear issues but essentially, Wing was going to be a shoo in for a MACH. And sure enough, once the bumps were smoothed, Wing was racking up a 90-95% Q rate. She was not one of the fastest border collies (again, mainly due to my inexperience) but I was really loving running such a steady, consistent, well trained dog. Our MACH quest was slowed a bit by a move to a new state, starting a new training business, more training bumps and so on but a few months later we were back on track. It was shaping up that double Qs would happen before reaching the required number of points. So what could possibly go wrong now?
Shortly before reaching her 20th double Q, disaster struck again. In June of 2014, I was awakened at 4:30am to find my best friend, my soul sister, Wing, having a grand mal seizure on the bed next to me. My world came to a crashing halt. Initially, we thought she might have been reacting to the new Seresto flea/tick collar she’d wearing. In fact, she was seizure free for two months after it’s removal. But then the seizures started up again and eventually I had to accept the fact that my princess had the dreaded idiopathic epilepsy.
For anyone not familiar, idiopathic epilepsy is a seizure disorder with no known cause. Sadly, it effects far more dogs than I ever realized. Seizures typically cannot be stopped entirely with these dogs, but with the right combination of drugs and some good luck thrown in, they can be controlled. Finding the right combination of drugs is tricky at best and particularly for a performance dog as the drugs have side effects that are often not conducive to agility, i.e. hind end weakness, weight gain, lethargy, and more. Many epileptic dogs are not able to continue their agility careers and for awhile I thought Wing was going to be one of them. I’d found a drug combinatio
n that was holding the seizures at bay but the side effects had pretty much taken my girl away from me. Not only were the physical effects not going to allow agility but her entire personality had changed. She was either sound asleep or she was in manic mode where she was in constant motion, whining at me to do something with her even though her hind end could barely support her. The drugs also changed her metabolism so even on a reduced diet, her weight was out of control. It was not a fun time. Needless to say, I thought that once again, our MACH chances were slim to none.
Eventually I decided that the dog I was living with was not my happy girl and we were not going to live the rest of her life like this, no matter how long or short it may be. I discussed things with my vet and decided to try reducing or possibly eliminating one of the drugs.
This sounds simple but really isn’t a decision to make lightly. Managing epilepsy is a guessing game at best, and if you lose control by changing drugs, you may not be able to get it back even by going back to the original protocol. I decided it was worththe risk as the quality of life for both of us had become worse than the thought of more seizures.
The gamble paid off. She remained well controlled, the side effects disappeared almost immediately and my girl was
happy and normal again. By late January, 2015, we were back in the agility game with her 90-95% Q rate. She had lost the excess weight and the only residual effect was that she hadn’t adjusted her jumping accordingly and was(is) jumping about 30″ over every 20″ jump causing us to lose a lot of time in the air. But the other aspect of having an epileptic dog is that while they can and often do live a normal lifespan, you must always be aware that the next seizure could be the one they don’t come out of. In light of this, I decided not to worry about her jumping and course times but rather just let the girl run however she chooses.
And on March 14, 2015 at Chatham, Virginia, that well earned first MACH finally happened. This weekend, when I go to the next trial, the cake we’ll be eating will, FINALLY, be mine.
UPDATE June, 2016: As of May 23, 2016, Wing is one year seizure free. Still on the same cocktail of phenobarbital and potassium bromide (KBr).
UPDATE January, 2017: On January 15, 2017, Wing earned her 2nd MACH title at Lexington, VA and is still seizure free.
UPDATE: July, 2018 Wing is now over 3 years seizure free on KBr and Phenobarbitol, leading a completely normal life