By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Sparky needed a job, and Jane Huelsmeyer needed a retirement project.
When Huelsmeyer had just left her career as a teacher for retirement, the puppy had other plans for her educational skills. The Brittany and his wild nature coaxed Huelsmeyer back into the classroom. She started the dog's education in obedience training with Mary Price at the American Kennel Club, but she soon realized his intelligence and stubborn behavior stemmed from boredom rather than an ornery attitude. Sparky needed a challenge, and together they found it on an agility course.
"It took a lot of time and patience on her part to get him under control," Price said. "It just came with age and maturity and discipline."
Ten years later, Sparky has achieved the highest level as an agility champion. He's recently earned Master Excellent Agility and Master Excellent Agility Jumper titles, and he's certainly not ready for retirement. He maintains a darting speed, and as he ages, he'll complete with shorter jumps, but Huelsmeyer said graying won't keep Sparky from the running courses. His pure delight in agility has driven her to keep up with him and to compete for alternative titles.
"He's fast," Huelsmeyer said. "Even though he's 10 years old, he moves better than I can sometimes."
In competitions, Huelsmeyer directs Sparky through an array of obstacles. Using mere words and slight hand motions, the Brittany flawlessly follows courses he's never encountered. She compared this talent to dancing without touching a partner. Every moved must correspond, but trainer lacks direct, physical control in the situation.
"It's up to you, with your mouth and your hand to let the dog know what the next move is going to be," Price said.
To achieve master status, Sparky flawlessly ran 10 courses. Huelsmeyer said it took most of the year to complete this title. She explained that even in the slightest hesitation can cause a slip up at a competition, but she believes often the trainer has just as many flaws as the dog.
"A dog's a dog, and half the time, the handler makes the mistake," Huelsmeyer said.
Both trainers explained that dogs thrive in the competition ring. Often that vibrant joy of running an agility course can cause errors in communication even between the most polished pairs.
"The dogs absolutely love it," Price said. "They go into the agility ring with such joy."
While Price trained Sparky as a puppy, Huelsmeyer took the bulk of Sparky's agility training on her own. As Sparky thrived in agility, Huelsmeyer continued self-educating herself about the sport. She said his pure delight in running these courses led her to continue with it, even though agility resources in this area were slim. Once Sparky began winning, the duo began traveling throughout the Midwest to compete. Now, Huelsmeyer believes Sparky has achieved the area's first master standing for agility.
Thanks to Sparky, Huelsmeyer never really left the classroom after her retirement. Even at 66, she trains other dogs and owners in agility at the kennel club. Since training Sparky, Huelsmeyer has added two more dogs to her retirement project. Six-year-old Molly has progressed in the agility ring much faster than Sparky did, and Huelsmeyer anticipates Molly will have a successful agility career as well.
Recently, she's added a third canine to the family. Just as Sparky started as a wild child, Nike seems just as headstrong. Perhaps, though, he'll need a job too, and fortunately, Huelsmeyer has the patience for it.
"It takes years to development that kind of connection between the owner and the dog," Huelsmeyer said. "There's got to be some real enthusiasm for the dog to play the game with you."