AKC Opens the Door

April 28, 2011  

American Kennel Club’s Canine Partners program allows pits to compete

By Penny Leigh, AKC Canine Partners Program Manager


(Hershey and owner Wendy Wooddell)

At an age when many competition dogs are nearing retirement, 9-year-old Hershey is just getting started.

The chocolate pit bull has been in training since she was about 1 year old, and Hershey will make her debut in the rally ring this June.

Hershey was recently registered with the American Kennel Club’s Canine Partners – a program for all dogs including mixes and breeds not currently recognized by AKC. As long as they are spayed or neutered, all dogs can compete in AKC agility, obedience and rally trials as well as the new coursing ability tests.

“Pit bulls have a bad rap, and I wanted to make her the poster child of what they can be.”

AKC events dominate the area were Hershey’s owner, Wendy Wooddell of Parker, Ariz. resides. This means Canine Partners opened many opportunities for them. “We have been practicing in rally for a few years now but just for fun. I was excited when I learned about Canine Partners and printed out the application forms the next day,” Wooddell said.

Rally is a sport in which handlers take their dogs through a course comprised of signs that direct different obedience exercises, such as sit, stay and call the dog to front. Owners can talk to their dog and encourage them through the entire course.

“I want the public to see what she can do,” said Woodall. “Pit bulls have a bad rap, and I wanted to make her the poster child of what they can be.”

The AKC Canine Partners registration service started in October 2009, and competition launched in April 2010. Dogs registered through AKC Canine Partners compete head-to-head with the AKC purebreds for the same titles and awards and are eligible to qualify for AKC agility and obedience national championships and invitationals.

More than 1,000 dogs have already earned titles through the program.

Cooper Joins the Ranks

One of those dogs already succeeding in the program is a pit mix named Cooper, who now bears the AKC Obedience title of Companion Dog (CD).

Cooper found his owner, Marc Powell of Nashville, Tenn., when he was just a 6-month-old puppy.

“He followed our other two dogs out of a field we often let them play in,” said Powell. “We tried for several weeks to find his original home but were unable to do so. After some discussion, we decided to keep him as a member of our family; our other dogs would have been intensely disappointed in us otherwise.”

But Powell said he did have some concerns about the breed’s reputation.

“Bullies are smart dogs and are very eager to please, so training has been relatively easy…”

“Like everyone, we had been exposed to the negative press and stereotypes around the breed, but we weren’t seeing anything like that behavior out of Cooper,” said Powell. “Since he was such a smart, eager and well-behaved dog, even around our other dogs, we wanted to do everything we could to make him the most well behaved dog possible: a bully ambassador of sorts.”

When Cooper grew to about a year old, Powell enrolled him in obedience classes with the goal of passing the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. The test covers 10 basic steps of manners and obedience training.

“While there was some sweating during the test on my part, we were able to pass it handily,” said Powell. “Throughout that training, we experienced the development of the strong bond that anyone who has gone through obedience training can attest.”

Powell continued taking Cooper to classes at the Nashville Dog Training Club to advance his training with no specific goal in mind. Members encouraged him to consider competition.

“I’m not a competitive person by nature and am definitely in it for the fun more than anything else but I was excited to hear about the Canine Partners program through our club and signed up immediately,” said Powell. “We’d already been training for over two years so after some encouragement from other members, I signed up for the first event.”

Cooper debuted at the Nashville club’s trials on the first weekend of Canine Partners competition on April 3 – 4, 2010, and earned qualifying scores both days. He finished the final “leg” of his Companion Dog title in January.

Not resting on his laurels, the 4-year-old dog is now training towards the next obedience title of Companion Dog Excellent and also the exciting speed sport of agility.

“I like the obedience track because that keeps us on the ambassador path, but Cooper much prefers agility,” Powell said.

High-energy dogs particularly love agility. It’s a sport that involves dogs running an obstacle course. The dogs jump, duck through tunnels, dodge weave poles and walk over seesaws.

What it Takes

Dog trainer Samantha Lee Copus of Muncie, Ind., registered her bull terrier-pit mix, Morph, and pit bull, Kramus, with AKC Canine Partners. She hopes to compete with both of them in the future and thinks agility would be a great fit for Morph, whom she describes as “short, stout, high drive, smart, stubborn and impressionable.”

Morph already has a solid foundation in training as both of Copus’ dogs went into training as puppies and then followed it up with two rounds of family manners classes.

“I don’t think there are any specific bully training needs, but there are unique needs to stubborn, high-drive dogs and this includes many non-bully breeds,” Copus said. “Highly motivated and stubborn dogs need lots of socialization and basic obedience lessons as early as possible. They need an owner who is tenacious enough to keep up with them.”

Powell agreed that training Cooper was not any different than training his other dogs, which are “non-bully” breeds.

“Bullies are smart dogs and are very eager to please, so training has been relatively easy, but the same could be said for any number of breeds. They’re very sensitive at heart so positive, reward-based training methods are best,” Powell said. “They can be easily distracted due to an innate curiosity about their environment, but can be refocused just as easily. Cooper, in particular, wants to be a part of everything we do. His greatest desire appears to be just to hang out with us and experience life.”

*AKC Canine Partners wants to invite Stubby Dog readers to enroll their dogs in the program at a discounted rate of $20. This is a savings of $15 off the regular fee of $35. The registration includes a free one-year subscription to AKC Family Dog magazine.
To receive the discount, download and print the application and mail to: Penny Leigh, AKC, 8051 Arco Corporate Drive, Suite 100, Raleigh, NC 27617.

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For more information on the AKC Canine Partners program and AKC sports, visit the website. If you have questions, contact pxl@akc.org or call 919-816-3749.

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