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Agility on wheels

Barbara Handelman has two different conditions, each causing chronic pain - diabetic neuropathy in her feet and fibromyalgia. She can walk, but pays a heavy price with pain, so she has been using assistive technology for about five years. She says, 'I've had to swallow a lot of pride to use the wheelchair, but the choices are that or have my life progressively more and more constricted!' Though a newbie to agility, Barbara is not new to dogs. Now her life in improving by leaps and bounds (pun intended!)

I started training dogs, goats, rabbits and squirrels when I was a young child. Animals have been at the centre of my life. When my twins were born almost sixteen years ago, most of my time and energy for training 'critters' took a back seat. I always knew that when the time came that my children started to need me less, I would need to find a dog who could fill that space.

Four years ago, I began using an electric scooter to enable me to get out for walks on the country roads and into the woods that I love. I am an avid gardener, and the scooter enabled me to get around to many gardens on our property.

At the same time we got a puppy for my daughter. He was a wonderful, spirited, ultra smart border collie (my fourth) who sadly, developed seizures at the age of 18 months and died at the age of 2.

New Moon
After Spin's death, I could not bring another black and white fur ball into the house, so I opted for an Aussie puppy from working lines. At the time I found Moon, I was looking for a pup with a rock solid temperament who could work for me as a service dog. I didn't even know that the sport of agility existed!

At basic obedience classes, we were introduced to the agility equipment. Then while following my daughter around to one of the farms where she was training a difficult pony, there happened to be some little used agility equipment in one of the fields. Moon and I would play on that equipment while Kali rode.

There are no agility classes in my section of rural Vermont, and no one within 200 miles who has experience with training for agility from a wheelchair, so I've been on my own for most of Moon's training. I do have a friend who has an Aussie Moon's age, her first agility dog. Jo and I have trained together, and occasionally Jo will run Moon through a course. It is exciting for me to watch Moon run with Jo. If we hadn't done that, I'd still be thinking Moon is a slow dog. He is anything but slow. He simply has been waiting for me to catch up!

Moon, now two years old, has lots of attitude. He's had a tendency to be wildly creative in the agility fields. Until very recently, he saw the agility ring as an opportunity to do wheelies (translation: run wildly around the ring, making up his own course). Occasionally we might meet for a few obstacles, and then he'd be off again.

We've worked hard on focus issues, and on my handling skills. I've been to two seminars with Susan Garrett that helped me understand 'clicker training' and how to apply it to agility. I have also taken some private lessons from Gail Fischer on clicker training to help with Moon's obedience and service dog work.

Wheelchair Technology
This past spring, I bought a new wheelchair. The chair makes it possible for me to actually work the course with Moon, and to give him much clearer information about where we are going next. I've learned to remember the course, and to figure out how far to lead out and where to meet up with him. Previously I was working from a three-wheeled electric scooter. What a difference! The scooter had a turning radius of about four feet. My new wheelchair can pivot in place.

Recently, after a lengthy process of appeals, we got the news that we won our battle with our insurance company. They are paying for the chair. Phew! I can only marginally of do the rest of my life with the scooter. No way would it be possible to compete in agility using the scooter. The scooter won't even climb my driveway so I couldn't even take Moon for a walk. We live on a steep dirt road in Vermont! Agility is keeping me young, and improving the quality of my life by leaps and bounds (pun intended).

On an agility course, Moon will let me lead out three to four obstacles, and I can also send him ahead through a chute of three jumps, cut behind him, and catch up to send him to another sequence. He has had to do a lot of waiting around for me, mentally as well as physically. He learns and moves much faster than I do so we've had major problems with time on courses. In our first trial this Spring, we missed our first USDAA leg by three seconds after a clean run, and had a similar experience at our second trial.

Over the Moon
At the JAZZ competition in New York, it seemed to all come together for us! We got our first NADAC Novice 5 point Q and a 4th place ribbon on Saturday.... we were less than 1 second over time after a clean run! We also had a great gambler's course, the first time he ever got into the gamble, and he did it perfectly, sadly he was just coming out of the tunnel with one jump to go, when the whistle blew.

The next day he had a fabulous standard run! Clean and FAST!!!! A 10 point Q, second place finish 12 seconds under time - and it was 97 degrees hot with equal humidity.

So for all of you out there doing agility from a wheelchair, or with other ability issues take heart. I never set my goal at placing. I simply dreamed that someday we'd finish a course under time. I am ever grateful to those who encouraged to keep going!

We did it!!!!!!!!!!!!

P.S. We've resigned from obedience competition... toooo boring!

For anyone interested in learning about adaptive handling techniques for human team mates with physical challenges, please join Barbara and others at the Agility on Wheels list which can be found at www.egroup.com.

Agility on Wheels is not just for folks handling from a chair. Anyone who has any type of physical challenges and/or the instructors who teach them are welcome.


Reader response

Outstanding! I think the major kudos should go to the handler - what an amazing lady!

Could I have permission to reprint this article in my training club's newsletter? It's too wonderful and I'd love to share it with my handlers.
Shannon McKay  (McKaynine Training Centre, Johannesburg - South Africa) (28/01/02)

Hi Barbara and Moon!
You said, 'Moon, now two years old, has lots of attitude. He's had a tendency to be wildly creative in the agility fields.' And I laughed aloud! Having seen and spoken with you recently at Fryeberg, I have to say I would have never known this from your performance, but I must say I have a special place in my heart for dogs with this trait. Certainly Moon is a dog who likes to apply himself to life. He's wonderful! I was also quite impressed with things you were doing with the chair to help guide his course, and almost wishing *I* could use one on Cyrano at times.

Great article and yet another reason to love agility. Happy runs to you both.
Deb Locke

Wonderful description and wonderful inspiration. I hope many competitors and many wannabes listen and take heart. Your words display the spirit of agility.
Diane Blackman


Anyone interested in training issues for people with disabilities working in agility is invited to join Barbara's new email support group. You don't have to be in a chair to be on the list. All physically challenged (and non-challenged, too) handlers are welcome as well as trainers and other interested people. You can join the Agility on Wheels list by going to http://www.onelist.com and subscribing to agilityonwheels@onelist.com, but you need to subscribe to the list.
So far, we have six people on the Agility on Wheels list. That is a good start but I am really hoping more folks will join us soon. The list is for anyone with a disability and an interest in agility. We would also welcome any trainers interested or experienced in meeting the unique challenges disabilities add to the complexities of agility. We can be reached at agilityonwheels@onelist.com. Or go to http://www.onelist.com to sign on.