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In conversation with Mary Ann Nester

Not many people in the UK will recognise the name Monica Percival, but in The States she known as the driving force behind Clean Run Productions, the company which publishes dog training books, DVDs, videos and Clean Run Course Designer as well as a monthly agility magazine. She has teamed up with Greg Derrett and Mark Laker to create and organise the first World Agility Open Championships to be held in the UK on 13-15 May 2011, and she's coming here to help with the management of the event. In a rare interview, she talks to Mary Ann Nester about her life, dogs and agility.

Mary Ann: It is nice to meet you by email. I confess that I have been a fan of yours for many years! Where do you find the energy? You compete and instruct in agility and you manage Clean Run Productions as well as Pipe Dream Agility Equipment. And I bet your house is neat and tidy, too! I find it hard to do just one thing adequately! You seem to live the agility good life - the perfect combination of agility work and play. We all have the love but few of us have the commitment and business acumen to be successful.

Monica: I actually sold Pipe Dreams to MAX 200 back in 1996. There was a lot of change going on in my life at the time and I had moved to a new state which meant starting from scratch, finding suppliers and welders, etc. so I decided to focus my energy on Clean Run and teaching. But I'm pleased you remember Pipe Dreams! A lot of people here don't even realise that I started many new trends in how equipment was made here in the USA.

Mary Ann: You have been involved in agility for a long time. Everyone seems to have a story to tell about their first agility steps. I'm sure you have heard of the husband who was tired of following his wife to shows and decided to get his own dog. Or the lady who took up agility because her energetic collie needed an outlet that didn't involve the neighbour's cat. What attracted you and how did you get started? More importantly, what made you stay?

50 x 100ft training area that's air conditioned and heatedMonica: Even before I got my first purebred dog, I had decided that I wanted to show her in conformation and also do obedience. I asked the breeder for a local recommendation for an obedience instructor. She gave me Julie Daniels' name. I called her and found out that she had decided to stop teaching obedience and start teaching this thing called agility. No one else had any obedience classes starting for a few weeks, so I decided to give agility a try.

I became so hooked that most people wouldn't believe what I went through to get to classes. I was doing a 2-hour commute (each way) a 'real job' at the time and I couldn't bring my dog. So on Tuesdays, I drove home - two hours, passing by the building where classes would be held that evening - got my dog, and then drove 30 minutes back the way I came. Classes were held in a high school gym. I would meet Julie in the parking lot where we proceeded to unload mats and set them up in the gym so the dogs could actually run, and then we would unload all the equipment. At the end of class, we did it all in reverse. Today in classes in the US, people don't usually have to lift a single obstacle before or after class!

My complete addiction to the sport carried me through many years. Now, there's no turning back. All my friends and everyone I know is involved in the sport. If I left, I'd have to start a totally new life! And besides, my dogs wouldn't be very happy if they couldn't come to work with me any more!

Mary Ann: Anyone like yourself who has experience working a variety of breeds and their types automatically gets my respect! And I hear that you are now working an All-American rescue dog. Is an All-American a cross-breed? That's a great term and I wonder what the British equivalent could be. Can you introduce us to some of the dogs that you have owned and tell us a little about them, especially your very first agility dog?

Monica: My first agility dog was an English Springer Spaniel named Hannah. I got her when she was almost a year old. She had been left at home for 12 hours a day with her first owner and was destroying the house. I also had to leave her at home for long days because of my commute, but a little agility training before I left for work and when I came home seemed to curb her wicked ways. Plus I built her a kennel that enabled her to be in the house or in an outside pen so she was pretty content. I got three more Springers over the next few years - Stoner, Dazzle and Splash. I decided very early on that I wanted a Border Collie, but I didn't feel that I had the skills yet to train one.

Then I found Lazer. I was waiting for a pup from a particular sheep farmer, and I really wanted a black and white, prick-eared, smooth-coated boy. With four Springer girls in the house, we needed a boy to keep the peace. But I knew that looks couldn't be my main criteria for choosing a Border Collie, so the only thing I was set on was getting a boy. However, as it turned out, Lazer was the only pup in the litter and he was a black and white, smooth coat with what looked like they were going to be huge prick ears.

He was a one-of-a-kind dog. His ability to respond to verbal commands was unbelievable. Once on a wager, I directed him through a course from the top of a hill that was over 100 yards from the agility field. I rolled up a newspaper and was yelling commands through it so he could hear me. He was one of the first Border Collies in agility in the Northeast part of the country and achieved quite a lot in the sport. We used him for lots of demonstrations to promote agility, and people still come up to me and say that Lazer was responsible for getting them interested in the sport.

Boomer, whom we suspect was a BC/pitbull X, came next. She was a rescue and had a lot of stress issues. It took a long time to work through them and make her happy in the ring. Then there was Cece, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. I trained her and my partner ran her in competition. She was like a bowling ball with all that weight in the head and front, so she taught me a lot more about the influence of body type on performance.

The stressful life of Clean Run dogsCurrently I have a 7-year-old Border Collie named Bonus and his 2-year-old son Benefit. We also have a 3-year-old mixed breed (Cattle Dog/Rat Terrier at best guess) named Dot that my partner runs. Bonus is a power house; one of those dogs that digs into the ground and sends turf flying everywhere. I've never met such a strong dog.

Mary Ann: Your dogs have such cool and original names (Lazer and Boomer). Having worked at a vets, there are few pet names that I haven't heard. Can you tell me how you choose a name and if you have one in reserve for your next dog?

Monica: Usually there's some characteristic in the dog that sparks my naming ideas.

  • I wanted a 'speed name' for my first Border Collie. I liked the name 'Laser' but figuring that most people would misspell it, I opted for spelling it like it sounds Lazer. One of my friends asked what I was going to do if he was slow. I said, I would just call him Lazy then. As it turned out, Lazy was my nickname for him even though he was far from slow.

  • Splash was addicted to water from the age of six weeks.

  • Boomer literally bounced around like a boomerang when we first met her, so she was easy.

  • Bonus was a completely unplanned dog. I had actually stopped competing in agility at the time because my knees were so bad. I went to evaluate a litter for a friend and I really liked one of the pups a lot. In addition, Lazer who usually ignored most other dogs was fascinated with this same puppy. My friend decided not to take the dog that I recommended because she wanted a girl, so he ended up coming home with me. He was a bonus to my life and he ended up getting me restarted in agility. Soon after getting him, I ended up being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and they put me on some medication that actually helped. I started getting acupuncture and massage, and all of a sudden I was running agility again. He has an incredible disposition and has produced a lot of nice puppies, one of which I kept Benefit.

  • Dot got her name as a bit of a joke. She's very dotted, and people thought I wasn't capable of coming up with a simple name.

Mary Ann: And when you do get your next dog what will you be looking for? I'm hoping you'll say a pocket rocket, small dog but then being a small dog handler I would say that! What is the largest number of dogs that you have had at any one time? Many of us in agility just can't resist getting one more ....

Benefit as a puppyMonica: I'm really enjoying a three dog household right now. It's the fewest dogs I've ever had. Our average has been four to six, but when I moved in with my partner initially our combined household was eight dogs. Benefit is only two years old, so it will be a while before we get another one but I really would like a BC/Staffy X. I miss the Staffy attitude and personality in our household. I've also thought about a miniature poodle. I had never considered a poodle before, but I have a friend who breeds minis with incredible speed and a 'big dog' attitude.

Mary Ann: I'm after training tips now! Is there one thing that you always do on a dog-to-dog basis? What is the something that you never leave out of your training program no matter how short you are of time and energy?

Monica: The last few years as Clean Run has grown even more, I've constantly found myself short of training time and energy. Plus, there are so many classes being taught in the training centre here that I rarely get time to have my dog on the equipment. So the majority of my training is spent on control exercises, motivation exercises, and body awareness training that can be integrated into daily life.

The dogs learn to wait for release before starting any activity, going out doors, getting out of their kennels, getting their food dish, etc. They also learn to walk on strange surfaces, climb objects, go under and over objects, balance on exercise discs and the physioball, etc. We play lots of games that they think are fun, but are really critical training for a future agility dog training the dog to work with me, play with toys and also take treats, have impulse control, have a rock-solid stay), respond to commands, be fearless and excited about interacting with different objects, learn to control their bodies, etc. This is all stuff I can do at home easily as part of daily life. It makes the actual obstacle training go quite quickly and easily.

Weave-O-MaticAs far as one thing I do differently on a dog to dog basis, I think it would have to be select a weave pole training method. The weave poles really have to be an odd obstacle from the dog's point of view, They jump and climb on many different things when walking in the woods or playing, but they don't weave through things. And getting the footwork down is a difficult task for a lot of dogs. So I own at least five different styles of weave poles.

I usually end up using a combination of one or more to get the exact weaving behaviour I want from that dog. It's kind of like cooking a dash of this and a dash of that. I change what type of training or style of weave poles I'm using based on how the dog is using his body in the poles. For example, if a dog is having trouble with footwork (especially dogs that are cross stepping) or the dog isn't pushing forward enough with his body, I put them on a Weave-A-Matic (slanted poles) for a bit. If the dog is having trouble with entries, I'll focus on some 2x2 work as well as some channel poles work. With small dogs that can be so effected by different bases - a bulky base is like an obstacle for them - I like them to see lots of variety in poles.

Mary Ann: What is the biggest or strangest training problem that you have encountered - whether with one of your own dogs or someone else's? How did you stumble on the solution? Did it fix at the first attempt or take a long time to come right?

Monica: I can't think of anything I would call strange. There are the rare problems like the dog whose handler stepped on him as he was getting ready to get on the A-frame and then who decided he would never go near another A-frame again. The more common problems are like the dog that is scared of the seesaw or that misses the down dogwalk contact.

 No matter how unique a problem is, it usually comes down to the same things to fix it increase desire and motivation, teach self-control, go back to foundation work and fill in holes in the dog's training, find what is really rewarding to a particular dog, etc.

Mary Ann: As a trainer, advice and helpful hints are often remembered forever by your students. And you need to be careful what you say. I once had a foreign student in my class who picked up a very colourful swear word that was not in the lesson plan. So, your turn. What is the most memorable piece of advice or help that you have been given good or bad?

Monica: Most memorable was probably a British instructor who was here to do a seminar. I was working my first agility dog, an English Springer Spaniel, and I'd gotten very little feedback on anything I'd done. I was just told 'good' each time. We were working on a weaving exercise and I asked if there was anything we could do to speed up her weave poles even more. I was told, 'Why... she'll never be a Collie.' That advice inspired me, and Hannah went on to be a weaving fool that often wowed the crowds. She even won several Weave Pole Knockout Competitions against Border Collies.

Mary Ann: I like to have fun keeping fit with my dogs. Like most activities, fitness training has seen many trends. A variety of toys, aids and nutritional supplements continue to hit the market. What is your favourite and most fun way of making sure your dogs are in tip top physical condition? And, how do you relax together?

Get on the Ball by Debbie Gross SaundersMonica: I love what we call 'ball work' here in The States. It's based on the Get on the Ball program that Debbie Gross Saunders developed and that Clean Run published a DVD on. It really has incredible results with the dogs. You can feel their core muscle working and you can see the difference it makes in the dog being able to collect themselves for jumps and difficult weave entries, for example. It's also something you can do with the dog while you're watching television! And, you can start puppies on the ball to help them develop their proprioception. I've really have noticed a difference in agility performance because of the ball work. For cardio work, I rely on walks with the dog. I just moved to a property with 53 acres of fields and woods, so my dogs can get a lot of running in.

I use a joint supplement and a product called Vertex in the spring and summer. The Vertex helps with stamina and recovery, particularly in the hot, humid weather we get here.

For relaxation, I love swimming with the dog and playing with them. I still get down on the ground with my dogs and we play silly games. I also love herding with my BCs - and actually Dot has shown some driving ability with the sheep.

Mary Ann: What is your favourite training gadget and why?  I love shopping at Crufts because the array of wizardry on sale is breathtaking. Some gadgets live in my pocket and are used all the time and others are used once and then hide in a drawer. And my shed is bursting with many home-made training aids. Please pick one or two of your favourites to tell us about.

Monica: I generally dislike gadgets. With having so little time to train, I try to keep it very simple. I'll use a clicker with young dogs for just a bit, and I'll use a piece of Plexi-glas as a target, but I believe in KISS Keep It Simple.

Mary Ann: Rightly or wrongly, I have the impression that taking part in agility in The States involves a lot of travelling. And when you can't drive, you fly. I find it hard to imagine hopping in a plane to compete for a week-end! What is the greatest distance that you have travelled with your dog and was it worth it?

Monica: When I started in the sport in 1989, in order to get in one trial per month, I had to be willing to drive for a day or two. If a trial was only five or six hours away, we were ecstatic! I went to Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia on a regular basis so I did often choose to fly rather than driving 18-24 hours.

But now that agility has exploded in the USA, not only can I choose to trial every weekend and not travel more than 1.5 hours, I often have the choice of showing in different venues on the same weekend USDAA, NADAC, AKC, UKI, etc. It's crazy. There's even one show site that's only five minutes from my house. They do five or six trials a year there.

Mary Ann: Have you competed in other dog sports like obedience, working trials or flyball? And new sports are popping up all the time like cani-cross. Would you like to have a go at canine freestyle? And if not dog competition, have you been involved in other types of sporting pursuits? There are a number of agilty handlers in the UK who have crossed over from the horse riding and Olympic hurdling!

Monica: I did put an obedience title on my first agility dog. And I've dabbled in flyball and thought about freestyle. But there just hasn't been enough time to pursue other dog sports and still manage to run the business and compete in agility. I love herding and Bonus is actually trained well enough to start competing. Bu in the last two years I still haven't managed to find a free weekend to go to a herding trial. Qualifying for national and special agility events in more than one organization uses up a lot of weekends.

Doggy condoMary Ann: I've never seen you run, but I've read your magazine. When I was asked to do this interview, I dug out my old Clean Run magazines and had a lovely morning dipping in and out of the pages. The photography and cartoons are great! I was re-inspired by 'Backyard Dogs' to set up some jumps in the garden. While other magazines were printing lists of results, show reports and league tables, Clean Run was shaping a worldwide agility community grounded in good training. It was the magazine that broke the mould. Just how did you turn a newsletter into an international magazine? Did you already have a background in publishing/editing that helped you make it a success?

Monica: I studied graphic design and journalism in college, but I never thought I would really do much with that background. I ended up getting a great job as a technical writer at Lotus Development Corporation which eventually became an IBM company. The only reason I left there was because they started cutting back staff and limiting vacation time. I couldn't get off enough days to accommodate the trials I wanted to attend plus the teaching engagements I had already agreed to. At that point, I was teaching at several different camps and just those took up four weeks of vacation time. So I sold my stock and cashed out my retirement plan to pay off my debts, and I started teaching agility full-time and selling equipment.

In my teaching travels, I saw so many dogs that were not having fun at agility and a lot of frustrated handlers. Many people were approaching agility training like obedience and had the attitude that 'you'll do it because I told you to do it.' They didn't want to lower A-frames or scrunch up tunnels or do anything to make the job easier for the dogs and the dogs were used to spending the day at home sleeping. All of a sudden they had to work.

I knew there were so many different ideas out there that they needed to be gathered and made more readily available to people especially instructors. Many of the people I met had no background in teaching. They were appointed club instructor because they had more competition experience than anyone else or because they went to one agility seminar. So I started thinking about using my writing and publishing background to start a publication but, at the same time, someone else started an agility magazine. So I stopped my plans. I didn't think the marketplace could support more than one agility publication.

Over the next couple years there were three different publications that came and went. When the last one died, I decided I was ready. At the same time, I met Bud Houston. He had started publishing a weekly training newsletter for instructors that he called Clean Run. He had only done a few issues and was probably going to have to stop because he was going through a divorce, moving, etc. On a handshake, we agreed to partner up to keep it going. Bud did most of the writing and I did editing and all the layout and sales. We published 52 issues a year for two years.

Linda Mecklenburg came on as a third partner and took on quite a bit of the writing. She and I decided in 1997 that it was time to switch to a magazine format and also to start making the magazine more appealing to the average agility competitor, not just instructors.

Over the years, I bought out both Bud and Linda. I built up the retail side of the business and got the book and DVD publishing going and we've branched out into a multi-faceted company. The magazine is a small part of the business now financially, but it really defines who we are. Some days I wonder how I keep going, especially when I put in an 80-90 hour work week and have to skip an agility trial over the weekend to work.

It started with a passion to communicate with people about the sport, inspire new training ideas, and show people just how much the dogs are capable of and that passion is still there, but it needs a kick start now and then. Unfortunately, most of the time we only hear what people don't like about our magazine are products, not what they like. Then out of the blue I'll get an email and someone says that an article made a real difference in their life with their dog, and that keeps me going.

Mary Ann: How large is your Clean Run subscription list and how many are from the UK? How many or your magazines go to other parts of the world?

Monica: We were up to 11,000 for awhile, but since the economy went downhill here, we did lose quite a few people. Right now we have 8,000 subscriptions to the printed magazine and about 1,200 to the digital edition. We have 1,000 foreign subscribers to the printed magazine, 100 of which are from the UK. I can't give you stats on the digital because only email addresses are tracked in the digital system, not mailing addresses.

Mary Ann: How many people did you start with Clean Run with and how many do you have working in your office today? Can you bring your dog to work? Sounds like the perfect job!

Link to Clean Run ShopMonica: There were two of us involved when Clean Run started. Both of us had full-time jobs in addition to working on what was then a newsletter. I was in Massachusetts and the other person was in Ohio. Now there are 12 full-time employees plus several part-time people who work on the magazine off site. Most of the people working here support the retail business. As far as the magazine goes, there is myself, a graphic designer, and two part-time people who help with editing. It's pretty crazy that we put out an 84-page issue each month with so little staff. 

People do get to bring their dogs to work as long as they are well behaved. We have a 100' of kennels along one wall inside the building. People who come in call them the doggie condos. They are pretty nice digs! Within the kennels, there are crates and dog beds. We can choose whether or not to have the interior gates that separate each kennel open or closed. So for the groups of dogs that get along well, we open up a bunch of the pens and they have a giant space to be in. It's great to be able to raise a puppy in an environment where they meet lots of different types of people.

Mary Ann: And Clean Run retail. I've had many a happy hour browsing online. I think the first thing I ever bought was Clean Run Course Designer. What is your most popular product? Which of your products do you think has been the most revolutionary?

Clean Run WarehouseMonica: It changes during different parts of the year. But I would say the books and DVDs that we publish, cooling products for hot weather trialing, and supplies for building backyard equipment are probably our most popular items. The Clip & Go Jump Cup Strips are hugely popular. Since I've trained a lot of dogs that were difficult to motivate, we also try really hard to have very good choices of toys for dog that don't want to play. I think some of the tug toys we've designed with that in mind have been pretty innovative, and the new Clip & Go products are always exciting.

Mary Ann: Teeter, clean run and contact zone are a few of the American agility terms that have crossed the Atlantic to England. Quite a few UK handlers have taught in the US. What bon mots have they left behind?

Monica: I thought all the agility terms came from you guys in the first place!

Mary Ann: It will soon be time for the World Agility Open Championships 2011, billed as the first international event created and managed by agility competitors yourself, Greg Derrett and Mark Laker. You've cut loose from the red tape that binds shows governed by large committees, clubs and associations? What have been the advantages and disadvantages?

Monica: The disadvantages are that you don't have a whole group of people managing and organizing the event, sharing in the work. But that's also one of the advantages. We can make decisions very quickly. Without having an association involved, we can focus on making the event the best it can be for the competitor. I don't think many of the associations really care about the competitors; they have their own agendas to push. We want to provide the people who attend with a wonderful experience and we want everyone to see some great agility.

Mary Ann: When you come through passport control, will you declare your visit to the UK for business or pleasure? Have you been to the UK before? Besides your dogs, what will you miss most about your home?

Monica: Business and pleasure. I'm going to spend two days in London. I studied in London for a semester in college and fell in love with the city and the people. So I want to see it again. I think I'll be so busy with the competition that I won't have much time to miss home! In reality, I do end up missing the people at work. They really are family to me.

Mary Ann: I am sure that the agility community will make you very welcome and will want you to come back again. Clean Run Camp is known for its great atmosphere and training techniques. Any chance of you setting up something similar here in the UK? I bags a place!

Monica: We've been taking a break from doing camps. They are a lot of work plus the instructor fees were getting extremely high. We got to the point where we were going to have to charge more money for attending than I was comfortable with. People here in the US are also less open to the idea of a camp with instructors from all different backgrounds. So many of them have picked a handling style, and they are only interested in working with a set group of people who teach that style.

I have had interest from other countries in doing a Clean Run Instructor Seminar, but I'm not sure the Europeans would be willing to charge what we would have to charge to cover instructor fees and travel. US seminar presenters are well paid.

Mary Ann: Here's a last chance to reveal a little something extra perhaps about you, your dogs, your work or your holiday plans. And it is my chance to say thank you for giving so much to agility and helping so many people have fun with their dogs!

Monica: I'm really excited to meet all of the WAO volunteers. There are 95 people each day helping with rings, scoring, and running the event. That's mind boggling to me. While agility is like that here in some parts of the country, in most others it's not. Everyone pitching in and volunteering when I started agility was a common occurrence, but not any more. If I were to hold such an event here, I would be lucky to get a handful of volunteers... everyone else would want to be paid to work. There's no way we could get this event going without this help. It's inspired me again!

About the author...
Mary Ann Nester
arrived in England from New York in the 1970s and stayed.  She is committed to promoting agility to anyone who wants to have fun with their dog and has been instructing agility classes at home and abroad since 1977.

Her most successful agility dogs have been miniature poodles, Brillo Pad and Daz. Both were finalists at Olympia and Crufts many times and competed at international level. Brillo represented Great Britain at the World Agility Championships in Portugal in 2001 and Daz flew the flag in Germany in 2002 and France in 2003.  In addition to competing, Mary Ann accepts judging appointments and acts as an official measurer for the Kennel Club. 

And when not chasing her own dogs over jumps, Mary Ann writes about it. She has been the Agility Auntie for the internet magazine Agilitynet and published her first book, Agility Dog Training, in 2007. This was followed by Dancing with Dogs and Six Smart Tricks to Teach Your Dog in 2009.