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Taking the 'Dis' Out of Disabled

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Yes, we can...

The bond between handler and trainer can be no greater than that between disabled handler Julie Thomson and her longstanding trainer Jacqui Wood. Their relationship started back in 2012 and, since then, Julie has risen to the dizzying height of G7. They talk to Agilitynet about the highs and lows of competing in the ring on a mobility scooter.

Q. Let's start with Julie and how and when she got into the world of Agility.

Julie I'd been doing Obedience/KC Good Citizens classes with Dodger for about three years when Agility was suggested to me by hairdresser who was a member of Ace Agility. I laughed, pointing at my wheels and walking sticks, but she urged me to ring Jacqui anyway. That was back in the summer of 2012, and the rest, as they say, is history!

 Q. What do you remember most from those early days of training?

JulieLots of frustration for me, and some bafflement for Dodger! Suddenly, I didn't want him to walk to heel anymore. I now wanted him to run on and away from me. Jacqui's patience at that stage was boundless. Sometimes, when she could see that I was feeling discouraged, she would make a space for me to go back to training later the same day and have another try. She always ensured that I finished a class on a positive note.

JacquiI had no qualms whatsoever about Julie coming along to Ace Agility, although I do remember that her first little buggy wasn't especially suited to doing Agility on grass . Her 'hardware' has improved a lot over the years! At first, I found myself having to analyse courses a lot more carefully to work out the buggy's turning circle and find the most efficient routes for both Julie and Dodger.

Q. What are your recollections of Julie's first ever competitive event?

Julie My first show was a friendly, Independent competition at Waxham in Norfolk. My overriding memory is of being absolutely terrified! Jacqui came to the rings with me though, reminding me to take my treat pouch off the buggy and telling me to have fun. I was awarded a Judge's Special rosette on my very first run, and I was thrilled to bits.

JacquiI did have some concerns about how Julie would be received at her first show. At that stage, there wasn't anyone else using mobility wheels on the East Anglian Agility circuit. However, I was overjoyed by the way that she and Dodger coped, and the vast majority of our fellow competitors were complimentary and encouraging.

Q. What was your early experience of competing at KC Agility Shows?

JulieTo this day I remain flabbergasted that Dodger won out of Grade 1 on his first ever Agility run at his first ever KC Show! That was in June 2014.

I did find that walking courses was tricky sometimes when space was limited and people felt edgy due to pre-competition nerves. My buggy was called a 'training aid.' I was told that I frightened dogs in the queue. Accusations were made - on one occasion by a judge - that I had an unfair advantage because my buggy could go faster than a person on legs. This has since been demonstrably disproved especially on rough ground. And if a 180 degree turn is involved, I always end up facing the wrong way, which definitely isn't an advantage.

However, I was always fortunate to have - and still to have - an excellent support network around me in the form of Ace Agility people, many of whom have now become life-long friends.

Jacqui:  I would say that Julie's reception was mixed at those first few KC Shows. As time went on - and as she rose up the Grades - some of the sympathy that had originally been shown for her disability began to morph into a wary recognition of her as 'competition.'

Q. Has Julie's reception at shows changed much over the years?

Julie I've now made a huge number of supportive friends on the local Agility circuit, and I like to think that I'm now accepted as 'normal.'  Judges have also become less puzzled by my wheels and more aware of the need to make courses accessible. Once or twice I have surprised a judge when I've had to take an unexpected route around the equipment and been forced to swerve around them.

My only serious anxiety was when the Kennel Club received a formal complaint about my handling. Someone felt I was putting my dogs at risk on the course, and I had to assure the KC that the health and well-being of my dogs were my absolute priority. I had to gather supporting evidence from my trainer, my own medical practitioners, my vet, my canine chiropractor and canine massage therapist.  In the end, many of the professionals who vouched for me went further to say that my dogs and I actively benefitted from Agility. The KC accepted my assurances, and I was allowed to continue competing at KC Shows. The complainant's details were never revealed for reasons of confidentiality. As far as I know, no further comments have ever been submitted to the KC about my wheels.

I do confess to having taken two tumbles from the buggy whilst competing, but there aren't many active sports where participants don't come a cropper from time to time, wheels or no wheels. I've certainly seen a few able-bodied handlers fall over in the ring, and, sadly, we've all seen the occasional dog injury, too.

JacquiJulie's welcome from fellow competitors and from judges has certainly warmed as she has gained more respect as a handler and people have got used to seeing the buggy in the ring. This isn't always the case though, and the formal complaint to the KC was a nasty knock for Julie and for me, and for all her Agility friends. I, personally, can't help but feel protective of her, and I find it difficult to tolerate the negativity that is sometimes directed towards her.

Q. What have been your greatest achievements?

Julie My most memorable moments include winning out of Grade 1 with Dodger back in 2014, then winning the Dogs In Need Medium Grade 1/2 Final with him that same year. Both Dodger and Nancy went on to reach the Finals at both DINAS and JDA, and Dodger won into Grade 7 last September with the only clear round in quite a large class. But my highest achievement is undoubtedly Nancy Jelly Tot's becoming the Paragility World Champion in 2018 - truly an experience of a lifetime!

Jacqui Every time that Julie has moved up a Grade or reached a Final, it has been another step forward for disabled Agility handlers. I was elated to be at her side at the 2018 Paragility World Championships and to see her on the podium for all three runs. She brought home a Gold, three Silvers, a Bronze and the overall Championship, and I couldn't have been more proud.

Q. What are your current goals and ambitions?

Julie It would be wonderful to get onto the UK PAWC Team again in the future, and I would love to see Nancy Jelly Tot or Jip at Grade 7 and have a crack at a Champ course one day.

Jacqui: I'd like to see Julie remaining positive and continuing to be an example to other disabled handlers.

It would also be good to see an Agility display by disabled handlers at Crufts along the lines of the Agility display given by rescue dogs. This would remind the public at large that disabilities aren't always obvious, and neither are they always physical, but that Agility is accessible to all.

Q. What would be your parting message be to disabled Agility handlers?

JulieFirstly, I should probably mention my wheels themselves.

Strictly speaking, I don't use a 'wheelchair' for Agility although I do use one elsewhere. A wheelchair and a mobility scooter are different things - and a power-chair is different again.

Mobility scooters that are used on the road must be safe, DVLA registered and properly maintained. This obviously costs money, and finding the ideal wheels can absorb both time and resources. I, personally, feel extremely lucky to have a Tramper TWS from Beamer Ltd, which I find to be ideally suited to Agility although I do know other wheel-users who haven't liked this particular model. It's a very personal choice.

I think that disabled handlers probably have to try that bit harder to remain flexible and optimistic. I've frequently been forced to eat my words when Jacqui has shown me that I CAN do something that that I'd denied was possible. I was always adamant, for example, that my dog could only work on the left, and that he couldn't possibly do right-hand weaves, but Jacqui always manages to prove me wrong.

Networking with other disabled handlers can be helpful, too. I belong to a Facebook group called Agility on Wheels Because we can where members can share experiences and information.

It is also pleasing to see shows offering Special classes for disabled handlers, such as the Godmanchester DTC Show in Cambridgeshire. The more that we can support these initiatives, the more there might be of them in the future.

For me though, the most important thing is to have a visionary trainer.   I was immeasurably lucky to find Jacqui.   She has an incomparable 'eye' for Agility on wheels and is a dedicated teacher. For me, she has taken the 'dis' out of 'disabled.'

Jacqui: I tend to train for technical skills rather than speed which is probably an ideal approach to Agility for disabled handlers. Julie is living proof that less haste can equal more speed. In fact, it's my belief that this approach promotes the well-being of all dogs and improves the longevity of their Agility careers.

I'm pleased that the competitive Agility community is waking up to the fact that it must be more inclusive, but there is still some way to go. I'd like to think, should the time come when I can no longer run my own Agility dogs that there'll be mobility options that will allow me to continue in our wonderful sport.

Lastly, I think it's also incumbent upon trainers to see the potential in everyone. We should be helping all handlers to achieve their goals, however ambitious or modest these might be, and whether or not the person wishes to do competitive Agility. I would encourage all new handlers, whatever your age or abilities might be, to keep looking for a trainer who can offer your dog solid foundations and help you to share in the joy that is Agility!

About the authors. . .
Julie Thomson
is a
retired Nurse Practitioner who's now motoring into her sixties. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis back in 1998, and started using wheels a couple of years later. She eventually had to retire from her job at her local hospital in 2004.  

Most of her time is now taken up with Agility, singing (mainly with Rock Choir) and being a Tarot card reader/teacher.

At present, she has three dogs. Her 11-year-old Terrier X, Dodger, was her first Agility dog and is still training and competing. Then there's six year-old Nancy Jelly Tot, a small Labradoodle, plus her new addition, Jip, who is a Miniature Poodle.  Dodger reached Grade 7 last year, and Nancy currently has one win at Grade 6.   She hopes to start competing with Jip at Easter next year (fingers crossed that we might all be competing again by then!).

She lives with her husband, Tommo, and their canine family in a small village in beautiful rural Suffolk.

Jacqui Wood began her career working with horses, including being part of the Riding for the Disabled Scheme. After having discovered Agility some 34 years ago, she embarked upon the Instructors' Course and soon became a local club trainer.

She's now been running Ace Agility in Suffolk for over 20 years and currently trains approximately 150 dogs per week. Her youngest client is four years old while the oldest is in their 80s - and they all have a wide range of abilities and disabilities. Some do Agility simply to have fun with their pet or because they need help with a challenging dog, while others compete at KC Championship or Team GB level.

There are currently seven dogs in her family - a mix of Border Collies and Shelties. Four of them are Grade 7 - one dog at each of the four KC heights - plus one Grade 6 and one Grade 5. Her Collie puppy, Chase, should be ready to start competing next year.

Jacqui judges at numerous shows throughout the year and was recently accepted to be a KC Championship Judge.

First published 30th August 2020


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