In conversation with Mary Ann
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.
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.
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?
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!
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
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?
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
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.
Currently 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.
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?
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.
addicted to water from the age of six weeks.
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 –
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.
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 ....
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?
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
As 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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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?
I thought all the agility terms came
from you guys in the first place!
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.