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Emma Stock, from Taunton, Somerset, got her first ever dog, a cavapoo called Athena, when she was being bullied at school and her mum wanted to do something to lift her spirits.
Nobody could have predicted just how much Athena would transform Emma’s life.
They forged an instant bond and began their incredible training journey, that saw Emma and Athena become stars of the show at Crufts in 2019 - and set to shine in 2020 too.
Ahead of a surely very bright future, Emma has shared 10 things she knows about angels with paws, acing agility and being a Crufts star at 16…
Athena came into my life at just the right time, she really is an angel with paws…
I was having a rough time at school with a couple of particularly nasty girls. I started to hate school and often had stomach cramps and headaches, which I now realise were psychosomatic symptoms of stress.
I started to become withdrawn and depressed. My mum was really worried about me. When I was at my lowest my mum heard about a litter of puppies and, determined to cheer me up, she took me to see them.
She told me that the transformation was dramatic and for the first time in such a long time I was actually really happy. I forgot all my worries and just got lost in the joy of playing with those little fur balls.
What started out as a ‘visit’ ended in my mum agreeing to buy one! She tells me now that it was one of the best decisions of her life.’
We had never had a dog before so my mum insisted I go to puppy classes. I absolutely loved it and so did Athena. I think this was when a competitive spark in me ignited! I never thought of myself as a particularly competitive person. I was okay at school and average at games but now suddenly I found something I was good at.
My mum started taking me to local dog shows and we kept winning at competitions, mainly doing tricks. Athena does a brilliant “sausage roll” ( wraps herself up in a blanket like a sausage roll on command). It’s a real crowd pleaser!
‘One day we were at a show and they had a ‘have a go agility ring’. I quickly spent every penny I had - Athena and I loved it! The lady organising the ring said Athena was a natural. I was so proud of her. I asked my mum could I start taking agility lessons. A few weeks later we joined a class and started our foundation work.’
It’s FUN. I like the feeling of running alongside my dog, I like the challenge of difficult courses and the adrenaline rush when we compete. I also enjoy the training process and teaching my dog to do new things. Watching Athena improve and do well is really rewarding, too.
Gaining confidence for both Athena and I and being consistent has been a challenge. Certain obstacles have proved more challenging than others. For example, we had a tough time mastering the see saw.
Speed and focus were Athena’s biggest problems at the start. Toy play helps to keep her motivated and focussed. She works harder for that tug at the end. She also develops a drive from chasing it during class and at the end of runs which then turns into a tug of war. Keeping it fun with a toy like our Sheepskin Chaser keeps her focus and motivated during runs.
Practising hard and making it FUN have been the secrets to overcoming all our challenges.
This is where the Tuff-E-Nuff toys have been fantastic. I’ve discovered that the more fun it is for Athena, the better she performs. This is why I am such a fan of training with toys.
I find if I spend a lot of time playing with her and rewarding her during practice and training, she’s more focused in the ring. I get her revved up before we do a competition with a toy so when we’re in there she associates the course with having a fun time with her human. That’s my theory, anyway!
To be honest I had no expectations I was just so grateful that in our first year of agility we actually got to compete. My (new) school, Queens College, Taunton, (I left the one where I was being bullied) were really supportive. They bought me a t-shirt to wear and arranged a radio interview with BBC Somerset which was really exciting.
We competed at the ABC (Anything But Collie) at Crufts on the Friday and came 3rd. I was overwhelmed to get on the podium, I’d just been praying for a clear round!
What I didn’t realise when competing was that our run was filmed by Channel 4. When I finished, Radzi from Blue Peter was waiting to interview me. It was surreal. He congratulated me on my run and asked me what it was like. I replied with: ‘It’s really scary but you get a good buzz from it.’ And that basically sums it up.
On the Sunday, we competed in Graduate Agility. We beasted it. I was so happy. We not only won our age group but were OVERALL winners from ALL the Graduates.
Mum just burst out crying. I was in shock but what an amazing feeling. It didn’t really sink in until we got home. Athena’s breeder was overjoyed. I don’t think there are actually any words I know of which can describe what it was like.
We won the YKC Agility Dog of the year Qualifier last month so we have secured a place to compete at Crufts next year and I’m really excited to be there with Athena again.
Before a big event, we tend to get a couple of 1:1 sessions with our trainer Nicole. She's an amazing help and it gives me a chance to polish up my handling techniques.
We try to treat every competition run as if it were a training run by keeping the focus and playing with a few Tug-E-Nuff toys whilst we wait for our turn. Before the run we need to make sure Athena is properly warmed up as well to avoid any injuries whilst running.
Have fun with your dog, it’s a game. This is the key. The dog doesn’t care about rosettes or trophies. He or she just wants to spend time with you and to enjoy the game they are playing with you.
Toys are the secret to achieving this. Athena’s favourites are the Tug-E-Nuff Sheepskin Bungee range and Tug-E-Nuff Chasers. They improve her drive, speed and motivation every time.
My advice to any other younger people wanting to try agility would be to go for it!
Puppy classes and training early on to get the dog used to taking commands. Keep them focused on you and keep teaching them new things, they love to learn which will increase your bond with them.
Socialising your dog is also really important from an early age. Having confidence too will be a massive help in the ring.
Finally, find a good trainer who uses positive methods. These people will help and support your training along the way.
Emma and Athena are Grade 4 KC and compete at Champ level in both UKA Performance and Steeplechase. They recently achieved their CSC Steeplechase Champion title and their Agility Warrant Silver in KC. Follow their training journey on Instagram here.