Interview with AKC Nationals 12” Preferred Winner Penny Leigh

Cameo photo credit: Great Dane Photos
photo credit: Great Dane Photos
Penny Leigh and Cameo finished in first place in the 12” Preferred class at the 2016 American Kennel Club National Agility Championship, but due to a rule implemented in 2010, did not receive the title of Preferred National Agility Champion.

DogAgilityNOW: Congratulations on your win at nationals! Where are you from and how did you get started in dog agility?
Penny Leigh (PL): We live in Graham, North Carolina, located about midway between Raleigh and Greensboro. I started in agility in 1993 before AKC had a program, running my then performance dog, a bearded collie, in USDAA. As soon as AKC came into the game, I realized I had a chance to have a first! And indeed that dog, Tribbles, became the first beardie in the country to earn the AKC AX and MX. At that time, that was all there was––-just a standard class; there was no JWW and no MACH. Tribbles also qualified for the first-ever AKC NAC held in Oklahoma City in 1996, and I am proud to say that we were in attendance at the first AKC National Agility Championship.

DogAgilityNOW: Do you have any other dogs? What other dog-related activities do you enjoy?
PL: I have run a number of other dogs in agility over the years, including flat-coated retrievers, which is the breed that my husband, Dale McElrath, breeds and shows in conformation with great success. We also have some awesome border collies that compete in agility, and Dale and I both run our resident “fluffy butt”—Uther the Keeshond, but my little all-American Cameo is the best agility team mate that I have had so far. We are just really in sync. Cameo competed in the 2013 NAC in Tulsa and also has attended two CPE nationals as well as the 2015 USDAA Cynosport.

I am sure that I would be much further along in agility if that was my only sport, but Dale and I do a variety of sports with our dogs. We enjoy the versatility and letting them do what they enjoy. I have taken dogs in obedience through UDX and in rally through RAE. I actually competed in the 2016 AKC Rally National Championship in Tulsa with my border collie, Venus, and we placed sixth in the Advanced class. So on Friday, I was running between agility and rally!

We are proud to be members of the awesome flyball club, Fur Fun, and run several dogs in that speed sport. Our dogs also enjoy dock diving and barn hunt. And, if that is not enough, we own a dozen sheep and work our Border Collies in herding and compete with them on a limited basis in herding trials.

DogAgilityNOW: That’s a very busy dog schedule. What do you do when you’re not with your dogs?
PL: For the past 10 years, I have worked for the American Kennel Club. I manage the AKC Canine Partners program—the program for mixed-breed dogs, which is special to me since I compete with an All-American. I also manage the AKC GoodDog! Helpline, a telephone training support service.

AKC employees are allowed to compete, depending on your position and department, and up to the championship level in each sport. Cameo earned her MACH in 2013 and so to continue competing in AKC, we had to start over in Preferred as we can only go through the Masters championship level once. But with the new Agility Grand Championship starting in July, that has become the new top agility level and has really opened it up for Cameo and me to continue competing in AKC. We are very happy about that.

Before joining AKC, I worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, and I still do a lot of writing for AKC. I am very proud that the AKC Canine Partners News newsletter won Best Online Magazine/Newsletter in the 2015 Dog Writers of America Association awards. In addition, I am a certified dog trainer and teach classes a couple of nights a week at Raleigh-area dog training schools.

DogAgilityNOW: How did you feel before your finals run?
PL: Well, I was just thrilled to be in the finals and get the coveted shirt—that was a dream come true! I was trying to visualize the course and how I wanted to run it with Cameo—and trying hard to not be nervous, which I was!

DogAgilityNOW: What happened in the finals?
PL: In the 180 turn with the wrap back to the A-frame, I intended to pull her between the two jumps, like most handlers, but Cameo read it as a slice and turned left. This took me off my game for a moment—I managed to pull her around and set her on a relatively straight path to the A-frame, but I was well behind her as she ran over the a-frame and she missed the contact. Cameo’s least favorite color is yellow, so if we have a fault, it usually is a contact, especially when we are both cranked up! I was pretty happy with the way she ran the rest of the course.

DogAgilityNOW: I wrote an op-ed about how you won, but didn’t receive the PNAC title because your run had a fault. Were you aware of this rule before your finals run? Did you get a victory lap? Why are you missing from the winners photos?
PL: Yes, I was aware of the rule and I support it. You have to be clean to qualify at the AKC Masters level and it seems the same rule should apply to earn the AKC championship. Since I am not the champion, the victory lap and photos would not apply. As I said, I was just thrilled to be in the finals with the other awesome 12-inch preferred finalists—a great group of dogs and people.

DogAgilityNOW: Will you be back to AKC nationals next year?
PL: Yes, I certainly hope so if I can get her qualified in time. I was very busy early this year with finishing her USDAA championship and travel for work so I suddenly realized that I better start sending in those AKC entries and trying to accumulate those 7 QQs.

DogAgilityNOW: What’s next for you and Cameo?
PL: Well, Cameo just won the USDAA Mid-Atlantic Regional Performance Grand Prix and placed in Steeplechase so we will probably head out to Cynosport this year and possibly hit some more regionals. Cameo is already a triple agility champion: AKC MACH, USDAA PDCH, and CPE C-ATCH, but I want to finish her AKC PACH and start on the road to the new AKC Agility Grand Championship. She is nearly 8-years-old, but is running better than ever so I hope we have many more years as an agility team. Cameo also competes in flyball, rally, barn hunt, and coursing so she stays very busy off the agility course too, as well as keeping our yard free of moles and any other vermin.

Esteban Fernandezlopez

A long time agility competitor and co-creator of Bad Dog Agility, Esteban is serving as the first Editor-in-Chief of Dog Agility NOW.