Simon the Siberian Husky speaks of his journey to the 2019 Agility World Championships in Turku, Finland.
When I was very young, a nice guy who’d been visiting me came to fetch me – my new ‘hooman’ dad, Sean. He drove me to PetFit Canine Fitness, where I saw the lady who had also been visiting – my new hooman mom, Leanne. I also got to meet my Siberian siblings, Keidis and Luna Lovegood, who were attending a K9 yoga class. I explored the PetFit facility, climbed on some cool stuff and started to learn some weird tricks. Then we drove to a dog school, McKaynine Honeydew, where Keidis and Luna did Working Trials training. I got to meet many lovely people, who fed me more treats, and then I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was in my new home with a brand-new dog bed and more toys than I could count.
Some happy months passed. We went to McKaynine Puppy Socialisation Classes and I learnt how to be a good pet dog and got it right most of the time, except for a few things, which I couldn’t stop myself from chewing. These included my big brother’s agility trophy, and the chicken my mom was defrosting on the kitchen counter. We visited PetFit every week. My favourite physiotherapist, Ansi van der Walt, often measured my body and tested my balance and strength. Sometimes she would give me a physio treatment if I was sore. She gave my mom lots of exercises to teach me. I learnt how to do tricks on equipment like treadmills, peanut balls and tyres, and I took swimming lessons to help me grow up very confident, strong and flexible. Then something super-exciting happened – my mom took me to train with Noelene Pretorius of KAD, where I started to learn how to play agility!
We began with the basics and learnt tiny bits at a time. My mom was careful to keep sessions short and easy while I was growing, and always checked with my physio to make sure I was coping.
Most other dogs in my classes were Border Collies, and there were also lots of Shelties (Shetland Sheepdogs) and a few Malinois. I always felt a bit out of place, but made friends anyway. My friends all seemed to like to play with tug toys when they got something right. I enjoy tugging but didn’t feel it was enough of a reward. I convinced my mom to pay me with food rewards instead – pieces of frozen meat and whole raw sardines are my favourite treats! A quick swim in the paddling pool is also one of my favourite rewards for good work. We preferred to train very early in the morning when it was nice and cool, so that I could run faster! Sometimes, my mom and I would leave training feeling like superstars. Often, we would leave feeling frustrated and tired, but my mom always said I was good and rewarded me with lots of meat.
We started competing when I was just under two years old. Our first few agility competitions did not go well, but we laughed and had fun anyway; it was a relaxing day in the sun with hooman and canine friends, no matter how we fared. Before we knew it, we were winning some prizes and moving up the grades. Then, amazingly, a year into my agility career, I made it into the top 60 dogs to qualify to compete in the South African Agility Championships. The Trial for the Agility World Championships (AWC) was happening that same weekend, so my mom took a big chance and entered me. I heard her telling my dad that there was almost no chance that I would qualify for the AWC, but she was worried that she would regret not entering if I did well. Only the top nine dogs qualify for an individual run at the AWC. I was one of them! My mom got a fright! It is very expensive to travel to Europe with a dog and she hadn’t expected to qualify.
Team fundraising activities, sponsorship hunting and logistics planning started, and we managed to book flights and accommodation in Finland. We also started on a hectic training schedule to prepare for World Champs, but needed to be careful not to overdo it and risk injury right before we left. Renee Prinsloo at Canine Performance Centre became an excellent coach to supplement our normal training. She helped us with foundation skills, socialisation to new places and noises to prepare for the big arena, and ring craft to help us with nerves. When the time came to fly, we felt ready!
It was a long journey. Johannesburg to Cape Town, Cape Town to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Helsinki. It was my first time flying and I didn’t think it was too bad because my mom had trained me to enjoy resting in my crate.
A few SA team members stayed in Helsinki for the first few days to compete in some local competitions. My mom and I had never done agility on AstroTurf or in an indoor arena before, so it was good practice before the big event. My mom and I were thrilled to see how many ‘different’ breeds competed! There was even an amazing Malamute, who did very well, and my mom spent so long cuddling him that I had to howl to remind her I was there!
We then drove for a few hours to join the rest of the SA team in Turku, where the AWC was held. The drive was scarier than the flight. My mom wasn’t used to driving on the other side of the road…
After a few more training sessions with the team, the Big Event arrived! I had lots of support from our amazing team members, especially our team leader and assistant team leader, Rob Hall and Gail Killian, who have competed at AWC many times. All the dogs and handlers in our team coped well with the new environment and pressure, and I am extremely proud of our SA team.
My mom always knew that I would not be as fast as many of the experienced Border Collie competitors, because I am a ‘weird’ breed for agility, am only three years old, and because my mom still has lots to learn as a handler. Regardless, my mom was excited for the once-in-a-lifetime experience and the opportunity to learn. She did suspect that I might be quite popular, just because it’s unusual to see Siberian Huskies competing at a high level. She was right. We didn’t win any prizes. But we won LOTS of hearts.
My first round at AWC went quite well, with five faults because I knocked some blocks off the wall, and some time faults because my mom cued me late and made me turn too wide. But we got the BIGGEST applause. My dad used the live streaming to make a funny video with a Super Mario theme, called ‘Super Simon Says’. My mom posted it on Facebook, and it went viral! It got over 59,000 views and over 900 shares. I’m told that we also made the news in Finland that night. I quickly became the ‘Crowd Favourite’ and, even though I didn’t get any clear rounds or prizes, my mom and my fans said that I did extremely well on very challenging courses. Everywhere we went in Finland, we were stopped by fans, asking to meet me or to pose for a photo. My mom’s favourite part of the whole trip was when the famous agility handler, my mom’s sports idol, Lisa Frick (from Austria) asked if she could swop shirts so that she could ‘have a Simon shirt’! My mom was so flattered that she cried a little. We had so much fun, learnt loads, and we were on top of the world.
The trip home was also very long and was not uneventful! After being so good throughout the trip, I couldn’t help myself and HAD to get up to some Husky mischief. We spent a night in Frankfurt before flying back to Johannesburg, and a few hours before my canine team and I had to be loaded onto our final flight, we headed into a forest for a last leg-stretch. My team members and I were running around off-leash, and I disappeared. Little did my team know that I had seen a deer and decided that hunting was far more important and much more fun than catching a very expensive flight. I got lost. Very lost. For hours. I missed my flight. A kind stranger offered me some water and took me to the police station, where my rather cross and stressed-looking mom collected me. I was forced to stay an extra night in Frankfurt alone, while the rest of my team flew home without me.
But it was totally worth it! My mom is still getting Facebook friend requests and fan mail for me. Agility handlers and owners of many non-traditional agility breeds, not only Siberian Huskies, from around the world have been in touch and want to be friends. I am now the proud owner of my very own Facebook Page and YouTube Channel. My mom has had a few interviews and I’ve featured in a few articles. Even though I did not win any prizes at AWC, I hope that I have inspired lots of ‘weird’ and ‘difficult’ breeds and their handlers to work hard, train smart and dream big. And I hope we can go and compete, learn more and visit our new friends in Europe again one day… because I still need to catch that deer!