Living in a Dog World, by Julie Pfeifer

As most readers here know, I’ve spent the fall and early winter teaching Introduction to Journalism at Manhattanville College. It’s been a blast—we meet every Thursday night in a dingy little classroom, and the 13 students have been fantastic.

The semester’s final assignment was to write a lengthy profile of someone. I arrived one day with 13 topics, and we held a draft. I believe the student with the No. 1 pick selected Brian Johnson, the former Major League catcher who now scouts for the Giants. No. 13 might have been Donna Massaro, coffee shop owner. It was an intriguing list of potential subjects, ranging from MC White Owl of Bad Ronald to Ed Hearn, former ’86 New York Met, to Bev Oden, Olympic volleyball player.

Although almost all of the students waited until the last possible minute to complete their papers (I gave three weeks), most of the work was of a very high quality. The absolute best, in my opinion, was written by Julie Pfeifer, a delightful young woman who has stood out the entire semester. Julie isn’t sure whether she wants to write for a living—but I sure hope she does. She takes it very seriously; wants her work to be perfect and mistake-free. I dig that.

Anyhow, this is Julie’s debut at jeffpearlman.com—her piece on Melanie Miller, one of the nation’s top competitive dog trainers.*

She kicked ass …

It is the day of the American Kennel Club National Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Melanie Miller and her Vizsla, Austin are all warmed up. They both stand perfectly still inside the rink, anticipating the start of their upcoming agility trial. Miller analyzes the course from inside the rink. She already knows how she is going to navigate Austin through this course, but gives it one final look as she positions herself several feet in front of her dog. Austin is barking incessantly as he battles feelings of excitement and nervousness. Agility does not come easy to him since he is bred to point birds. Austin is the only one of his breed competing in this class.

The odds are stacked against him as he must compete against several Border Collies whose high-energy makes them naturally good at agility. Miller and Austin know they only have one shot and cannot make any mistakes if they want to be champions.

The timer tells Miller “to go when ready.” Miller waits for the right moment. She and Austin begin their trial with fifty seconds to complete the course. Austin takes off at top speed and easily hurdles the first two obstacles. He makes a sharp right turn and whips through the collapsible chute. Austin charges out of the chute and runs up and over the A-frame. He approaches the weave poles and begins zigzagging around them taking quick, crisp steps. He comes out of the weave poles strong, and with a running leap, clears the tire jump. Miller is by his side the entire time, guiding him through the course. She directs him to run up and down the seesaw, which he does with ease. Austin sprints through the pipe tunnel and across the dog walk.

With only a few obstacles remaining, Austin does not slow down. He finishes strong with time to spare as he clears the last few winged hurdles. Austin’s time earns him 5th place at the National Finals. “This is a big accomplishment,” said Miller. “It is very unlikely for someone of his breed to do so well because they are not bred for this. I am so proud of him.”
Miller, 36, who resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been competing in dog agility competitions for twelve years. Her career in dog training began with her first dog, a Cocker Spaniel named Cole. She bought Cole when she was in college with the intent of being a good dog owner. “I didn’t really know anything about having a dog,” said Miller. “I had a dog growing up, but I wanted to do a good job, so I put Cole in a pet obedience class.”

After being in the class for a few weeks, the instructor, Gail Boyd, 53, noticed how well Miller and Cole were doing and encouraged them to consider competing. Miller agreed and decided to receive more advanced training. Shortly thereafter, she and Cole began competing in obedience competitions. However, when one reaches the upper levels of obedience competitions, the dogs are required to do a long five-minute stay in a large group, while their owners leave the building. “Cole was really scared and wouldn’t do it,” claims Miller. A friend suggested that Miller should try something called agility to help build Cole’s confidence about the stay. “I went and took him to training in agility and it was so fun I didn’t care anymore about obedience,” said Miller. “I started taking classes in agility and competing.”

After several months of learning the techniques of dog agility training, Miller decided to teach. She started her own dog agility training business, Agile Minds Agility. Miller is available for private lessons, group classes, workshops and seminars on a variety of topics. “I love Melanie,” says Miller’s friend and competitor, Kristen Cowell, 36. “She’s been a great friend, mentor, coach, instructor and teammate. I have grown tremendously as a dog trainer and I owe a lot of that to Melanie and her training methods.” Miller has around forty students and teaches classes on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. “I really enjoy teaching,” said Miller. “I love seeing people have breakthroughs and helping people figure out how to solve problems they are having.” Miller’s accomplishments with dogs like Austin and Reagan, who were very difficult to train, is what draws people to her business. “If you are going to teach, I think it is important to have accomplishments,” said Miller. “That’s sort of what my credentials are because they show I am able to compete to a certain level and most of my students come to me because I have done so much with Austin.”
Miller has four dogs, Cole, a Cocker Spaniel, Austin, a Vizsla, Reagan, a Border Collie and Smitten or Smitty, also a Border Collie. However, only three of her four dogs compete. Cole is 15-years old and retired. Miller travels to shows all over the country two to three weekends out of the month. “She is a very driven and ambitious person,” says Vanessa Mortarino, 37, a friend and fellow dog agility competitor. “She is also a very hard worker. When she commits to something, she does it whole-heartedly. She wants to be one of the best at this game and I think

Throughout her twelve years of competing in dog agility, Miller has earned many awards. She shares different accomplishments with each of her dogs. “Austin is kind of a celebrity,” said Miller. In 2008, he was the number one Vizsla in AKC and he is the number one Vizsla of all time in the United States Dog Agility Association. “There are Border Collies that are faster and more accomplished than Austin,” said Miller. “But in terms of his own breed, he is the best there has ever been.” Reagan on the other hand, has been a struggle. Miller believes that she is mildly autistic because she does not process information in the way that you would expect. Despite her problems, the strides she has made are astronomical. “It is a big deal that she even runs and goes as fast as she does,” said Miller. “You can’t even tell that when you watch her now that there was ever a problem. Seeing her records on paper isn’t as impressive as seeing how far she has come.” Miller’s youngest, Smitty has accomplished a lot in her young age, especially considering her unusually small size. In October, at the USDAA National Championship, Smitty made the Grand Prix Finals. “I thought it was going to be a little bit of a stretch for her to make that,” said Miller. “It’s not about her going fast, she is plenty fast, it’s about me keeping up with her and pointing out the right thing and time and that’s what can be a challenge and we did that.”

Miller’s goal for Smitty is to become a World Champion. “She could do it, she could totally do it,” Miller said. Not only does Miller have her own dog agility training business, but she also has a degree in Chemical Engineering, which she received from North Carolina State University. Miller is currently employed as a Project Manager at SAS (Statistical Analysis Software). At SAS, her job is to help manage a partnership with Teredata. SAS makes statistical analysis software meaning it analyzes data and Teredata has huge data warehouse machines, which store a lot of data. “It’s kind of an interesting partnership,” said Miller. “It gives clients the opportunity to combine both of those services.” According to Miller, it can be difficult to manage both jobs, but her job at SAS is flexible. Competing in dog agility competitions can be an expensive hobby, with all the entry fees and travel costs. There are no cash rewards for winning competitions; all you get is a little thirty-cent ribbon. Miller’s job at SAS and the classes she teaches in dog agility helps offset the costs.

The future is bright for Miller and her dogs as she has big plans for each one of them. For Reagan and Smitty, she does not feel that they have reached their full potential and will continue to work with them to get the results she knows they are capable of. Cole has mellowed in his old age, but is still apart of the family and travels to all of the shows. As for Austin, he will continue competing for another year or so, but he will always be the spoiled one of the bunch.

Every night Austin gets to go home and cuddle up on his dog bed, covered with his very own blanket, all which lies on top of a baby mattress. “He is,” said Miller, “a sensitive kind of guy.”

* Jeff’s note: Melanie Miller is married to Gary Miller, my close friend (and former neighbor) since age 6.

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