On Course with Kelly McFaul-Solem
By Brenna Fender
In When you hear that a dog has earned championships in six different agility organizations, you might say, “Wow, that’s some dog!” When you learn that the dog that has done all that is a Pug, you might be speechless. But Kelly McFaul-Solem has completed those championships and more with her 10.5 year old Pug Shaili, and other significant titles, including two NADAC championships, on her 12.5-year-old Pug Gypsy. Kelly’s young mixed breed, Siren, is also on her way to agility success.
Surely Kelly must be a professional agility trainer, working all day with this unusual agility breed in order to have this kind of success, right? Wrong. Kelly spends her days as a commercial photo studio manager with Jeff Frey Photography and teaches for a few months every summer at the Arrowhead Dog Agility Association near her Duluth, Minnesota home.
It hasn’t been an easy path to multiple championships for Kelly and the Pugs. Both dogs have suffered with mast cell tumors, which are a form of cancer. But even with time off for multiple surgeries and recoveries, Kelly has managed to do all these incredible things. Clean Run asked her to share some of her secrets of success with us.
Photo courtesy Kim Vogel
Brenna Fender: How did you get into Pugs?
Kelly McFaul-Solem: It was my husband Randy’s doing! I was a big dog person and hesitant about those “funny looking little creatures,” but our first Pug Gypsy had my heart at her first snort! We will always have Pugs in our lives—guaranteed laughter!
BF: How did you get involved in agility?
KMS: I did not know anything about agility or any dog sports until we brought our Lab mix, Panda, to a local doggie daycare facility. They also offered agility in the summer and we joined the newly formed class taught by Diane (Herald) Craig.
BF: Tell me about the beginning of your agility career.
KMS: There were not many trials back then and interestingly enough, our first two trials were Agility Association of Canada trials put on by K9 Studios in Thunder Bay, Ontario. There was a group of really fun people from Minnesota who all caravanned up there and Randy and I borrowed a vehicle from his boss and joined them. It was quite an adventure for us as we never traveled anywhere and those fun Canadians turned us on to agility forever!
BF: When did you think that you might be able to earn an agility championship?
KMS: I did not intentionally set out to earn specific championship titles in agility. However, I keep really good records and am pretty efficient with where I put my limited agility funds. In doing this, I chip away at the runs that really count towards specific titles and not enter the other classes. I often do not enter everything offered or only attend one day as it helps keep my dogs fresh. I also never rushed my Pugs into moving up in levels too quickly.
BF: Which was the first championship you earned?
KMS: Shaili became the first Pug to earn a NATCH (the NADAC championship title) in April 2005, with Gypsy following in her path just two months later. Those were the first championship titles that my Pugs earned. The toughest part about that was getting my small dogs to accurately do big distance to fulfill the Gamblers requirements for a NATCH.
BF: Which was the hardest championship for you to earn?
KMS: Each organization offers its own challenges, but remaining a team when faced with such a wide variety of tests has always been our main goal. Earning Shaili’s ADCH (the USDAA championship title) in 2007 was definitely the most demanding and seemed the most unattainable. We were typically the only 12" Championship dog entered in USDAA trials, which made earning Super Qs (required snooker qualifying scores in the top 15% of the jump height class) quite exasperating at times! I am very much a “beat the course, not the other dogs” type of person so that was off-putting for me. Ironically, it was also one of our proudest moments and she is the only Pug to have achieved this milestone.
BF: Which was the easiest championship for you all to earn?
KMS: Actually, I would not call any of them easy. However, the C-ATCHs (the CPE championship title) came the quickest to Shaili. Her skill set is a good fit for the classes in CPE and she has a fairly high Q-rate, making those seemingly quicker.
BF: How often do you trial?
KMS: More than I used to. We used to do around six a year and everyone went to all of the same trials. Now it is heavily saturated and many people concentrate on only one or two organizations so it is easy to lose track of our friends. I do appreciate that there are so many places to play but still get melancholy about the past. I also make myself take breaks, so I average two trials a month, with some months off.
BF: Do you travel a lot to get to trials?
KMS: The majority of trials are approximately three hours away, so there is definitely a lot of travel involved, though I have gotten very used to getting up at 3 am to head to trials—and I am not a morning person! Shaili does not love to sleep away from home, so I limit overnight stays when possible. The huge gas price increase of 2008 really took a bite out of trialing for us. I typically do not travel very far or go to many national events.
BF: How often do you train?
KMS: Not a lot. I do not take any weekly classes. I am certain that we could be a more polished if we trained more! I take an occasional seminar and have always learned something useful that way. My friend Renae Kass and I head south to train with Jacque Hoye every six weeks or so. We need to take the whole day off of work and put in five hours of driving to split two hours of training with five dogs. Jacque is definitely worth it! Renae and I discuss what we learned all the way home! In the summer, our club offers a few run-throughs and I also practice with my good friends Shirley Wallace and Kelli Alseth at Kelli’s house. We use the Clean Run “Backyard Dogs” articles and the Agility Nerd site a lot. I am a huge believer in not over-training!
BF: Describe an average training session for you and one of your dogs.
KMS: If I am taking a class with Jacque, I always request her to work us hard and she complies! We keep the runs short and reward a lot. Shaili does better when there are other dogs around to get her adrenalin going; training at home does not do it for her so I do not do much of that. I rarely do any long coursework once my dogs know the equipment. They are comfortable on all types of equipment ranging from the scaled down Teacup Dog Agility Association equipment to rubber coated slat-less contacts to the larger USDAA obstacles.
BF: Do you follow a particular handling system?
KMS: I am definitely not a system-follower, but kudos to those who can do this! My dogs have full run of the house, easy access to their toys and to each other, spend a lot of time just playing with me and do not have to work very hard for most of their food. All three of them have very different personalities and strengths. And good Lord, I have always used the forbidden blind crosses and always will! I am not good at implementing the rules that systems require. I am an artist at heart and an abstract one at that, so I guess that transfers over to my handling. I use a lot of positive visualization and strive for those special zone runs. I have different styles of handling with each of my dogs and do whatever motivates them at the time, so the system remains a work in progress.
BF: Pugs are not a common agility breed. What challenges have you faced that you think are related to breed structure or personality?
KMF: Although most do not have the ideal physical structure for agility, Pugs can be as athletic as any breed and they are competing a lot more lately which is great! I am a co-moderator for the Pug-agility Yahoo Group and there are many awesome handlers out there trialing each weekend in agility rings across the country.
I try not to trial in heavy heat and humidity as they have difficulty with that. Also, Pugs will eat all things edible, so it is crucial to keep them at fighting weight for agility. Shaili was over 20 pounds when we got her and has maintained 16 pounds for most of her agility career. Many deep-chested Pugs are also bar-knockers, especially when it comes to the spread jumps in USDAA and AKC, so that is one area that we are always working on.
BF: How do you motivate your dogs?
KMS: Fun, play, and lots of rewards! I tend to be pretty vocal as well and use a lot of positive verbal markers on course. I always try to end before they are tired and on a good note!
BF: What method do you use for training contacts?
KMS: With the Pugs, running contacts worked enough of the time as they typically stride into the yellow zone. My mixed breed Siren has lovely two on/two off contacts and seems to be able to switch back and forth between holding them or early releasing on command which is great! I have thought about teaching both running and two on/two off and using a different command upon approach to tell them which end behavior I want since both methods have benefits.
BF: Tell me about the Pugs’ cancer.
KMS: Both Shaili and Gypsy have had a slew of health issues and surgeries. My Pugs are not related to each other, but both have mast cell tumors and have had around 15 total removed throughout the years. I have my hands on my dogs nearly every day so have been able to find them right away. My heart just sinks each time I find one of those little bumps! Their MCTs have been mostly grade 2 and the treatments have mainly been to excise them with huge margins. They have some battle scars from these procedures but they recover quickly. In addition, Shaili recently started monthly acupuncture coupled with Adequan injections for her bilateral hip dysplasia.
BF: How did Shaili’s illness affect her career? Did it affect your approach to training or trialing?
KMS: I do think that cancer affects Shaili’s stamina and overall well-being so I keep things short and positive. It has been difficult having to pull from so many trials because I found lumps on her and ended up having them removed right before a trial weekend. This is also one reason I do not make big travel plans like the AKC Invitational; it is just too risky and costly to end up not being able to go. One of my biggest health scares came recently when we were working diligently on her MACH. She had some serious liver issues and was not feeling well and I had a few runs that I definitely thought may be her last. I remember running with tears in my eyes a number of times over the past few months. Luckily, we have a treatment plan and the girl still gets to play into her golden years!
BF: What are your goals now that you’ve earned 11 agility championships?
KMS: Going to Disney of course! The culmination of our partnership stuns me; I would have never imagined Shaili would make such history. It was not all that long ago that I had to crawl into tunnels to shoo her out of them! That phase lasted almost a full year. I am so lucky to still be able to share the agility ring with my best bud and we intend on playing as long as possible. [I have] no real specific goals as it is definitely all icing at this point. Though I do love icing—ask my friends!
BF: Do you have any advice for owners of small dogs, or for those of other unusual agility breeds?
KMS: I truly believe there is an agility organization for every type of dog at this point! Find what works for you and your dog and push the boundaries as much as you can. Do not fall into the blame game or become complacent. Realize that small dogs can do distance and can excel as much as any other dog in any given trial! It is great fun to show the world that “lap dogs” can and do succeed in agility!
BF: Do you have any other comments?
KMS: I am eternally grateful to my husband, our personal cheerleader Chris Mosley, and many other special friends who have been incredibly supportive and shared our roller coaster of a ride through the years. Dog agility has given me a huge extended family! The other small dog handlers in Minnesota are an especially inspiring group of people and push me to do my best at all times while we all revel in each others success. Thanks to my “sponsors” Kim and Dennis Vogel for being such a huge part of our “village” and making it possible for us to keep playing agility during some really rough times.
Savor every moment on and off the course with the dog you have by your side!
ADCH, ATCH, C-ATCH-3, MACH, TACH-2, Versa-NATCH-3 Stumblin’ Shaili’s Shenanigans RCh, SCh-Bronze, AG-I, TAM-2, T-MAG- 3, ChCL, ChFH, ChJU, ChSN, ChST, ChWC, ChJP, GS-E-OP, JS-E-OP, RS-E-SP, 2500 Point NADAC Award, Triple-Triple Superior Award, Triple Superior Versatility, a.k.a. Shaili
Photo © GreatDanePhotos.com
NATCH-2 Randy’s Itsy Bitsy Gypsy CDX, ASCA & CAN CD, OA, MJP2, MXP2, AD, PS3, PG3, PJ3, AKD, T-SAD, TMAG, CL3, CL4-F, CL4-H, CL4-R, JV-E, RV-E-OP, GV-E-OP, O-WV-E, Elite Triple Superior, Elite Versatility, 2500 Point NADAC Award, Triple-Triple Award, a.k.a. Gypsy
Photo © GreatDanePhotos.com
Jacque Hoye, Kelli’s instructor, shares her thoughts about Kelli’s success...
Brenna Fender: Have you taught Kelly to use particular handling methods or systems?
Jacque Hoye: I follow the Linda Mecklenburg method of handling. I have encouraged Kelly to do more front crosses and drive the dog as much as possible.
BF: Do you modify exercises in any way to fit the Pugs’ personality, size, or body structure?
JH: Absolutely! We try to get Shaili to run the shortest possible path on course. With their structure and challenges in hot weather we try to keep the training sessions short and positive. Kelly also does a run with Shaili off the start line which helps to improve motivation and speed!
BF: How did you alter your training sessions after Shalie became ill?
JH: We made sure that Kelly was 100% confident on how she was going to handle a sequence before taking Shaili out. We didn’t want to have to repeat things too many times. Kelly takes such good care of Shaili and was always certain she was healthy enough to be training or trialing.
BF: To what do you attribute Kelly’s success with this unusual breed?
JH: Wow! Dedication and devotion to such a special dog. The bond that Kelly has with her dogs is amazing. First and foremost she loves, loves, loves her dogs and it shows. They have a very special relationship and Kelly always keeps a positive attitude. She is always very fair to her dogs and no matter what happens she never blames the dogs for mistakes that happen. She has great mental focus and always puts the needs of the dogs first.
Kelly is such a great trainer, great competitor, and mentor for others showing. You can always find her at a trial helping out by working when she isn’t running or offering support and advice to the new exhibitors. She is truly an asset to the sport of agility! She deserves all of the success she has accomplished with much more in the future.
Photo © GreatDanePhotos.com