Biophysics professor finds niche in training dogs

Tuesday, December 16, 2008 | 4:16 p.m. CST; updated 10:12 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Virginia Huxley examines the posture of Jura, a 6-year-old English springer spaniel at the Columbia Canine Sports Center on Dec. 9. Huxley teaches training classes at the center and is also an MU professor of medical pharmacology and physiology.
"I love the partnership you have with dogs and when you are working with them. It truly is a high when you are on the same page," Huxley said.

Virginia Huxley has three "children": Ailsa, 16 months and 37.9 pounds; Jura, 5 years old and 51.4 pounds; and Baker, 7 years old and 40 pounds.

Huxley lets them out to play in the same order every day when she gets home from work — Ailsa, then Jura and finally Baker.

Columbia Canine Sports Center

ADDRESS: 4506 I-70 Drive S.E., Columbia

CALL: 817-2272


HOURS: Most classes are between 6 and 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.

RATES: One-hour classes, $90 first class, $80 second or additional classes; half-hour classes, $65.

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Nevermind that the “children” are English springer spaniels. As in any family with a working parent, they often want to be the center of attention. 

Huxley’s job in biophysics at MU’s Department of Medical Pharmacology and Physiology is plenty demanding. But over the years, she has managed to build in time for her other passion: dogs.

Huxley co-owns the Columbia Canine Sports Center, where she and partners Andrea Meinhart and Kathy Echols have trained as many as 6,000 dogs – and their owners – over the past six years.

Sometimes the canine center is the last hope for people who are ready to give up a dog they can’t manage, Meinhart said. But the philosophy behind the center goes beyond training well-behaved pets.

Huxley, Meinhart and Echols want to help owners build a partnership with their dogs and prepare some of the animals for competitive dog sports.

Dogs have been central to Huxley’s life since before she was born. Her mother received a new dog whenever she had another child. Huxley – the fourth of five children – came home to a house with a dachshund and an English cocker spaniel.

But her strongest memories are of Maxine, the poodle she and her younger sister shared growing up in western Massachusetts.

“She always walked us to the (school) bus stop and was there when we returned in the afternoon,” Huxley says. 

After college and several fellowships, Huxley came to MU in 1984. She’s had at least one English springer spaniel in her house in Columbia ever since.

The first was Anshee, who spent much of her time at the nursing home as a companion to Huxley’s mother and other Alzheimer's patients. Anshee and Huxley’s mother died within a few days of each other. 

The house was suddenly too quiet after her mother’s death, so Huxley brought home Shelley, a springer bred at a kennel in Fulton.

“I wanted to forge a relationship with her, so we started training together, and the rest is history,” Huxley says. Shelley was the first dog Huxley showed.

Shelley began to compete in Columbia in 1995 and won her first title a year later. That’s when Huxley discovered her passion for training and showing.

“It was addictive,” she says. “There was no greater high than having the accomplishment of the two of you completing something in a partnership.

"I’m a competitive person, but I don’t show just to get ribbons. I enjoy doing well with what our skills are, and I would rather make progress than win.”

Shelley was joined later by Lily, another springer spaniel from the Fulton kennel. Lily had a litter in 2001 that included Baker, the only American-born springer living with Huxley today.

Huxley’s two other dogs, Ailsa and Jura, are from a Scottish kennel and share a common grandfather.

Ailsa is the baby of the group at 16 months. But with her piercing yellow eyes and cocoa freckled nose, she rules the house.

“She has a mind of her own and is a reincarnation of Shelley,” Huxley says as Ailsa slams in and out of the dog doors.

Jura, with a dull chocolate spotted nose and shaggy ears, often drags a large pumpkin toy around in his mouth.

Baker is a love bug. His paws are all over Huxley, demanding attention, while she sinks into one of the two faded green chairs in her living room after a long day in the lab. 

When it becomes obvious she won’t jump up to play, Baker sits quietly next to her, a loyal partner with droopy eyes, then lies down and goes to sleep. He’s always the last to be let out because he tries to jump on the other two.

“He’s the odd man out,” Huxley says. He needs so much attention that she is giving him to a friend who works at a hospice. That way, when Huxley has Ailsa and Jura bred in a year or so, she won’t be robbing attention from Baker.

Huxley’s English springers go to the canine sports center with her, but once she arrives, she gives her attention to other dogs.

Just as the three women who co-own the canine center bring different talents to their work, they bring different dogs. Meinhart has been training dogs since 1985 and has two Belgian Tervuren of her own.

Echols has three border terriers and a whippet. She started training in 1993 and has since turned the hobby into a career.

“People call the three of us the eclectic mix because we all have different strengths and weaknesses,” Meinhart said.

One important leg of what Meinhart calls the “three-legged stool” of the canine center is Huxley, who thinks like a scientist — analytically. “She is a great teacher and has the same skill set for both her jobs,” Echols said.

Training classes are usually held for six weeks with a week off, which helps Huxley juggle dog training and showing with her work at MU. A professor’s hours also are more flexible than other jobs, which makes things a little easier, she said.

Huxley draws on what she learns in each of her worlds to inform the other. Teaching students helps in dog training, and training dogs and owners gives her ideas for the classroom, she says. And in both worlds, she’s learned that there is no single formula that works; multiple approaches to teaching are needed.

Working at the center also allows her to meet people from throughout the Columbia community. Liz Holle has her Portugese water dog, Warrior, in conformation class with Huxley to get him ready for showing. 

“Virginia knows exactly what to do, and she will demonstrate everything,” Holle said. “Some trainers just read from the book and try to teach, but you know Virginia doesn’t make it up.”

Huxley finds that her dogs provide both routine and perspective that are important in the rest of her life. Dogs don’t take themselves seriously, she said. They are forgiving and grounding at the same time.

“You can only be so holier-than-thou with three dogs either drooling on you or sitting here licking themselves," she said. "It’s not a bad perspective.”

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