NEW BLOOMFIELD — With a pair of tongs, Judy Harris places a series of items on the floor, then lays another object beside them with her bare hand.
She brings her dog, Desi, into the room.
"Ready? Find it," she commands, and he's on the hunt immediately for the one with her scent.
Desi walks around the objects. He sniffs each piece, intently searching until he identifies the right aroma. His teeth knock against the object as he picks it up and carries it to Harris.
"That was the right one!" she exclaims giving Desi a warm hug. "What a good boy!"
Standard poodles Desi (a tall, white male with fluffy ears and a goofy smile), along with a second Harris dog, Moni (female, smaller in size and black), are trained to compete regularly in American Kennel Club agility competitions.
The dogs (formally known as Macie’s High Steppin’ Desire and Sarah’s Precious Monique) are award-winning trackers and master agility champions. Desi is one of the few standard poodles to earn a Champion Tracker title.
Teaching dogs new tricks
Harris, 60, trains her dogs in four events — agility, tracking, nose work and obedience.
Agility, where dogs run an obstacle course, is both physically and mentally challenging, she said. Tracking and nose work are mental games.
“They’re using their natural instincts,” she said.
Agility courses feature jumps and weaving, as well as contact obstacles such as teeter totters and A-frames.
Nose work relies on the dog's ability to follow a scent. In tracking competitions, the dog must locate a trail of items, such as gloves, and stay as close as possible to a set path.
“It’s one of the only sports where the dogs are in command," said Carol Clark, a tracking judge. "People have to give up control and trust their dog."
Each of Harris' dogs has a specialty. Moni loves nose work; Desi’s favorite is tracking, but he’s especially good at agility.
“Desi is my ‘steady Eddie’ in agility,” Harris said. “He’s very consistent, very methodical with what he does in all of his sports, and he doesn’t want to be wrong.”
In addition to training her own dogs, Harris also offers private lessons through her business, River Poodles Pet Sitting and Training, and teaches classes with Springfield, Missouri Dog Training Club, Inc. and Columbia Canine Sports Center.
“She’s very good at reading dog behavior, so that really gives her an edge at training dogs,” Clark said.
Harris compares dog training to raising kids: It requires boundaries and positive reinforcement. She also said it helps to have a hungry dog and lots of treats, but she keeps it fun.
“I think you get better results if you make it a game for them, not work,” she said. “It’s not a job.”
Competition comes with time
Harris owned her first toy poodle when she was 16. She continued to own toys until 1978, when she switched to standards.
She has had nine dogs since then, including Desi, Moni and Sassy, the third standard poodle now living in her house. Sassy, who’s 16, doesn’t compete, but has been “a good pal,” Harris said.
Harris began obedience training with her dogs in the early '80s but didn’t compete until she had Lucy in the mid-2000s. After Lucy died, Harris immediately began working with Desi to track. She taught him nose work about three years ago.
“I started out with obedience, just wanting to make sure I had a very competent dog and a well-behaved dog,” Harris said. "You kind of grow into competition.”
After teaching her dogs obedience, Harris offered them as therapy dogs, then introduced them to the competitive arena. Desi and Moni still visit the Callaway County Public Library once a month as certified therapy dogs so children can practice reading aloud to them.
Living a dog’s life
Harris said she particularly wants to focus on nose work with both Desi and Moni over the next year. She is also hoping that Desi will earn a spot to compete in a tracking invitational in September.
She also wants to continue giving private lessons and teaching classes.
“Whatever happens to come along, I’m pretty well game for it,” Harris said.
The dogs are, too, if it means getting to spend time with Harris and playing and training in the events they love.
“It’s pretty tough around here, though,” she said. “It’s a dog’s life.”
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.