A curious extraordinary journey...

Mark Duggan and his wife Gill had been dog lovers all their lives, but due to shift work, they always felt it would be unfair to leave a dog alone in the house over several hours at a time. Then came the dog walkers tidal wave and they decided to take the plunge. Where better to go than Discover Dogs at Crufts? They did a lot of research and narrowed it down to a Havanese or a Husky - both breeds being hard work, one way or another. After visiting Crufts, nothing really clicked with either breed and they came back home with their tails between their legs. And then they spotted the Kooikerhondje in a dog breed book and it was like a eureka moment. They had finally found what they were looking for.

For those of you not familiar with the breed, the Kooikerhondje looks a bit like - and is sometimes confused as - a cross between a Collie and Spaniel. It is recognised by it's big bushy tail and black earrings. The breed was developed in The Netherlands sometime prior to the Sixteenth Century to lure ducks into traps. They are easy to train, cheerful, very affectionate, always on alert and need a lot of socialization and exercise.

Although it is a very rare breed, we were in luck and we found a breeder with a litter due in April 2015, allbeit in Essex. We exchanged details with the breeder and photos and agreed not to rush should we not be completely happy. We travelled down from Scotland on the Friday night and stayed overnight outside London and then first thing in the morning travelled to the breeder's house. Thankfully everything clicked and the puppy was perfect. As we left I promised her mum Bunny, I would look after her.

After a nine hours journey and three stops at motorway services, we got her home to find a lengthy email from the breeder explaining everything about the breed, exercise food etc and the importance of socialising at a young age. Growing up, I'd had a Yorkshire Terrier and Cairn Terrier and I was determined to learn from any mistakes I'd made with previous dogs  with diet and toilet training etc. and I was planning on doing proper obedience training and take lots of exercise including walking and having fun at parks.

We had narrowed down a few Dutch bitch names and once we got her official Kennel Club Millhanger Ballycasey, it was natural that she would be Millie.

We attended a local training class and socialised her there and everywhere else we could with other dogs and people in our area.

Fast forward a year...
We noticed that Millie was starting to become a bit reactive to new people and other dogs which was quite frustrating as we had thought we had done enough to avoid this happening. Don't get me wrong. She is very obedient and the most affectionate breed we know, but this was becoming a bit of concern.

I kept focusing on the training and I noticed one day out our back garden she was good at darting left and right. I remembered the dogs at Crufts darting through the weaves and I thought to myself, Millie could be good at this, Maybe we could try and give it a go.

I had no idea how big - or small - the Dog Agility world is nor how it would change our lives forever.

We started basic agility training with a Lanarkshire dog training school where we met a lovely lady who recognised Millie's breed straight away. It turned out she used to breed Kooikers and coincidently recommended our breeder to Kooikers. Now it was turning into a small dog world. At the time of the meeting, Millie was her doing usual barking at all new dogs and people, and I thought this lady would be the best person to ask 'Are Kooikers supposed to be like this?'

The reply came, 'Yes, very rarely that they are not like this.'

The penny had dropped. Kooikers can a bit of a challenge as they can be very nervous with new people and other dogs, but their affection and devotion for their family make up for it. It was something we would have to try and manage and learn to live with.

As we learned agility, Millie became more focused on me which was really useful during walks and helped to avoid confrontations with other people/dogs. It burned up more energy and, of course, the mental side made her work really hard and made her behaviour much better.

In many ways Agility has saved us
Millie has taken to agility like a duck to water. Excuse the pun.

We have become a great team and built the best possible bond.

To be honest, training Millie has not been difficult. Once she understands what you want and give her the clear cue and clear actions, she gets it and it sticks. She has a very long memory and she is very intelligent. For instance, if we are going out for walk, she remembers that she will be thirsty and will go for a drink before we go out.

We went to our first fun shows in the middle of 2017. I desensitised her by taking to the friendly shows with less pressure as well as a few local proper shows to get her used to the environment. We started off a bit all over the place but, we started to click at a friendly show in January 2018. This is where we got our first clear round.

She has gradually became so good, that even when I get it wrong (queues), she gets it right. She very rarely knocks down a pole and it now seem the norm for her to get clear rounds. Most people donít realise she is an unusual breed, presuming she is a Spaniel X  Collie, but the odd person will recognise her breed and itís nice when that happens.

In 2018 we had our first proper competitions. We had a bit of set back as we discovered she had a back injury at her first KC show in May. After visiting a specialist and receiving treatment for several months, we got her back into training and as a precaution and part of her rehabilitation ran her at lower height. Then we entered a couple of end of year shows to monitor her progress. She came 1st in Agility in two different shows, winning into Grade 2 & 3. How did this even begin to happen?

Happily she is on the mend, looking in great shape and jumping much better. We are now focusing more on her core strengths to keep her back injury from reoccurring and building her strength and confidence. We are excitedly looking forward to the new season.

Overall we haven't really properly started and we are over the moon to have already won several rosettes at KC and unaffiliated shows. She still has her nervous moments and we have to be cautious with new people and dogs, but she is getting better all the time. We believe that Agility has helped her be a lot more calm.

I believe agility has helped us both on this magical fairy tale journey and long may it continue as we create the best memories imaginable.

About the author...
Mark Duggan lives in Morningside, North Lanarkshire, Scotland with his wife Gill, 18 month old daughter Emily and their Kooikerhondje Millie.

They got started in agility via an obedience class: Waterloo & Overtown DTC where a friend Lucy recommenced TT Dog Training School in Lesmahagow, South Lanarkshire. Mark have been training now for over two years with Natasha Davis and loving every minute of it.

Mark has thought about getting another Kooiker because of their intelligence and devotion but not for a little while.

First published 10th March 2019


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