Racing driver turns dog handler

Dog Agility has helped Mark Leybourne (aged 50) battle through an uncommon, painful neurological disease called Parsonage Turner Syndrome.  He's worked hard to overcome his disability and this year he will compete for the first time at the Kennel Club International Agility Festival with his WSD Ems.

In March 2014, I suffered a rapid onset of severe pain in my shoulder and I found myself at the mercy of Personage Turner Syndrome, otherwise known as brachial neuritis. It was the most painful week of my life.

The exact cause of Parsonage Turner Syndrome is unknown, but it is believed to be caused by an abnormality of the immune system. A virus decided to nibble away at my nervous system taking out my right shoulder. I couldn't drive, ride my mountain bike or generally get about. The pain could last for a few hours to a few weeks and is followed by wasting and weakness of the muscles in the affected area.'

Shortly after his diagnosis, I met my partner Joanne Shawley, who was my saviour. She ran around after me and introduced me to agility and her dogs -  merle Eli (G7) and the perfect tri Ed (G7) and her big, red daft dog Zing (G6).

At the time, Ems (Jarysmystic Maybe for ME) was six years old and very naughty. After a few failed attempts at AnySize when Ems went out of the ring looking for food, Joanne decided to retire her. That's when I took her over.

I started training Ems with the well known Jacqui Tarns. Joanne already trained with her -and she was only 12 miles away. Being paralysed, I was a useless beginner. My right arm was in a sling. I could not point and had poor balance. Oh, how I loved left-hand courses.

I can not thank Jacqui enough for her patience and the other people in the class for letting me take up so much of the class time but, most of all, the non-stop support and banter from the group. It was great to get out and be able to exercise and build up a great relationship with Ems. No cars, no Internet, just loads of dogs, agility friends and real ale!

More recently I've also started training with Sarah Kitching of Durham Dogs, and I've done many 1-2-1s as I've had chance with many touring trainers in the country. I'm not addicted at all!

In December 2014, after training in agility for less than a year, my test results came back, showing that my nervous system had started to repair. Hopefully I am now on the road to recovery, albeit slowly. 

Can't complain, however. Little Em is officially my dog, signed over before I started competing. I'm Grade 2 now, having won out a month ago and I will be competing in the G1/2 Starters Cup competition at KC International Festival at Rockingham Castle in Rockingham, from Thursday, 13th August until Sunday, 16th August. I love agility and Iím really looking to my first time at the Festival.

Caroline Kisko, Kennel Club Secretary said: 'Mark's story highlights the range of benefits of having a hobby such as agility. Not only is it good for your dog to keep active but also it improves mobility of the owner. The International Agility Festival is the largest agility festival in the world. Anyone can enter their dog in the show and itís a fantastic event for both competitors and spectators alike. We wish Mark all the best for the festival.'

More than 2,700 dogs of all types, sizes and experience levels will compete across 16 agility rings, with dogs jumping and weaving their way around the various courses.

For more information on the festival, visit

News flash... Love was in the air at the International Agility Festival on 12th August 2017 when Mark Leybourne proposed to Joanne Shawley in front of a large crown in the Main Ring. And she said... yes.  Congratulations to Mark and Joanne.

About the author...
Mark Leybourne was born and bred in Darlington, Co. Durham.

He is an Assembly Engineer with Nissan and been racing cars since he could drive!

First published 26 July 2015


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