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Agility Obstacle No. 1: The Handler Can’t Run the Course

And you thought agility was hard. Try doing it without turning your body, even your shoulders, and while losing sight of your dog for three seconds at a time.

Fizz, Deb Nezgoda, Ba-Rock

Deb Nezgoda put a MACH on Fizz, left, before beginning to introduce Ba-Rock, right, to the sport.

That’s what agility is like for Deb Nezgoda of Morris, Ill., and her 3-year-old Irish Water Spaniel, ‘Ba-Rock,’ Ch. Whistle Stop Winds of Change, CDX, TD, WC, NA NAJ NAP NJP. She uses a Segway, that two-wheeled, gyroscope-based, personal transportation device, to navigate the course. She needs her body movements to control her Segway, so she can’t use them to direct her dog.

After decades of getting around on a fused leg – with no flexibility from hip to ankle – Nezgoda’s back finally said, “no more.” She actually had to give up her career as a registered nurse because her body was “falling apart.” Luckily, she found a specialist, the only one in the world who “un-fuses” legs, who would essentially create a new leg for her while incorporating her own blood vessels, tissue, and skin. But he said he absolutely would not do it if she continued to drag herself around agility courses.

She recalls him telling her: “I can see that you’re passionate about what you do here, but I can’t have you doing this.”

Deb Nezgoda and Ba-Rock ready to run

Deb and Ba-Rock have competed in three trials thus far.

Fortunately, her husband, Joe, came to the rescue. “He’s the brains,” she says. “He came up with the idea of the Segway.” At her next appointment with the specialist, Joe said, “She won’t be running on that leg.” And the doctor agreed to rebuild the limb that had essentially been one long bone since Deb was 18 and lupus was destroying her knee.

She could have used a wheelchair to continue in agility. Other competitors do so. But Deb says she liked the Segway idea because with it she doesn’t feel handicapped.

In reality, though, the machine is a handicap when it comes to moving around the course, especially with Ba-Rock running the obstacles.

“He was trained with me on my feet,” Deb explains, “and it’s very different on the Segway. He loves the machine; he adores it. When he hears me coming up from behind and the motor’s going fast, he flies. When that happens, he takes down all the jumps because he’s working on speed instead of accuracy. The faster that motor goes, the more he flies.”

There’s just something about the machine that makes him want to race.

Deb and Ba-Rock during trial

The challenges of Deb using a Segway, rather than running, have thus far kept 3-year-old Ba-Rock from titling beyong the novice class.

Ironically, one of the first things Deb taught Ba-Rock as a puppy was targeting, so he would consistently hit the contacts at the ends of the teeter-totter, A-frame and other obstacles. “I started training him at about 10 weeks old, just little things. When he was just a little guy, I taught him how to target so he learned how to touch his contacts.” He didn’t start competing until he was 18 months old, and by then he knew his obstacles and his contacts.

In the year since Deb’s surgery, Ba-Rock seems to have lost all respect for contacts. He just wants to race the Segway now.

To make the switch from running to “Segwaying,” Deb spent a couple of weeks learning how to use it – just to “balance it properly, come to a stop quickly, so I wouldn’t hurt my dogs. Then I added the dogs by loading myself up with tennis balls. When they came out to see the Segway, I started throwing the balls for them. In about 10 minutes, they thought the Segway was their best friend. To this day, when I get on that Segway, my little female starts barking like crazy.”

Ten-year-old Fizz, Ch. MACH Whistlestop’s Splash of Champagne, UD, TD, MX MXJ FX, restricts her obstacle maneuvering to the backyard now, but she still has “a wonderful time,” Deb says.

Ba-Rock’s need to race isn’t the only issue. “It’s challenging just getting from where my dog is crated to the ring,” Deb says. “I take him out of the crate with him on a leash. As soon as I get on the Segway, he gets so excited I can hardly get to the ring. He’s learned that machine is a wonderful thing. He likes food, but it isn’t important to him at all. He won’t take food or toys when he’s done something well. The rest of the course is more important to him than any reward. He loves agility, and I’m sure it’s because it was taught to him positively at such a young age.”

And while the machine turns tightly, it doesn’t turn fast enough for Deb to manage the course like handlers who are on the ground do. She can’t use a front cross at all, so all of Ba-Rock’s crossing is done behind her in what is known as a blind cross. Most agility instructors teach their students to avoid blind crosses altogether. Deb must use them one after another.

Ba-Rock and Deb at a trial

As with all agility competitors, some obstacles are easier than others for Ba-Rock and his motorized handler.

Nezgoda works with two trainers: private instructor Robin Comp-Zelles and Annette Narel of Rush’N Around Agility. “Right now, the phase I’m in is learning more skills from my instructors. They just sit there scratching their heads. They’re trying to figure out what I need to do. Many of things I used to do don’t work any longer.”

Rather than reading Deb’s body and hand cues, Ba-Rock now “reads what the Segway does and my voice. If I get behind him, and I show him where his next obstacle is, and I move away, the sound of the machine overrides what I’ve told him to do.”

Last weekend, Deb and Ba-Rock were headed to their third trial since starting to use the Segway in 2011.

“We’ve had great success, but no qualifications yet,” she says. “You have to look for the positive, the things that you know that are right, knowing they will evolve.”

Though Nezgoda now gives private lessons in competitive obedience, she has plenty of time to title Ba-Rock in agility. “There’s a bunch of us who are about the same age,” says the 57-year-old. “We sometimes sit around together and ask ourselves, ‘How do we keep doing this?’”

Now Deb says, “Listen: when I’m 102, I can still run agility with the Segway, which is more than you’re going to be able to do.”

Though using the Segway will “never be better than using my legs,” Deb says, her goal is to get a MACH. “I am bound and determined that it’s going to happen.”

To see videos of Deb and Ba-Rock at trials, click here and here.

Written by

Susan Chaney has been on the editorial side of publishing since 1990, starting her career as a newspaper features writer and editor. A lifelong lover of dogs, Susan has lived with German Shepherds, Labs, Yorkies, an Irish Setter, a Great Dane-Bloodhound mix, a Sheltie and currently a Chihuahua mix of unknown pedigree. She was the editor of Dog Fancy magazine, content editor of DogChannel.com and group editor of Dog World, Dogs USA, Puppies USA, Natural Dog, Cat Fancy, Cats USA and Kittens USA from March 2005 to December 2009 when she left her position to work at home, part-time. Susan lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her artist husband, Tim, that Chi mix and two big cats. As an editor and writer for Best In Show Daily, she is reveling in the amalgam of three loves: writing, editing and dogs.
  • Mary Lynn March 29, 2012 at 12:43 PM

    What a great story!

  • Kandice Mcclafin March 30, 2012 at 3:48 AM

    What a great article on a really fantastic lady and her water spaniels. Way to go Deb!

  • Timothy Michael April 4, 2012 at 3:26 PM

    Deb may yet get her title but she’s already a winner. Thanks for this great story!

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