It’s June 14, 2012, and Stephanie O’Reilly knows what she’ll be doing virtually every weekend for the rest of this year. She’ll be at one conformation show, then at performance trials for all but five of them.
She doesn’t work for the American Kennel Club or the United States Dog Agility Association, nor is she a professional handler. O’Reilly will simply be taking her four Irish Water Spaniels around the regions surrounding her Germantown, Md., home, working on their titles and giving them the chance to do what they love best – pleasing her.
These aren’t just any Irish Water Spaniels, of course. ‘Scout,’ 11, was chosen specifically to be a performance dog. She is O’Reilly’s second dog of the breed. Her first, Ildanoch Southern Seeker CD NA NAJ WC, ‘Drake,’ got her started in agility and field work. He couldn’t be shown, however, because he had an undescended testicle. Unfortunately, at age 4, he contracted Lyme disease, and it attacked his kidneys. “He was diagnosed on a Friday and died on a Monday,” O’Reilly says.
O’Reilly moved to Irish Water Spaniels after doing obedience with her two Great Danes. “If you have a couple of pets with obedience issues, you get into obedience,” she says.
When they had passed on, she “looked for something else” that would live longer and be healthier, “something with drive and other abilities to do things more than just obedience,” she says. “I was interested in starting in agility.”
Upon moving to Maryland from Delaware, O’Reilly found herself living next door to a woman with an Irish Water Spaniel. “We got to be friends. She wanted to go to her first specialty, but didn’t want to go alone. I was so impressed with what these dogs could do. One day they’re in the field or doing agility. The next, they’re in the ring.”
By the time Drake turned 2, O’Reilly had “fallen in love with the breed.”
“I got really interested in the conformation side of it and asked if a friend would consider me for a puppy.” That puppy was Scout. “She was the first dog I got a MACH on, the first IWS to ever get a [North American Dog Agility Council] NATCH.” She did rally and was a junior hunter. “She did a lot,” O’Reilly says.
Perhaps most importantly, she had two litters of puppies, each of which yielded a performance dog O’Reilly would keep.
Scout, Ch. MACH PACH4 NATCH Madcap’s Way To My Heart UD RE JH PAX4 MXP11 MJP12 XF NFP WC, is mother to 6-year-old ‘Clark,’ Ch. MACH4 Cuardach Blaze The Trail CD RA JH MXF T2B, and 4-year-old ‘Glider,’ Cuardach Makes My Heart Soar RN MX MXJ MXF WC, and granddam of 2-year-old ‘Ryan,’ Ch. Whipcord Born To Fly OA AXJ OF.
“I did not imagine me ever breeding my own litters,” O’Reilly says. “It just blossomed from the first one.”
After 13 years in the breed and her current life with four dogs from the same line, it’s hard for her to imagine having a different breed. “I just keep coming back to the Irish Water Spaniels, and I’ve had pretty good luck with their health and what they’re able to do. I could see myself maybe with something else, but not without a Water Spaniel.” She does admit, however, that she’s “very interested” in Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers.
Why have her dogs been so successful in such a variety of sports? “Part of it is they’re just really talented dogs, and they have such big hearts for wanting to try,” O’Reilly says. “And part of it’s the way you raise them as puppies. You teach them that training is just fun.” Even heeling has to be fun, she says. “Before obedience and agility, you do a couple years of work with them before they ever step into the ring. You have to work really hard to make it positive and fun for them.”
Another part of it is the breed.
“They’re bred to work,” she says. “They have that innate retriever ability. They want to work. They want to please. They want to do something. They have a fairly high energy level. They’re very much into their own people. They’re also a fairly to very smart dog. All of that really just makes it a lot of fun to train them.”
Interestingly, O’Reilly’s dogs work only for her. “My dogs do not run for anyone else,” she says. “Even though they love the sport, they run for me.”
In the end, she says, “I think it’s their talent and my willingness to put the time and the energy into training them.”
To get all those titles before and after four dogs’ names has taken a huge commitment.
Between her job in human resources in the pharmaceutical industry, spending time with her husband, Jeff Rife, training and trial running, “that’s pretty much my life right there,” she says.
Over Memorial Day weekend, she had dogs entered in both a conformation show and agility trials. When she was leaving the dog show, her friends joked, “There goes Stephanie.”
Scout has just two more agility trials, then she will retire. “In the last few months, she has slowed down a bit, and I’m afraid she’s going to hurt herself,” O’Reilly says. “I don’t want anything like that to happen. But she’ll still go with me because she loves to travel,” despite the fact that O’Reilly’s husband would love it if Scout stayed home with him on the weekends.
The mother and grandmother of her brood won’t be standing still when she stops running agility. “I’m starting canine nose work with Scout,” O’Reilly says. Nose work puts dogs’ natural scenting abilities to work and tests them with trials. “She would be very upset if I didn’t train her, so she still keeps me busy.”
At 44, O’Reilly has no intention of slowing down either. “Eventually I might have to cut back a little, but when I see these 70-year-old people out there running, I want to be one of them. Their minds are sharp, their bodies are healthy. That’s what I want to do.”
As with many performance addicts, O’Reilly’s quest is not all about the titles.
“It’s about the working relationship that you develop between you and the dog. And your dog looks at it like, ‘you’re taking me to an activity that’s really fun.’”