BORN TO RUN
By Evan Rosser in Greenwich, N.Y.
BORN TO RUN
By Evan Rosser in Greenwich, N.Y.
He's an athlete in his prime. He just happens to be an Australian Shepherd. Meet Holster, the reigning Westminster champion and the world's most famous agility dog.

Holster breaks toward the first jump, a few quick steps as his handler, Wendy Cerilli, claps a staccato accompaniment—wap, wap, wap. On the fourth beat he’s airborne, the clean, white hair on his ruff briefly rising before his momentum pins it to his chest. The crowd gathered for the finals of the Westminster Kennel Club Masters Agility Championship is near silent. Holster’s time starts as he crosses above the bar, nearly doubling its height.

He lands and turns a sharp right, Cerilli guiding him to the second jump. She sprints ahead as he clears it and is easily overtaken as he climbs the dogwalk, his steps rumbling across the raised platform. He sails over another jump and runs on into a curving tunnel. On the other side he briefly loses his bearings, before an urgent “Holster!” from Cerilli pulls him back on course. A wide circle takes him over a trio of jumps and through a chute of soft fabric, then he’s back in the tunnel and out the other side.

A single word from Cerilli sends him into the weave poles. He winds through them, less the fluid ripple of a snake than the bouncing diagonals of a moguls skier, and then doubles back to attack the teeter-totter, climbing it and crashing to the ground without hesitation. He follows Cerilli’s directions—verbal cues and small movements of her head, eyes, hands and shoulders—through an intricate pattern of hurdles, then scales and scampers down the A-frame and flashes over one last jump—double-wide, its bars striped like candy canes. The clock stops at 35.10 seconds, good for first place. A wave of applause crashes in from the stands. Holster, barking his excitement, jumps into Cerilli’s arms.

There are tougher technical tests and more coveted titles for a championship agility dog than the ones on offer at Westminster, which ran its first trials in 2014. But winning in Manhattan—against elite competition, on a difficult course and on live television—took a blend of athleticism and experience that even the best agility dogs only possess for a short time. And whether it’s the associated conformation show—held annually since 1877—or the Club’s knack for self-promotion, Westminster carries unprecedented cachet with the general public. So, until a new overall winner comes along and unseats him, Holster, a six-year-old Australian Shepherd from Greenwich, NY, is the most famous agility dog on Earth.

High Goal Farm is situated in New York’s Capital District, a little more than 20 minutes east of the moneyed horseracing town of Saratoga Springs. It’s mid-October and on the narrow, climbing dirt road that leads to the property, a maintenance crew is clearing tree limbs downed or damaged in a recent storm. Ahead, High Goal’s gravel laneway opens onto a wide, rectangular expanse of lawn. To the left sits a large outbuilding clad in corrugated steel and an empty parking area. Past the lawn and a field of tall grass, the landscape rises to something between hills and mountains, blanketed in trees. Cerilli and her husband, David, have owned High Goal for almost 14 years, ever since they moved to the area from Wisconsin. Holster has lived here his entire life.

Cerilli emerges from the outbuilding wearing a red and black striped polo and white shorts. There’s a dog on a lead at her side—a 13-year-old Aussie named Orso she’ll later describe with a note of amused affection as being “in cahoots with the devil.”

Bright lights, big city
While Westminster's agility competition may not be the most prestigious, it's by far the one that garners the most attention

A military brat, Cerilli was born on a navy base in Newfoundland. Her family moved to Wisconsin when she was six months old and that, she says, “is kind of where my heart’s from.” She grew up loving horses and, after a long, pleading campaign, talked her parents into buying one for her. “It was eventually better and cheaper than paying for a shrink,” she jokes.

In addition to their dogs, Cerilli and David have three horses, 10 cats (eight of them indoor) and a bunny living with them at High Goal, and that tendency to accumulate animals isn’t a recent development. After college, Cerilli was still showing horses and wanted a dog. Chukker was a shelter dog who, she says, “pretended to be an Aussie.”

Springy and full of energy, Chukker took every available opportunity to show off his leaping ability. “He’d just jump over everything,” Cerilli says. “You’d be sitting with your feet up on the coffee table and he’d just run along and [jump your legs]. We’d take him to the horse shows at night and he’d jump all the horse jumps.”

Agility was just taking its first wobbly steps at that point—more half-time show than standalone event—but her horses’ competition days were winding down and she wasn’t in the position to buy and board another. She looked at Chukker and thought, “What can I do with this dog?”

The outbuilding behind Cerilli—thousands of square feet, with the high, spacious interior of an airplane hangar—is a training facility for agility dogs. Inside, a full competition course, leftover from an event that wrapped yesterday, is laid out on a massive square of spongy flooring and bordered by a thigh-high white fence. Cerilli has taught agility classes since 1997, beginning in Wisconsin, and hosted competitions (known as “trials” or “shows”) since she and David built the hangar a decade ago. The facility has also served as the principle training ground for Cerilli’s dogs. She currently has 13 in her pack, most descended from dogs she owns or owned. All of them, like Holster and Orso, are Australian Shepherds.

Holster waits in his crate in Cerilli’s office. The walls are hung with prizes from past trials, prints of Aussies and their owners in various wholesome interactions. The lights are off. Later in the day, the dim will feel peaceful, like the shade under a tree, but right now it’s morning and the 12 dogs housed in the crates that fill more than half the room have energy to burn and visitors to bark at.

Holster’s spot is between his uncle Breyer’s and the one occupied by Pico, a rescue whose habit of spinning in his crate at the slightest provocation has worn a circle into his mat. When she has a free moment in her teaching schedule, Cerilli will often take a dog out on its own to train, but much of the pack’s exercise comes as a group in the fenced playpen next to Cerilli’s house or on walks around the property. When Cerilli returns Orso to his crate and releases the bolt on Holster’s, the injustice of the special treatment is widely felt and met with a fresh explosion of barking.

Flying out of the office and into the hangar’s main room, Holster rips around sniffing at the floor, some camera equipment and a couple of new faces. He gets his front paws up on a folding table with a bag of treats on it, but he’s too worked up to stay in one place very long and quickly gives up the table to sniff at a crack in the polished concrete. Even in his excitement, he seems alert and observant. He moves from one point of interest to the next in decisive beelines and arrives with his ears cocked, already scanning for the next destination.

“He’s very needy. So if I’m kind of panicky, he’ll kind of panic and doubt himself.”

Cerilli follows a minute later. She settles him down some, and then leads him onto the edge of the course. She tells him to lie down, and—no huge surprise—he obeys immediately, his forelegs stretched out neatly together in front of him.

Like most of Cerilli’s Aussies, Holster is a Blue Merle, his coat a soft grey with patches of black across his back and sides. His legs are tan, also dashed with black, and all four paws are dipped white, like he’s wearing ankle socks. Symmetrical arcs of brown stretch like wings from the sides of his muzzle down his neck. He’s the only one of Cerilli’s dogs with two blue eyes. They are bright and sparking, amplified by a patch of black around each. Above the left, a half-moon marking sits like a cocked eyebrow, adding to his air of happy curiosity.

This year was the pair’s first at Westminster and outside the ring it could’ve gone smoother. “He’s a very cocky and confident dog in some ways, but he’s also a little nervous,” Cerilli says. “If he knows I’m nervous, he’ll climb on me a lot”—she breaks into an imitation of a pleading and somehow-able-to-speak Holster—“‘Mommy, mommy, mommy.’ And he’s very needy. So if I’m kind of panicky, he’ll kind of panic and doubt himself.”

This year's 3rd annual Masters Agility champion is Holster!!! #WKCDogShow

A photo posted by Westminster Kennel Club (@westminsterkennelclub) on

New York City doesn’t agree with Cerilli—she finds it overwhelming—and whether Holster picked up on her discomfort or harboured negative opinions of his own about the Big Apple, it didn’t agree with him either. He hated the hotel elevators, particularly their whooshing descents, and had trouble getting comfortable when he most needed to: “We had to go all the way to Central Park for Holster to go to the bathroom.” Cerilli says.

The show was no cakewalk either—with two qualifying runs and the final crammed into a single day, and the added demands of appearing on live television—but Holster regained his confidence, and even got a little full of himself after the win. “I heard a lot of, ‘No way. I’m not doing what you say,’” Cerilli says of the weeks after they got back home.

That kind of self-assurance is one of the qualities that made Cerilli fall in love with Aussies—she finds them less robotic and much more rambunctious and independent than other top agility breeds—but it has obvious drawbacks in competition. Courses are kept secret until the day of a show. Handlers are given eight minutes to walk the ring and develop a plan of attack before qualifying begins, but the dogs don’t see a single obstacle until their first run. Communication and trust, then, are crucial. “They have no idea, until they step into the ring, what they’re doing. And so they’re cuing off our body language,” Cerilli says. “If you move your eyeballs, they’ll go where you look. It’s really cool.”

As if to back up her point she offers an opportunity: “Do you want to run him?”

Cerilli sets us up on the novice course, first leading a walking tour of its 15 obstacles. Numbered placards mark the route, but Cerilli warns not to lean too heavily on them. Looking for the numbers mid-run can lead to moments of confusion for a handler, and if you can’t project decisiveness, your dog will be decisive for you. “We train them to be confident,” she says. “If in doubt, they’re just going to pick [where to head next].”

Loving every minute of it
Wendy Cerilli, Holster's owner and handler, says she prefers Australian Shepherds over other agility breeds because she finds them less robotic

After some advice on how to tackle a few tricky bits, Cerilli heads to the start and sits Holster about six feet back from the first obstacle, a suspended tire. In the office, the rest of the pack—quiet for the past several minutes—kicks up again. “They know we’re doing something fun,” Cerilli says.

Holster’s also well aware. He waits, tensed and still as an undisturbed lake, as Cerilli passes me a loose handful of treats—allowed in training, but not competition. Every sudden sound and movement on our part triggers the tiniest jolt in his legs, a barely perceptible reminder that he’s ready. “His release word is ‘okay,’” Cerilli whispers before stepping away.

“Okay.”

The greatest disadvantage of running Holster is that you don’t much get the pleasure of watching him run. He’s through the tire and even with me in less than two seconds—a rush of movement in my peripheral. The first three obstacles are arranged in a straight line and he hurtles at them so confidently the sum total of my guidance is to run alongside him naming each apparatus as it arrives: A-frame. Jump.

I cut diagonally to block the weave poles and direct him through a tight right-hand curl. He follows my line of sight into the next string of jumps, and I call out instructions from behind as he clears them comfortably and hooks back toward me. Cerilli says that agility dogs hit their primes roughly between six and nine, when they’ve still got plenty of explosiveness and ground speed but have also gained a veteran’s understanding of their sport. Holster is on the young end of that range, but Cerilli acknowledges that “he’s had a phenomenal year,” his experience translating into increased consistency and a run of impressive results.

“When you’re trying to put a bunch of sheep onto a truck that smells like death, you need an Aussie”

You can see that knowledge in the way he reads the flow of the course. He recognizes patterns at a dead sprint, chooses the logical route whenever it exists and takes obvious pleasure in picking correctly. Cerilli thinks his favourite apparatus is the dogwalk—a thin, wobbly and dauntingly high obstacle that intimidates many other dogs—precisely because he knows exactly where he’s supposed to go for its entire length.

Running clean is better than running fast, and we’re managing it until Holster slides free of the last weave pole and I point him into the wrong end of the tunnel. Agility’s list of potential infractions is long—dropped bars, skipped obstacles, even entering the weave poles from the right rather than the left—but this is our only mistake and we’re blissfully unaware of it until after the run.

Holster breezes over the final jump and jogs back to me with his tongue hanging from the side of his mouth. I give him the whole handful of treats at once.

Witness 13 Australian Shepherds pound out the open door of an office en masse, and you’ll realize pretty quickly how tough and physical the breed is. The members of Cerilli’s pack nip and bite, jump, shove, check and scratch. After being cooped up in their crates for an hour or two, they hit like a low-grade hurricane. “It’s one thing for a Border Collie to say, ‘Hey, sheep. Graze over there in this nice open field,’” Cerilli says. “But when you’re trying to put a bunch of sheep onto a truck that smells like death, you need an Aussie.”

Holster is among the gentlest, though the special attention and solo time on-course could have something to do with that. He doesn’t crash after tennis balls with the manic abandon of some of the younger dogs, and when he jumps up—something Cerilli doesn’t discourage because she finds “it’s more dangerous to bend over an Aussie”—he’s shockingly delicate, softly resting his paws at your waist and looking up patiently with his ears drawn back, waiting to be pet. He’s easygoing with his grandson, Bounty, and will extend a fair amount of rope to Badger, the lone bitch, but Cerilli thinks he’d probably rather live with just three or four dogs. His sons, in particular, dance on his nerves. Known as the Holy Trinity—a nod to Holster’s nicknames, “The Holy One,” “Holy Monster,” and most of all, “Holy Moly Guacamole”—they rank among the craziest in the pack. “He’s a little insecure,” Cerilli says. “So he’ll kind of grumble and stuff more than I’d like. It’s him saying [to the other dogs], ‘Just leave me alone.’”

Best in show
Until a new dog comes along and unseats him—the next Westminster Dog Show takes place in February 2017—Holster holds the crown as top agility dog

A bit of grumbling and the occasional scuffle is pretty good for a crew with seven intact males and one female, though. Cerilli has heard of situations where people with two dogs can’t keep them in the same car for fear they’ll kill each other; she knows she’s lucky. At night, she lets the whole pack pile into her and David’s bedroom. “We have a king-sized bed, but we’ll often have seven dogs in the bed with us,” she says. Drifting to sleep in a sea of Aussies is often the happiest part of her day.

Back in the hangar after the walk, Cerilli’s Aussies sniff around the edge of the course. The time outdoors has calmed them all down and tired them out a bit, and you have to raise your voice to be heard over their panting. Wandering through the group like he’s mingling at a house party, Holster takes a bit of time every few minutes to walk over and see me. His registered name is “Gunna Hold On To Ewe,” and it suits him; the periodic visits don’t feel needy so much as acknowledgments of the new bond between us.

There’s an urgency connected to most athletes’ primes, a hard-to-fully-shake sense that the clock is ticking. That’s as true for a top agility dog as a sprinter or boxer, but Holster will never feel it. Even if Westminster turns out to be the high-point of his career, he’ll never lose the curiosity and optimism that so perfectly suit him to the sport he loves. “He’s always kind of hopeful that good things are going to happen,” Cerilli says, dropping her hand to scratch his head. “He’s just always ready to do something fun.”

Photo Credits

Myles McCutcheon; Jesse Reiter/Getty