This is the first of a series of features on 2017's AKC Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence Winners.
She’s only 2 years old, and Amber is already an American Kennel Club (AKC) Bronze Grand Champion on paper but more important, an inspiration and a lifeline for her 54-year-old owner, Sonja Benavidez, of Geneseo, Ill.
While this red-and-white Cardigan Welsh Corgi has already accumulated a boatload of ribbons and trophies, she has nothing like the one she and Benavidez will be receiving at the AKC National Championship presented by Royal Canin in Orlando, Fla., Dec. 16-17.
That’s when Amber will be honored as the winner of the Exemplary Companion Dog award at the AKC’s 18th annual AKC Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence (ACE).
But this will be a business trip for the pair, too, since they are entered in the AKC National Owner-Handled Series Finals, where Amber is in the top 10 Cardigan standings.
A Cardigan owner since 1993, Benavidez, when asked about her biggest accomplishment in the show ring with the breed, replies succinctly, “Amber.”
This "little red dog," as Sonja Benavidez describes her, has been the owner's lifeline for two years. Unflappable, and a quick learner, Amber is also a registered therapy dog in addition to her multi-dog-sports achievements. Photo by Emily Proctor.
Life has been a challenge for Benavidez since the early 1960s, when she was stricken with encephalitis and the subsequent challenges of a coma, paralysis below the waist, braces, and many surgeries.
“I was supposed to be in a wheelchair by the age of 20,” she says, “but I made it to just shy of 50 before my right foot collapsed, and I could no longer walk. We found that I had broken my foot more than 30 times, and it grew back wrong each time.” This required three surgeries over one year to correct matters, which included five titanium plates, 16 screws up to 3 inches long and a staple, all on her right foot.
Her recovery took longer than one year and resulted in a weight gain of 50 pounds due to her being flat on her back, with her leg elevated and non-weight bearing.
A fighter all her life, Benavidez hit rock bottom psychologically and physically at that point. “I have always been a very independent person,” she explains, “but this was highly depressing. I couldn’t show my dogs or do much of anything.”
That’s when Pete, her husband, stepped to the plate and hit a home run. And her longtime friend, Connie Whan, of Andalusia, Ill., 40 miles away, followed suit, helping find the perfect puppy for her.
About one year after Benavidez’s foot woes, Whan planned a Cardigan litter with 20-year-old semen from one of her earlier champions. When the time came to whelp the litter (which turned out to be four puppies), she called Benavidez to come help. “Pete got me there, and I stayed with her overnight and helped bring them into the world,” Benavidez recalls. “I couldn’t walk and was crawling around on the floor with my foot still in pain. But I knew one of these very special pups would be mine, and I had to be there. I had something to get excited about again, even if it meant I had to show from a wheelchair. Essentially, it gave me a new jump-start on life.”
ACE Exemplary Companion Dog winner Amber, 2, is also a Bronze Grand Champion. Photo by Emily Proctor.
So who matched Benavidez and Amber? “I had third pick,” she smiles. “I had my eye on another at six weeks, but she was taken by the second selector. When we made our selection at 9 weeks, I loved Amber even more. She was outgoing and confident. As it turned out, she was meant for me.”
Since then, the “little red dog,” as Benavidez, a civilian human resource specialist with the Department of the Army, describes her, has done everything the owner has asked with ease. “She had no concerns about the wheelchair since day 1. She knows nothing different. I had no idea how to show a dog from a wheelchair and was very concerned that I would hurt her. But she instinctively stays where she needs to be and out of my way.”
Outdoor shows tend to test the team’s mettle, with uneven terrain and occasional holes, producing a bumpy—and sometimes—stressful presentation.
By the time she was 2 years old, Amber earned a Herding Group 3 designation and many national owner-handled series group placements.
Amber never ceases to amaze Benavidez. “There have been so many thrilling moments in the show ring. But quite frankly, the most meaningful are when I realized we could do this together. It still brings tears to my eyes when she accomplishes something new. It leaves me in awe of this little dog.”
Amber is a quick learner. Benavidez will show her something about three times, and she usually has it. Another huge plus is how she has pulled the attention away from the owner and upon herself—which judges prefer. “I have always been self-conscious,” Benavidez adds, “especially after being in the chair.”
At a Midwest show, Benavidez enjoys a break with Amber, a Cardigan Welsh Corgi. Photo courtesy Phyllis Ensley Photography.
Amber is intuitive and a picture of consistency, Benavidez emphasizes. “She always stays true. Her gait never waivers, her top line stays straight and smooth throughout the showing. I have had four judges tell me that we are the best wheelchair-dog team they have seen in 25 years.”
The busy Benavidez shows Amber chiefly in the Midwest, as many as three weekends a month in the summer and one in the winter. While she and Amber have received training assistance, she chiefly handles all of the dog’s training and handling, although she is quick to credit her extended Cardigan family and Whan for plenty of assistance at show venues. “They take care of issues for me without me asking –- ring entry width, obstacles too close to fencing/walls, ring tables positioned in spots that would be inaccessible with a wheelchair, etc.”
Benavidez and her husband live on more than 7½ acres in Geneseo, a community of 6,500, near the Quad Cities, which are Rock Island and Moline, Ill., and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa. Other four-legged residents include Reba, an 11-year-old Cardigan; Tanner, a 9-month-old Tibetan Spaniel; and three cats, all rescues, Shere Khan, 9; Daisy, 9; and Ozzie, 7.
Not one to shy away from new challenges, Benavidez is targeting a couple of agility exercises, scent work, and barn hunt in the near future. “I would love to do herding,” she says, “as that is what they were bred for, but that might be a little too rough of terrain for the chair.”
When she is not working long hours of overtime, Benavidez spends more than five hours per week training Amber, which include walks along a bike trail, agility exercises, and obedience tricks.
The versatile Amber placed in conformation, obedience and rally at the 2016 Cardigan Welsh Corgi Club of American National Specialty. Photo by Emily Proctor.
And, oh, yes, Amber’s credentials also include registered therapy dog, a designation she received in May. Benavidez’s rigorous overtime work schedule, however, has kept her from visiting nearby facilities. “She will be a rock star in those environments, once we get started,” adds the proud owner.
“I really don’t think there is anything this little dog can’t accomplish with proper guidance.”
All of the 2017 ACE Award winners will be honored at the 2017 AKC National Championship in Orlando, Fla. Learn more about the 2017 winners here.