Search Menu

Meet teenager Sayward Kemp of Morgantown, WV, and her Beagle-mix, Keira, who compete in agility. We know you will enjoy the story of how Sayward committed to never giving up on her formerly scared, shy rescue puppy.

It takes less than a minute for Sayward Kemp to run Keira through an agility course. The 18-year-old trainer and her cute Beagle mix make it look easy.

What now takes 40 seconds to execute is the result of five years of work with a rescue puppy who was afraid of the world. Thanks to the dedication and strong belief by her young trainer, Keira now holds several agility titles and has competed with Sayward at the national AKC Junior Agility Competitions.

Their story started in summer 2008 when Sayward’s brother, Colin, brought home three orphaned puppies, only 6 days old. Their mother, Joellyn, is a certified wildlife rehabilitator, and she agreed to raise them with the help of Sayward, Colin and their sister, Mairwyn.

“Since there were three pups and three kids, we were each allowed to ‘have’ one. My brother took the boy, and my sister took the girl. I chose the runt with the little pink nose,” Sayward said. “There were times when we were raising them that my mom warned me that Keira may not make it since she was smaller and weaker. She even had to be fed on a special slow-feeding bottle. But she pushed through.”

When the puppies were about 7 months old, Sayward’s parents decided that three puppies were too much for one house, and the male puppy went to a good home. Sayward was overjoyed that she could keep Keira, but soon realized that there was a lot more work to be done.

“Keira grew up very fearful and dependent on her siblings. She was afraid of other dogs and strangers, afraid to walk too far from the house, and had a hard time apart from her siblings. Whenever she was with them, they all became very loud and sometimes aggressive towards strangers and dogs”

Sayward began searching for ways to help Keira and was inspired by a television show that demonstrated positive reinforcement techniques. She began teaching tricks to Keira to build her confidence, and Keira was a quick learner.

“One day I came across a picture of dog agility on the internet and started to learn about it. The more I read the more I wanted to try it. One day I bought a hula-hoop and took Keira outside. I spent the whole afternoon teaching her to jump through it, which took incredibly long as she was very fearful of it. We sat there for what seemed like hours, and I just waited. When she finally tried it, she fell in love. From that point on, she was game for almost any trick I wanted to try.”

Sayward’s father, Geoff, helped her build some agility obstacles for the backyard, and Sayward got up the courage to enroll Keira in a puppy obedience class.

“Her first class was so hard; I used up all my treats just trying to keep her quiet. By the end of the six weeks, however, she graduated with flying colors and was starting to see that the world wasn’t so scary after all.”

Sayward pushed on and enrolled Keira in beginning agility classes at the Mountaineer Kennel Club, where she met a support network who helped her get started. “I met some of my best friends because of that kennel club, so many wonderful people have always been there to support us, even at our lowest points, and are very much part of the reason we are where we are today.”

After about a year of agility training, Sayward entered Keira in her first trial. She popped out of the last weave pole on her Jumpers run so did not qualify. But then she qualified in the Standard class with a perfect run and received first place. Sayward and Keira started competing on a regular basis, bringing home many ribbons and earning a number of titles.

“Keira really took to trialing. She isn’t the fastest but she’s a bit of a perfectionist so she’s takes her time to do her obstacles right. Speed has always been an issue for us, but I don’t really mind since we’re just in it for fun. Honestly I’m still just thankful she’s now confident enough to even do this.”

Sayward met another agility junior handler from West Virginia, Kaitlyn Dreese, who has competed successfully at a national level. Kaitlyn inspired Sayward to enter the AKC Juniors Agility Competition – something Sayward never dreamed Keira could do when she sat in the backyard with her and the hula hoop.

“Keira has taught me a lot about listening to your dog. She can be rather stubborn and won’t do anything she doesn’t want to. She’s full of attitude and is definitely not here to please you. She goes her own way and makes me laugh every day. Honestly I wouldn’t have her any other way; she’s the perfect little dog for me.”

Get more information on joining the AKC Canine Partners community.

Get information on getting involved with your dog in the AKC Junior Showmanship program – for all sports.