Angel King of Coatsburg, IL, has been breeding Australian Shepherds since 2004. She’s known for being a good judge of her puppies’ show potential within the first eight to nine weeks of their lives, but even she can’t see everything coming. In 2015, an eight-dog litter included little Australian Shepherd “Leonidas,” the smallest of the group, who would go on to be a Conformation show dog.
So how did this little dog make his way into the ring as a successful conformation dog?
Early Struggles Growing Up
Leonidas’s birth weight was seven ounces, four ounces smaller than his next-smallest littermate. In the first 24 hours of his life King recalls he lost another two ounces, and was struggling to survive. “I called Janet (Janet Cline), the co-breeder, and told her I was losing the tiny blue boy, and her emphatic response was, ‘No, you’re not. Get goat’s milk and start bottle feeding him,'” she says.
King didn’t want to leave the puppy, so she called her mom and asked if she could pick up the milk and bring it to her immediately. The next week was packed with both physical and emotional ups and downs. King fed Leonidas the milk with a syringe every two hours and brought his mom out of the whelping box to lie by her on the nearby couch so Leonidas could nurse without fighting his littermates. At a week, the others weighed more than a pound while Leonidas struggled to get back to his birth weight of 7 ounces.
At the same time, King was also whelping another litter of seven from another dog. Still, she was able to devote much of her time to Leonidas, and gradually, his weight inched upward. At a month old, King opened the puppy pens and let the litters interact. “The two moms were fantastic and would go in and let any of the puppies nurse off of them,” she recalls.
It wasn’t always up from there. At one point, two of the bigger male dogs in each litter cornered Leonidas, who was barely half their size at that point. Luckily, King was nearby and was able to remove him from the situation. “I was on the couch nearby and rushed into the pen and grabbed him up. He had a few scratches and was shaking and crying,” she explains. “I got him settled down, and he just wanted to snuggle up with me and not go back with the other puppies. At that point, I decided for his safety to keep him separated from the rest of them and in his own small crate. I hate to think what the outcome would have been had I not been nearby.”
Within a week, Leonidas regained confidence and would tease the others by waiting for them to finish their meals before he would start eating. When they finished, they would watch him eat, playfully teasing one another through the playpen. Almost instantly, the bubbly dog turned this into a playful game with the other dogs. “It was like, ‘I’m out here, and you’re in there, and you can’t get me,'” she recalls with a smile. After a while, King allowed a few of the females to play with Leonidas, with supervision.
A Service Dog at Just the Right Time
At first, because he was undersized at six weeks, the longtime breeder didn’t see potential in Leonidas as a show dog. “I had a few people who were interested in him as a companion,” says King. “They all offered fantastic homes, and it was going to be a hard decision.”
Throughout the first few weeks of his life, King’s husband, Jeff, and son, Dylan, had been helping care for the little guy. “Jeff could not understand how I could sell him after spending so many hours on his care and getting him to thrive,” she adds. “My answer was, ‘I don’t keep pets.’ At that point, Jeff asked if he could keep him and if I could train him to be his PTSD service dog.”
After she agreed, it was time to name him. Jeff opted for “Leonidas,” after King Leonidas, the leader of 300 Spartan soldiers in Greek mythology. From there, they began training Leonidas as a service dog. Jeff served in Iraq for close to 18 months in 2003 – 2004. He returned home with signs of PTSD, avoiding crowded settings and never standing with his back to an entryway. King noted that throughout their marriage, he still scanned his surroundings, and sudden loud noises or movements left him on edge.
The couple met three years later in 2007, and married in 2009. But challenges lay ahead for several years. At one point they were separated, and in 2015, Jeff was accepted into a seven-week inpatient program for PTSD. It was only a few months later, in July, that Leonidas was born. So this “I don’t keep pets” breeder found herself on a fast-track training Leonidas to be her husband’s service dog. “I started with basic obedience when he was 8 weeks old, and began taking him to different places at 3 months of age, exposing him to new environments, people, and sounds. He was unfazed by it all,” King recalls.”
Three months later, it was time for Jeff to take the lead. Leonidas already established his “sensory antenna,” and he quickly began recognizing Jeff’s increased heart rate and blood pressure when tension arose. If he felt Jeff becoming agitated, he would climb up on his lap and demand attention or bring him a dog toy to try to get him to play.
The transition to nearby stores and sidewalks went smoothly for the pair. “In stores, when people started crowding Jeff, Leonidas would nudge Jeff’s hand with his nose or paw at his leg. This would focus Jeff’s attention on Leonidas instead of those around him,” King explains. “Before Leonidas, Jeff would not ride elevators because of the crowded, tight environment. With Leonidas, he now feels comfortable doing so.”
An Unexpected Natural in the Show Ring
Now 50 pounds and over 8 years old, Leonidas accompanies the King family virtually anywhere, from hikes and vacations to Jeff’s doctor appointments and dog shows. And not just viewing them: competing in them.
King’s puppies undergo complete evaluations at a few weeks old to determine show quality and companion. Here, she looks for correct structure, movement, and temperament. Next, they receive complete veterinary examinations along with eye check-ups. Leonidas checked every box for all three. But he was too small compared to the other males, leaving her with no intention of showing him. Just because, she took him to an Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) show weekend in Kansas in August 2017, when he was two years old. “I thought why not? Maybe, just maybe, he might get his ASCA championship. And wow! He earned a five-point major at the first show and a three-point major at the third one with no show training whatsoever,” King says. “He had never been on a show lead, never stacked, and never had anyone go over him like a judge would.”
Almost a year later, she began showing Leonidas in AKC events, eventually earning Champion and Gold Grand Champion titles with multiple group wins and placements.
Providing Support to Everyone He Meets
Even when they’re at dog shows, Leonidas manages to utilize his service dog skills. Leonidas picks up on other people’s emotions, and is pulled towards them to help. One such instance, King recalls, was at a show in Iowa.
King remembers that there was a young boy with autism at the show who Leonidas zeroed in on right away. She’d asked the boy if he wanted to pet Leonidas, and he did. About an hour later, when she was getting Leonidas ring-ready, she heard a child crying. It was the same boy who’d pet him earlier, crying because he didn’t want to leave the dog show. She asked the boy’s stepfather if she could bring Leonidas over, and he agreed. “Leonidas jumped off the grooming table and went right to the child. Within 10 minutes, Leonidas worked his magic,” King says, noting that Leonidas had helped him calm down, and even got him to smile and laugh. “Leonidas just has a knack for knowing when he’s needed.”
When it’s time for either owner to leave home for an appointment or shopping, that’s when the adventurous Leonidas turns into a two-for-one package. He knows when to turn on his service-dog duties when he sees Jeff gathering the gear, and knows it’s showtime when King has a suitcase and a garment bag. While he’s totally focused on the show ring or service dog challenge outside the home, King says Leonidas is “a very spoiled, normal dog” at home. “For the most part, he’s a goofball,” she adds.