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Donna Fox

Donna Fox of Houston, TX, has been competing with Poodles in AKC dog sports since the 1950s. Now 95 years old, she’s competed with all Poodles, from Standards to Toys, throughout her career. “My dogs were really fast, and I was really slow,” she laughs. “In essence, they really passed me up.”

At the outset of the pandemic in 2019, her age and severe Rheumatoid Arthritis forced this dynamo into retirement. “I was not able to rebound from the arthritis enough to heel my dogs,” Fox adds. “It was a great ride, and it gave me something very fulfilling to focus on other than work.”

What You See Isn’t Always What You Get

The retired University of Houston professor emeritus worked in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of cleft palates in children. Even at age 89, Fox was still at it, speaking to a graduating class about the diagnosis and treatment of the disorder. She coached students not to be distracted by the idea that ‘what you see is what you get,’ but to focus on even that findings that seemed small. “A difference has to make a difference,” she cautions.

One such lesson she’d always teach was “chaining,” which creates associations between behaviors within a series of behaviors to create a chain. The “chain” then unfolds in a specific order, where each step signals the next step to begin. An example in speech, she explains, would be teaching the sound for “b” added to “oy,” making the word “boy.” She’s related his to multiple different aspects of her career, and it translates well in dog sports, too.

Photo by Pix 'n Pages

In the 1960s, she got her dogs involved in her practice as well. In those psychology classes, Fox had her dogs complete one exercise, then segue to several others. “The demo – where I used a dumbbell – was aimed at showing the students that when one response was performed correctly, praise the dog and move on to another. This helped instill a basic understanding of chaining and, in the process, developed a sense of understanding and confidence in the student,” Fox explains.

Seven Decades of Poodles

Fox’s Poodle pilgrimage began in the 1950s with a Standard Poodle, “Zorro,” and since then, each of her dogs has had “Zorro” in their registered name. She expanded to Miniatures in the 1960s, and Toys in the 1970s. She’d go on to collect conformation championships and obedience titles on each of the Toy Poodles.

Once she got her first Poodle, there was no going back. “I started with Poodles because I knew they were intelligent, have a superb temperament, and are easy to train. And they never disappointed me. Most competed 10 years or more,” Fox says.

Donna Fox

“I was the oldest person with the littlest dog. It was an experience,” says two-time Masters Obedience Championship at Westminster entrant. “It’s sort of like being invited to the Academy Awards. I didn’t win, but it was a memorable experience.”

Dog sports have taken her across the country from her native Texas. Obedience competitions specifically took her across her own state, as well as to Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, Canada, and Mexico.

Staying Connected to the Dog World

Fast-forward about 60 years, and you can find Fox inspiring people weekly at the Houston Obedience Training Club, facility near her home. “I love training people to train their dogs,” she says. “It is very important for owners to have control of their dogs, and obedience classes are the best means of accomplishing that. It’s the little things in training that can make a big difference in getting the results you want to achieve.” With so much experience under her belt, it’s nice for Fox to be able to continue her love for Obedience, even if she can’t compete like she used to. “It keeps me moving and allows me to socialize with others, young and old, all with a similar interest.”

One of the people she worked with was Cindy Hyde, one of her Utility students and a longtime friend. “She helped me get a UD on ‘Rocket,’ a 10-year-old Miniature Poodle, that I had tried for three years to title,” Hyde says. “She took me under her wing, and three months later, he got his UD. He had previously earned Rally and agility titles.”

Hyde says Fox’s chief training quality is that she expects perfection from her dogs and students. “She can give you the tools needed to accomplish your goals, but you have to demand perfection from yourself,” Hyde says.

Donna Fox

Friends from the dog world check in on Fox regularly. “One is a groomer who used to handle her own Poodles,” Fox says. “She checks in on me every day and makes certain I have adequate food and friendship. Another comes over to help me weekly with bookkeeping and other chores as needed.”

Her friendships don’t end there. She attends opera and ballet events with other “dog friends,” who also call regularly to talk and see if she needs anything.

Always Seeing What Comes Next

Shortly before the pandemic, the 88-year-old Fox obtained puppy Paco because her motto is “Let’s see what comes next!” Fox now owns two retired Toy Poodles, 13-year-old “Zorro” (Ch. OTCH 2 Chatabout Rock’n K’s Legend of Zorro, UDX7, OGM RN GO VER RM RAE3 MX MXJ), and 7-year-old “Paco” (Ch. Customs Zorro Paco, UD PCD BN GO RE NAP NJP GGC).

“Zorro has been my lifetime-best obedience dog and still loves to demonstrate his prowess in the obedience ring,” she says. “Paco may be the strangest dog I’ve owned. He’ll decide on his own how he will do what’s required and will put his own twist on it.”

Donna Fox

Although both are retired, Fox still trains them weekly. She says it’s important that they’re reminded of their training, and it allows her to continue her love of obedience. Plus, it keeps their minds sharp.

After seven decades of dog sports, she’s had a lot of achievements. Putting a double OTCH title on Zorro is still one of her greatest accomplishments. “There are not too many Toy Poodles with that distinguished title,” Fox says. “He was at the height of his career when the pandemic hit, or we probably would have won more.”

Rest assured, Fox’s “next” will always be some activity involving her dogs or her community of dog friends.