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Sonja Hahn / Sonja's Photography

Naomi Swanson has checked one more item off of her bucket list. This past weekend, at the Miniature American Shepherd Club of the U.S.A. (MASCUSA) all-breed trials held at K9 Manners & More in Oklahoma, the amazing 11-year-old fulfilled a life’s dream of competing in an AKC Agility competition with her dog Bruiser.

The difference between Naomi and her fellow competitors is that she is battling a rare nerve cell cancer called neuroblastoma. Her family didn’t know if she’d even have the strength to travel to the event in Broken Arrow from their home 4.5 hours away in Woodward. Not only did she make it, but Naomi and the 1-year-old Bruiser cruised through the course, earning themselves cheers from the crowd and their very own AKC ribbon rosette.

Credit: Sonja Hahn / Sonja’s Photography

Jumping Through Hoops

Like so much else in the world of dog sports, Naomi and Bruiser’s inspirational run was a team effort. When Vicki Boyer of the nearby Sooner State Kennel Club first heard about Naomi’s wish, she sprang into action to make it happen. After learning details of Naomi’s story, Boyer reached out to Kim Sykes and Mary Green of the host venue K9 Manners & More to see what could be done.

Over the next few weeks, Boyer traveled to Naomi’s home to provide agility lessons and tips. Swanson family friend Jane Record even shuttled Naomi and her sister Taylor to Boyer’s own home for additional practice. While Naomi’s father Kevin had constructed some homemade equipment, Boyer eventually loaned the young handler some standard weave poles and jumps with which to practice.

“I’m so impressed with how much Bruiser trusts Naomi and isn’t afraid to do anything she asks of him,” says Boyer. “Bruiser did all the contact obstacles. He performed every one them like he’s done it millions of times, and showed no fear. I knew they could do it, I knew they would, and they did. It’s just amazing what Naomi has done with him”

Remarkably, Naomi herself is largely responsible for training Bruiser, and the loyal Australian Cattle Dog took to his agility immersion like a champ. With a team-driven sport like agility, the bond between handler and dog is crucial. The animal-loving Naomi showed a natural talent for guiding Bruiser through each obstacle, in spite of her ongoing cancer battle. She’s even taught the pup a handful of tricks, to boot.

Credit: Sonja Hahn / Sonja’s Photography

Fulfilling a Fighter’s Wish

Neuroblastoma is a type of nerve cell cancer most commonly found in children under ten years old. The cancer usually starts in the early nerve cells of the sympathetic nervous system, and in some cases, may begin forming before a child is even born. Naomi was first stricken with cancer in her abdomen at age three. After several years of remission, the cancer sadly returned last year in the form of a tumor behind her eye, which was later diagnosed as neuroblastoma. Unfortunately, her prognosis as of this fall was far from clear.

Faced with an uncertain diagnosis, Kevin set about trying to help his daughter accomplish everything on her bucket list. Among the list items was Naomi’s wish to participate in a dog agility competition. After seeing Kevin’s post on Facebook about Naomi, Boyer and other members of the agility community in Oklahoma rose to the occasion to help get it done.

Specifically, MASCUSA secretary Barbara Jeleski worked to get Bruiser registered and the pair entered in the November 11th trial, with the club paying for their entry fees along the way. The trial in Broken Arrow was nearly 5 hours from the Swanson home in Woodward, so members of the Sooner State Kennel Club pitched in to fund travel and sleeping expenses for the Swansons. They even helped ensure that some of Naomi’s far-flung family, like cousins and grandparents in northern Kansas, could attend as well. Some of the family had never seen agility before, but that didn’t stop them from beaming with pride at Naomi and Bruiser’s prowess.

Credit: Sonja Hahn / Sonja’s Photography

For The Love Of Dog

Before she acquired Bruiser, Naomi was interested in a Miniature American Shepherd of her own. However, the Swanson family lived in an area with lots of briars and stickers. So, they decided that an Australian Cattle Dog had a coat type that would be easier to care for. It turned out to be a perfect match, as Bruiser has become an indispensable part of Naomi’s life. The 18-month-old pup understands his job as well, transitioning seamlessly from the agility course to his go-to spot atop Naomi’s lap in her wheelchair.

“It’s something that we take for granted,” says Sykes. “To be able to go out there and compete with our dogs. And the love these dogs give to us is just different. You can’t compare it to anything. The heart of that little dog going out there and doing everything that Naomi wanted is why we really love our heritage-bred dogs. [Bruiser] was bred to go and work a farm, but he’s versatile enough to be a family pet and be so athletic and agile.”

Credit: Vicki Boyer

Emphasizing the bond between girl and dog, Boyer recalls a story told by Naomi’s grandfather of a time when Naomi was in Houston for chemotherapy while Bruiser remained back in Oklahoma. Without the pup, Naomi was having an especially hard time with treatment. Once Bruiser was flown in, however, she immediately perked up. From that point, her spirit was uplifted and her treatments became easier to manage.

Imagine, Believe, Achieve

While Naomi has been battling cancer for much of her life, she’s shown incredible resilience in her desire to lead a normal childhood. Outside of training Bruiser, the Oklahoman enjoys hunting with her father and sisters and cracking jokes. Indeed, the day after her remarkable JWW agility run with Bruiser, Naomi decided to complete the standard course for good measure, with her father by her side for support.

Upon completion of her initial run, Naomi was awarded a custom AKC ribbon rosette reading “My First Agility Trial”, courtesy of Mary Green. Naturally, Bruiser was awarded as well, with a dashing blue monogrammed leash and collar. The proud Swanson family gathered around their star agility team for photos following the run.

Going forward, Naomi’s newfound supporters in Oklahoma and elsewhere are hoping to see the inspiring youngster and her dutiful dog compete again at local upcoming trials in December, should she have the strength. As for Naomi and Bruiser’s initial agility adventure in Broken Arrow, it’s certain to be something that no one who witnessed it is likely to forget for a long time.

Credit: Sonja Hahn / Sonja’s Photography

“It really was a great community effort,” says Sykes. “There’s so many people that are ready to help with further needs. The support of the agility community’s not going to end with this one trial.”

If you’d like to consider contributing a donation to Naomi’s ongoing cancer battle, please visit her GoFundMe page.