Meeting your new puppy for the first time is always a memorable experience and the start of an incredible journey together. For Nina Cosgriff, the start of this journey meant traveling more than 4000 miles to her home country of Sweden, where her dog “Leia,” an Australian Kelpie, was born.
Years after their unique start together, they’ve made a name for themselves in the agility world. MACH Cefeus Imperial Leading Lady MXB MJB XF TKN was the only Australian Kelpie to compete in the 2023 AKC Agility Premier Cup, held on July 8 in Columbus, Ohio. To receive an invitation, competitors need to place in the top five at an AKC national event in the past year, which is no easy feat.
From the Equestrian World to Dog Sports
As a child growing up on a horse farm in Sweden, Cosgriff became involved in the showjumping world at a young age. She continued training and competing with horses when she moved to the United States but eventually had to stop because of the cost and time commitment. In 2007, she decided to try her hand at agility with her Brittany, a dog she describes as the “perfect beginner dog.”
“I lived in northern Virginia at that point and found a local agility place 20 minutes away,” she says. Cosgriff started training him when he was 3-1/2 years old, starting out with an introduction course and going from there.
Two years later, they started competing in agility and kept it up until he turned nine. Around that time, Cosgriff got her second agility dog, “Sookie,” also a Brittany. “She was very fast and extremely smart,” Cosgriff says. Unfortunately, Sookie dealt with a spinal problem that cut her agility career short. “She did really well, but sadly had to retire when she was only five and a half.”
Since Sookie couldn’t participate in agility anymore, Cosgriff introduced her to AKC Scent Work. “She took to it really well, and we actually started competing,” she says. “Scent work is great for training because, in agility, the owner or handler knows the course, but in scent work, you don’t know where the hide is. When the dog says that it’s here, you have to call it out and trust that your dog is correct.”
Working Through Anxieties
A longtime admirer of the Australian Kelpie, Cosgriff knew this breed would make a great agility dog. In 2019, she and her husband flew to Sweden to pick up Leia, who was eight weeks old. Since arriving home in Virginia, Leia has become a devoted part of the family.
“She is very funny, spunky, and loud,” Cosgriff says. “She’s very active and loves people and kids.” When Leia is not competing, her favorite pastimes are hiking and swimming. She and the other Cosgriff dogs love keeping their owner company, whether she’s gardening or hanging out on a restaurant patio.
Cosgriff immediately noticed that Leia is sensitive. “We did have a very rough time when Leia was about two years old,” she recalls. First, Leia became frightened while out on a walk after another dog chased her. After a similar incident in the agility ring, she was so shaken that she wouldn’t go near any sports facilities for a time. “She’s a dog who loves everyone and everything, so she got really scared when a dog wasn’t coming up to her as a friend,” she explains. “Leia wasn’t injured or bitten, but it got her scared enough to shut down for several months.”
Pivoting to Scent Work While Working on Confidence
During this eight-month hiatus, Cosgriff worked with Leia to help rebuild her confidence. She had experience with Sookie and enjoyed it, so she signed Leia up to try AKC Scent Work. “She was really good at it, and we did one or two competitions,” she says. “It helped Leia with her confidence and helped us to work more as a team.”
Along with scent work, Leia responded well to free shaping, which is a dog training technique that involves marking good behavior with a clicker or voice command and rewarding your dog with a treat. “As soon as I get a delivery box, she is now trained to step up on it,” she says. “Whether it’s a teeny-tiny box or a huge box, she gets on or in it, and then I reward her.”
It took over a year for Leia to feel comfortable in the agility ring again. What helped was introducing her to new places and rewarding her for staying calm. “We worked a lot on her confidence, making sure that she’s successful and understands what’s going on around her,” she says. “She’s a very smart little dog, just very sensitive.”
Cosgriff explains that though Leia is very capable, she isn’t the type of dog who can do training exercises repeatedly. “She’ll think that she did something wrong,” Cosgriff adds. “So, I always have to make sure that she feels successful with every training course I set up for her. Normally, she is correct the first time, and then we have a little party and go do something else.” Rewarding Leia, even when she makes a mistake, helps the dog stay focused and motivated to try again. Cosgriff also does Canine Cavaletti exercises with her dogs. Initially developed for conditioning horses, these exercises have been adapted for use in dog sport training.
Making Big Strides in Agility Training
Now, Leia and Cosgriff train in agility once or twice a week and compete two weekends a month. Most days, you can find them doing cardio and fitness training. Leia started at the Novice agility level when she was 2-1/2 years old. Since then, she has progressed from Novice to Open and then Excellent.
“She’s been doing really well at local competitions, and we got the invitation to the AKC Invitational that was in Orlando in December of 2022,” she says. “My goal going down there was just to make sure that she was relaxed and having a good time.” Leia had four clean runs at the 2022 AKC Agility Invitational and made it to the finals. She managed to stay calm even with all the crowds and cameras.
“I think she was more relaxed than I was,” Cosgriffsays. “She did well, and we got third place in the 16-inch division.” Leia entered her first AKC International Sweepstakes Cup (ISC) two weeks later. All her runs were clean, and she won the cup at her level. Most recently, she competed at a local agility show and earned her Master Agility Champion title (MACH).
Working Towards Agility Goals Together
Since finishing third at last year’s AKC Agility Invitational, Cosgriff has been connecting with other Australian Kelpie owners. There aren’t many, so seeing other breed owners at sporting events is always exciting for her. “That’s really fun and positive for the breed,” she says. “Right now, everyone who sees Leia is trying to guess what breed she is. I really hope that seeing her will open their eyes to this breed because it’s such a nice-sized dog. They are very hardworking, athletic, and active.”
In addition to helping Leia become more confident in the agility ring, Cosgriff has made significant strides in her own health journey. Eight years ago, she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and underwent an emergency procedure called a total colectomy. She was hospitalized due to complications from surgery. During a three-week stay at the hospital, she kept herself busy by watching dog agility events.
“When I finally made it home, I started building up my strength by working with my dogs,” she says. While she was recovering, she decided to enter an agility show. “I said by this date, I need to be able to run my dog at a competition. So it kind of helped me set goals to become better and stronger. It’s like they say, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.'”
Cosgriff has continued her agility research of past courses to prepare for this year’s AKC Agility Premier Cup. This gives her an idea of the trends and difficulty level that she and Leia can expect. “I’m just really honored to be invited,” she says. “I want to see her prepared for this level and for us to go in and do well in this great company of competitors.”
The 2023 AKC Agility Premier Cup is coming to ESPN! Tune in on Sunday, August 20 at 3p.m. ET for all of the agility action. The AKC Agility Premier Cup took place on July 9 in Columbus, Ohio.