Search Menu

For Kentucky-based siblings 18-year-old Ryan and 14-year-old Sarah Ford, agility is a family sport. Their AKC Agility League team, which also includes their mom, was the first Ph.D.-level international division competitor at the League’s Live championship. They also won the Ph.D. Championship, and reserve Championship during the at-home season. In addition, Ryan and Sarah represented the United States as members of the United States Junior World Agility Team in summer 2023, competing in England with their dogs.

The siblings both compete with Miniature American Shepherds, Sarah with her dog “Hazel,” and Ryan with his dog “Denali.”

Sarah, a freshman in high school, competes with her dog “Hazel,” a . When she’s not running agility, she enjoys drawing and photography. Ryan is currently a freshman at the University of Kentucky, where he’s studying mechanical engineering and competes with “Denali,” a Miniature American Shepherd.

Both Siblings Got the Agility Bug

The Ford teens both got started in agility as kids. Ryan remembers starting to train at 10 years old and began competing at 11. He joined his local 4H club with one of the family’s Border Collies, and soon began competing in AKC agility. Ryan’s primary agility dog now is Denali, who he lovingly “stole” from his mom. Before this he’d been running with his Border Collie “Flint,” who had a harder time with the 24-inch jump height as he got older.

Sarah started competing when she was 9 years old. “My mom and brother both did agility, so when I got my own dog, I planned to do agility with her,” she recalls. Both Ryan and Sarah have fallen in love with agility, the community of other agility competitors, and how much fun their dogs have with the sport. Ryan especially appreciates having other people in his family who understand the sport. They’re a competitive family, so all of them being involved raises the stakes even higher for them.

Expanding Their Agility Horizons

After doing Agility for a few years, the AKC Agility League, which launched in 2022, piqued the family’s interest. This accessible competition allows dogs and handlers to compete in their home fields around the country. Teams, like the ones Sarah and Ryan are on with their mom, are organized, and three 12-week sessions take place each year.

There are different divisions that teams compete in. The Freshman division is the first, for dogs who haven’t earned Agility titles yet. The Ph.D. division is the highest level, where dogs and handlers compete in international division-style courses. This is the division that the Fords placed in at the recent AKC Agility League Live championships. “Agility League has been super fun — the main thing I enjoy is the courses,” Sarah says. “They’re a bunch of fun for the dogs and people.”


Those courses, particularly the international-style courses, are the ones that Ryan and Denali especially enjoy. “Even though she’s a small dog, she has the strides of a big dog and loves to go fast,” he says. Ryan explains that the whole league program has been a great experience, especially the chance to meet people and dogs that he otherwise only knew from the ranking list.

Balancing Training With School

Competing internationally and at the Ph.D. division of the AKC Agility League takes hard work and a lot of dedication to training. Sarah is currently in her freshman year of high school, and Ryan’s in his first year of college at the University of Kentucky. Still, they both plan to continue competing when possible, and fit in training where they can.

Sarah tries to do a little flat work with her dog every day, and trains sequences about three times a week if the weather’s good. She also attends weekly agility classes with Hazel. The consistency of training is what helps Sarah and Hazel connect on the course.

Ryan’s had to shift his approach to agility training to accommodate a new school schedule. “Since I’ve moved to college, training has unfortunately gone down substantially. I still have weekly classes, but that’s all I can do with my schedule and living an hour and a half away from my dog,” he explains. When he’s home on breaks, Ryan tries to pick a few skills to work on, always working on the dog walk with Denali.

Ryan also likes to take a strategic approach to training. “If we had a big event coming up soon, I would look up one of the judges and build a part of a course I liked,” he explains. He says this allows them to practice skills they’ll likely see on the course. Watching their dogs succeed in training and competition is especially rewarding for the siblings. “I like when you see everything come together, or the lightbulb moment. It’s such a nice feeling to see your dog understand what you’ve been working on,” Sarah describes.

Not Every Run is Perfect

Even though Sarah and Ryan are competing at the top of the sport, there are always training challenges to work through. “Our biggest challenge has probably been confidence building. It still isn’t perfect yet, but we’ve come a long way and have put a lot of effort into it,” Sarah says.

For Ryan, one of the challenges has been working through Denali’s confidence. In 2022, at the Junior Open World Agility Championship (JOWAC) in Finland, Denali ran out of the ring during their first run. Ryan remembers that there was a lot of pressure on him and Denali for that competition. “I was stressed, but felt ready. We had a practice seminar in Finland with the team, and Denali wanted to run from traveling for the past few days,” he recalls. She ended up running too fast and hurting herself on a jump, which spooked her. Ryan says she wasn’t running as confidently after that.

Then, when it was time for the actual competition, she took two jumps, then ran out of the ring. Ryan says that to have worked so hard and have his dog struggle was hard for him. He says he thought about quitting, but decided to try again, with a primary goal of keeping Denali happy while running. “I’ve never cheer-leaded so much,” Ryan says. “Even though we may have had only one run with a score by the end, I was just happy that she ran instead of running away.”

International Competition and Beyond

Ryan’s proudest agility moment to date took place in the summer of 2023 at JOAWC in England. After the challenges he had with Denali’s confidence the previous year in Finland and her leaving the ring, Ryan didn’t know if she would run, especially with wind, rain, and puddles on the ground. But then, “she ran beautifully, and we went clean! To add to that, as soon as I was out of the ring, my team and coaches were all right there and were so happy and excited because the four of us ran clean,” Ryan remembers proudly.

The Ford siblings believe agility has opened the world for them. “I come from an area you wouldn’t even call a dot on the map because there isn’t one,” Ryan says. “Which, of course, means that we don’t have any trials near us, much less other Juniors, so this was an experience I am truly grateful for.” Sarah echoed this, noting that agility has “given me more motivation and determination, as you can’t succeed in this sport without at least a little of that.” She’s looking forward to continuing to train and compete in agility. She intends to try out for JOAWC again in the future, along with continuing to compete in the AKC Agility League.

Being on the AKC’s US Junior World Team was a dream come true for Ryan. “I have wanted to be on the team since I heard about it in 2017. I thought it unachievable and not just for my skill or lack thereof,” he says. “But years later new opportunities arose, and my work paid off.” Sarah’s had a similar experience, saying that being able to travel internationally to compete has been “incredible.” Both have been able to make friends with agility competitors around the world, ones they might have otherwise never met.

The connections made with other junior handlers on Team USA and with junior handlers from other countries are something that both Ryan and Sarah cherish. Although the team has achieved amazing success competing, the wins aren’t the most important thing to her. “Little moments on the course tend to be my proudest moments, like if they commit to a threadless or backside beautifully or have a perfect running dog walk hit,” she explains.