You may have seen video or heard the story of a handler at the 2019 AKC National Agility Championship (NAC) who won while running the course barefoot with her Border Collie, Notch. The handler had suffered an ankle injury during her previous run and couldn’t get her sneaker back on, but she was determined to finish the competition. That fearless handler was Amber McCune – and that memorable run was just one of many in her exceptional Agility career. Owning six dogs, co-owning three more, and handling sometimes as many as 12, McCune returns to the rings again for this year’s AKC National Agility Championship—and hopefully gets to keep her shoes on.
Life in the Dog World
Amber McCune’s mother Celeste Maurer, an AKC Obedience Judge, brought McCune into the dog world at a very young age. Maurer had participated in Conformation for over 40 years, raising Bloodhounds and exhibiting them in Conformation dog shows.
“I remember as a little kid, we’d go to Canada and compete. I went to Westminster,” says McCune. “[My mom] used to drag me to dog shows and it’s funny, because now I drag her to dog shows.”
Maurer and McCune are still very close: they co-own three dogs together, and even own a successful business together, which McCune describes as quite the leap of faith.
An Unexpected Business Venture
In 2003, when McCune was a senior in high school, her mother had the idea to create a dog training school and boarding kennel. McCune was set to attend Tufts University that fall but decided to postpone her admission.
“[My mom] miraculously decided she was going to become a business owner. She’s a brilliant dog trainer but she’s not the most organized human being on the planet,” McCune laughed. In a way, McCune and her mom are opposites: McCune says while she is a very Type-A, black-and-white kind of person, her mother is a “brilliant dreamer.” McCune shares, “I got stressed, so I postponed my admission. I decided, okay, I’ll help you, we’ll get the all paperwork done – and that was 20 years ago.”
American K9 Country (AK9C) in Amherst, New Hampshire, is celebrating its 20th anniversary in March of 2023. McCune is one of the owners, along with Maurer, who built the business from the ground up.
“My mom didn’t just buy a business – it was a cow field.” McCune says that the facility has grown into a community center in a sense; a family business that has expanded its family to anyone who walks through their doors. McCune is the General Manager, and can be found doing everything from cleaning kennels to hiring new staff, and she’s also teaching agility three days a week. AK9C started with five employees and has grown to nearly 50, which McCune says “wasn’t the plan.”
“The point was just to have a couple classes a week so we could pay our own mortgage. We are so grateful. The best part is getting to bring the dogs to work every day.”
Transferring Horse Sense to Dog Agility
While her mother focuses more on Obedience, McCune finds that her background in horse jumping has helped her Agility career. From the age of three, her first love was horses, and this knowledge—as well as her education in Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine—help her better understand her dogs in the sport.
“I think the horse world has made me who I am, and made me a really good dog trainer,” she says, citing important elements like physics, mindset, conformation, and assessing an animal’s physical capabilities. “Understanding how horses move on the line, how physics is involved I think is a huge thing. If they physically are incapable of making tight turns, [don’t] let them make a tight turn. I have to be okay with that, because if I force his body to do something unnatural, he’s going to get injured. Handlers need to understand their dog’s physical capability, their conformation and what’s comfortable for their dog.”
Even though she loves the sport, McCune recognizes that some runs are just a matter of luck. “Even with perfect footing, things happen. Our dogs aren’t machines. We all need to be more appreciative that we have these amazing four-legged teammates.”
Agility Runs in the Family
Not only do McCune and Maurer work together, but McCune’s Border Collies are a family, too. Her first dog, Notch, is the one who started it all, and his good genes run in the family. Notch is now 14 years old, and has a roster of impressive titles, including MACH, OTCH, GCH, and of course PNAC. “He’s pretty much won everything; he’s the most amazing dog.”
She is competing this year at NAC with five dogs, four of whom are Border Collies, and they’re all related to Notch. There’s Kaboom, Notch’s son, a two-time NAC winner running for a third win this year in Ocala. Typo and Howie are also Notch’s sons, and Shelby Cobra is Notch’s granddaughter. McCune is also running her friend’s Flat-Coated Retriever, Granite. The first dog she ever competed in agility with was her Border Collie, Quick – who just happens to be Notch’s uncle.
All of McCune’s dogs love Agility, and she loves the ability to train with them at AK9C while she’s working. For her, the hardest part is keeping her own physical fitness at competition level, but the discipline she keeps is all worth it when she sees her dogs’ excitement.
“They all go to the start line so excited for their thirty seconds that we get to do something together, and they get to try their heart out, and that’s the reason I do it. As soon as they don’t enjoy the sport anymore, we won’t do it.”
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