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Nikki (Cirneco dell'Etna) handled by Kathy Ingram; AKC Agility Invitational presented by YuMove, December 16-18, 2022, Orlando, FL.

80-year-old Judy Aycock has loved dogs all her life. Until recently, she always owned Labrador Retrievers, one of the most popular dog breeds in the US. That all changed when, by chance, she met a rare little hunting breed originating from Sicily, Italy.

In advance of the 2023 AKC Agility Invitational, Aycock explains how “Nikki,” her Cirneco dell’Etna, ended up in the competition lineup, as Sighthounds aren’t the norm in the sport of agility. Nikki isn’t the only rare breed Aycock has running in the competition, either. The 18th AKC Agility Invitational takes place on Dec. 16 and 17 in Orlando, FL. as part of the AKC National Championship Week.

The Appeal of a Rare but Hardy Primitive Breed

Six years ago, Aycock went to watch a lure coursing event. While there, a little brown dog, who was a wonderful courser, caught her eye. Aycock talked to the dog’s owner and discovered she was a Cirneco dell’Etna, a pointy-eared, sweet-natured Sighthound that resembled a small Pharaoh Hound. The owner explained she previously owned a large dog that had experienced health problems, and she decided she wanted a small, hardy breed with no significant hereditary health concerns. The ancient Cirneco, a descendant of the primitive dogs of the Mediterranean, fit the bill perfectly.

Aycock fell in love with the Cirneco. After spending decades training Labrador Retrievers in fieldwork, she thought that working with this rare hunting dog would offer a fresh challenge. After some further research, Aycock purchased Nikki from Nancy Wight, a breeder in Idaho.

The Cirneco dell’Etna Isn’t Known for Its Agility Accomplishments

Before Nikki, Aycock hadn’t tried agility with her dogs. She was competing with her Whippet in a past AKC National Championship, and the venue was hosting the Agility Invitational at the same time. After watching the competitors, it inspired Aycock to try the sport with Nikki. Though she hadn’t ever seen Cirnechi compete in agility, she felt that Nikki would be the perfect fit. “Physically, the Cirneco dell’Etna is ideally suited for agility,” she says. “They are very agile, athletic, and quick.”

These dogs have been bred to chase down rabbits, hares, and game birds, but Aycock believed those physical attributes didn’t necessarily translate to her dog becoming a top agility competitor. “I know sighthounds are not voted top for their trainability, and that’s certainly true of Nikki,” she says. “She’s a very typical sighthound. She has her own agenda and doesn’t care too much about what you want.”

It was a steep learning curve for Aycock, especially after working with eager-to-please Labrador Retrievers for so long. But she says part of the fun was learning how to motivate an independent, prey-driven hound that isn’t always so responsive to its handler.

cirneco dell'etna Nikki
Juliet Clendenon

Cheering Her Dogs From the Sidelines

Nikki isn’t the only breed Aycock has that takes part in Agility. She currently has four herding dogs—breeds that often excel in agility—and her Whippet. “Like a lot of people that get involved in this sport, you decide that a Border Collie is in your future,” Aycock says. She now has two young up-and-coming Border Collies, “PV” and “Buzz.”

Aycock also has two Pumis, Hungarian herding dogs that are rare in the US. She got her first Pumi, “Irwin,” specifically to participate in the sport, and he’ll also be running at the AKC Agility Invitational. Her second Pumi, “Catch,” is a rescue dog just starting his agility journey. “He had a lot of behavioral problems, so we had to work on those for a while [first],” she says.

While she still trains all her dogs, Aycock no longer runs them competitively herself. “I broke my hip, and I got a little slower and less able even to do what I call the ‘senior shuffle,'” she says. However, she’s grateful that her agility instructor, Kathy Ingram, has become a close friend. She volunteers to run Aycock’s dogs for her, so the dogs still get to compete, while being handled by someone they know and trust.

When they aren’t training, Nikki gets to come along on adventures around Aycock’s 400-acre farm in Texas. “I don’t run, but I ride a four-wheeler,” Aycock says. The dogs love the opportunity to hunt, explore, have fun and just be dogs.

The Appeal of Agility for All Ages

Aycock has no expectations for Nikki or Irwin at the Invitational, saying she is a realist and just appreciates that the dogs get an opportunity to have fun. She also enjoys seeing the other dogs compete, especially breeds not noted for their agility prowess. “Last year, I saw the most wonderful Saint Bernard,” she says. “This dog was fast and agile and very responsive to its owner.”

Seeing how much joy the sport brings people is a pleasure for Aycock. “You see so many people of all ages. Kids and older people, like me, are just out there having fun with their dogs,” she says.

Aycock has no plans to stop agility with Nikki or the rest of her dogs anytime soon. “I go to training twice a week, and I have all the equipment at home,” she says. Aycock says her two Border Collies look promising, and she continues to work with Nikki and her Pumis. “They’re not world beaters, but they enjoy the training, and so do I.”

The AKC National Championship, presented by Royal Canin, is the dog world’s biggest event of the year! Learn more about conformation and follow your favorite breeds at dog shows throughout the year. They might be competing for the coveted Best in Show title in December!