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Debbie Petersen

You can probably recognize breeds like Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and Shetland Sheepdogs even when they’re zooming through agility courses. But the dogs taking part in December’s 2023 AKC Agility Invitational during the AKC National Championship week in Orlando, Florida, include the top five dogs from each breed. You’ll even see rarer breeds like ‘Q,’ the Plott Hound, step into the ring — but don’t miss her, because she’s the only one of her breed competing on this national agility stage.

It’s definitely common to see members of the Hound Group excelling in activities that focus on their fine-tuned scenting abilities. Q might not get around the course as quickly as some of the top competitors, but she clearly loves taking part in agility, along with a host of other dog sports. This is, in large part, down to her strong partnership with her owner, Debbie Petersen.

It All Started With An Agility-Loving Afghan

Petersen lives and breathes dogs. The semi-retired dog groomer from Portland, Oregon, has been involved in breeding and judging conformation for around 40 years. About 20 years ago, one of her Afghan Hounds, “Zephyr,” was injured, and needed to do physical therapy to build the muscles in his leg back up.

“Part of his rehabilitation was doing Cavaletti [trotting poles] and exercises into a tunnel to squat down,” Petersen says. Zephyr enjoyed it so much that, despite Afghan Hounds not being high on the list of agility competitors, she decided to give it a whirl with him. He went on to get a Masters Agility title, and Petersen was hooked.

Pivoting to Plott Hounds

Petersen’s involvement in Conformation judging is what led to her partnership with Q. During a Coonhound bench show, she met a lovely Plott Hound who sparked her interest in the breed. “She was balanced and just as steady as a rock, and I gave her a rather high award,” Petersen says. After she gave the same dog a group placement at another show, the breeder unexpectedly reached out to ask if she would evaluate a litter of puppies out of that bitch.

The breeder brought the puppies to an agility trial Petersen was attending in Vancouver that weekend. “Six Plott Hound puppies on leashes trotting along inside the agility building caused quite a stir,” she says. A small puppy at the back of the litter caught Petersen’s eye. When she commented on how lovely the dog was, the breeder suggested she take her home. The breeder was curious how one of his dogs would do in an environment other than hunting. And, despite it not being part of the plan, Q came home that day around seven years ago to join the six Afghans she already had.

Training a Scent-Driven Dog to Run Agility

Petersen is part of a close-knit agility community in the Pacific Northwest, and she says many of her friends probably thought she was a little nuts introducing Q to the sport. “Scenthounds are very difficult to run in agility,” she says. “If they find there’s something that needs to be explored or there’s been a varmint in the barn, you’re done.”

It was a challenge at first. Sometimes Petersen would have to stop working the Plott Hound and just audit classes because something had been in the barn, and Q’s brain wouldn’t let go. “She’s matured into a lovely agility dog. Now I can tell her to leave it, and she’ll come back and work,” she says.

Petersen is looking forward to the AKC Agility Invitational, but has no expectations other than hoping for a clear run. For her, it’s about having fun rather than winning titles for the pair. “Just the fact that she runs with joy and she’s my partner and is there for me, that’s all I care about,” she says. “And if she didn’t like it, she wouldn’t go.”

Petersen also enjoys the camaraderie and support amongst her competing agility friends. One of her proudest moments was a few months back. “I had kind of wrecked my back, and I couldn’t run agility for a little while,” she says. “My friend Stephanie Whitchurch took Q into the ring, and she ran beautifully for her.” Petersen feels it’s a tribute to her community that the dogs are comfortable working for other handlers.

Taking Q’s Speed to Other Dog Sports

Petersen and Q spend all their time together, focused not only on training, but also just being together. “I only work one day a week now, which is mine and Q’s down day,” she says. Most weeks, they train Tuesday through Thursday and travel to trials over the weekend.

When the pair aren’t at agility training or trials, they aren’t idle. Q’s favorite activity is Fast CAT (Coursing Ability Test), and Petersen says she’s a speedy little devil. She also does Barn Hunt, Obedience and Rally and has her Intermediate Trick Dog and Canine Good Citizen titles.

One of Petersen’s favorite things to do with Q is to visit pediatric hospital wards. Q dresses in costumes and does little tricks. “She absolutely adores the children, and I didn’t expect that from the breed,” she says. Plott Hounds are known for being affectionate with family and good with other dogs, but are usually neutral with young children.

Peterson’s Other Agility Prospects

Petersen’s canine partnerships don’t stop with Q. She co-owns a Dutch Shepherd, “Zacira,” with her friend Linda Hodges. Next month, Zacira will be two years old, and will soon be ready to get serious about competitive agility.

And, as if taking on the challenge of training a Plott Hound in the sport wasn’t big enough, Petersen is now bringing on her four-year-old Basenji, “Dustin,” to do agility. The typically aloof and independent breed isn’t known for its agility prowess, and Petersen admits Dustin, while adorable and really fun, is a much harder dog to train.

His great joy in life is Fast CAT, and they have concentrated on that up to this point. If Dustin makes it to the same levels of competitive agility as Q, these rare breeds are sure to garner lots of interest from fellow competitors and spectators alike.

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!