Melinda was about to step into the ring at her first-ever Agility trial on a September day when two-year-old Silver Miniature Poodle Tate alerted for an oncoming aura migraine that would cause Melinda to lose vision temporarily.
Agility trials are nerve-wracking, high-stress environments. It takes hours and hours of training to prepare for a trial where dog sports enthusiasts gather with their dogs in a watchful crowd. Agility, in particular, is fast-paced.
Melinda was already nervous to begin with. So when Tate started alerting on the steps leading to the ring, Melinda thought, Oh no.
They ran anyway and completed the course. But Melinda had to sit down quickly following the run.
Oh my gosh, I’m so proud of this little two-year-old dog. Melinda thought, proud that her ready-to-run dog took a moment to turn around and tell her she was in trouble. That’s alerting in such a high-stress environment.
Bringing Home a Service Dog
A motorcycle accident on Melinda’s way home from her law enforcement work left her with medical and neurological symptoms. Melinda has limited left arm mobility from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome that affects her left arm from her elbow to her fingertips.
Melinda knew she needed a service dog capable of doing both mobility work and psychiatric work. As a mother of two young children, Melinda wanted a smaller dog she could pick up in emergencies and easily haul around.
Miniature poodles are known for elegance and athletics, and though they may not be the most obvious choice for service dogs like Golden Retrievers, their innate intelligence and eagerness to please makes them wonderful service dogs. Poodles are versatile, emotionally attuned, and able to alert, carry, and retrieve items. Luckily for Melinda, a reputable breeder right down the road from her found the perfect Miniature Poodle for her: Tate.
Tate is able to do the mobility and psychiatric work Melinda requires.
Tate can fetch items Melinda needs, like when he retrieves a remote used to control a spinal cord simulator permanently implanted in Melinda’s back. Tate’s trained to sniff out the electronic when it’s buried somewhere unseen.
Tate can even warn Melinda of oncoming symptoms. Melinda had just begun feeling dizzy when one-year-old Tate alerted while training with her in Home Depot. She followed Tate’s alert and sat down immediately on the concrete floor of Home Depot. Shortly after, she lost her complete vision, but not consciousness, and panicked.
Tate started doing light pressure therapy, a technique where service dogs apply weight to soothe people in the middle of sensory overloads or panic and anxiety attacks.
“For a dog to just sit there, to alert and then just sit calmly, waiting for you to regain yourself,” she said. “It was like amazing for a one-year-old dog to be able to follow through with that.”
Tate can even wake Melinda from nightmares. The touch of his wet nose to her face or hand to snap her back to the here and now. The constant, repetitive pawing. The five scratches that alert for her heart rate or neurological symptoms — a standby for when Tate doesn’t have his bringsel.
Tate often alerts with a bringsel, a stuffed stick, or tab dogs hold in their mouth to do a clear medical alert. Dogs only hold bringsels in their mouths when they’re alerting, which makes the medical alert stand out while allowing them to alert from a distance.
To others, Tate might just look like a regular, excited dog. But Melinda knows what each of his alerts means.
Getting Started in Dog Sports
Through their training, Melinda noticed Tate had a high energy level. Since Tate was already AKC-registered and had completed his service dog training program, people started recommending that they complete Canine Good Citizen.
When Melinda started looking for sports to get involved with, they discovered FAST CAT.
“I instantly fell so in love with the whole sport world of AKC. That’s where it all began,” she said.
Bonding with her Service Dog through Dog Sports
Participating in AKC dog sports has deepened the bond between Melinda and Tate. Melinda realized when they started doing Agility that they had to work as one, and that’s translated from the ring to real life.
Tate always looks to Melinda for the next move — inside and outside the ring. He’s ready to help her, and he trusts her.
“AKC is definitely like a bonding experience. Nothing can beat that feeling whenever you still running as a team in the ring,” she said.
In AKC dog sports like Rally and Agility, dogs are required to heel on their handler’s left side. But since Melinda has limited mobility on her left side, she asked AKC for disability accommodation — which was immediately granted the next day.
Now, Melinda can comfortably participate in the dog sports she loves.
Tate the AKC Athlete
At only two years old, Tate has a dozen titles to his name. These include:
• AKC STAR Puppy
• Community Canine
• Urban Canine Good Citizen
• Trick Dog Novice, Intermediate, Advanced
• FAST CAT: BCAT
• Rally Novice
Tate even tried Dock Diving, though it wasn’t his favorite. “I had to try everything,” Melinda said. “I’m so competitive. I see something that looks fun and I’m like, Oh, I want to try that.”
When Melinda’s local club was shut down due to COVID, she started doing Virtual Rally and gaining titles at home. Virtual events have helped her accomplish some of her goals.
“I think the outside world doesn’t see all the training that goes into it, on a daily basis, whenever you’re taking time out of your schedule every day to go and work your dog, because you want to go compete at the highest level,” she said.
You can do Dog Sports too
Melinda’s advice to anyone interested in joining dog sports is to find other like-minded amateurs and find a club. Local trainers, clubs, and mentors can help introduce you and your dogs to these activities.
Melinda had been nervous to ask for an accommodation, but has never been looked down on for having accommodation.
“For disabled handlers that want to get in the sport world, don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Melinda.
Join Melinda and Tate
Think your dog has what it takes to be Dog Athlete of the Month? Use the hashtag #ThisisAKC on Instagram.