As a child, Dresden Graff remembers being terrified. First, there was the fear that loomed over him in Baptist school: What if I’m gay? What will my parents think if they find out? Then, there was the scarier question: How would my parents handle me coming out as transgender?
Coming into his own identity as a teen was difficult, but Graff had one thing that was consistent: his dogs. “Through it all — high school, college, disability, and finding an identity I felt at home with — dog sports have been my constant.”
Thanks to the allies and support he found in the AKC community, today Dresden Graff is an out transgender man competing and training others in everything from Agility to Obedience.
As a dog trainer and competitor in Texas, Graff is passionate about making connections with dogs and their people to achieve personal success. He competes with Papillons, Labrador Retrievers, and All-American Dogs, and is committed to helping other LGBTQ+ people feel included and welcome in dog sports.
Jumping Into Agility
Graff first got involved in dog sports at the age of 11 after watching an agility competition on television.
“I was awestruck by the teamwork and athleticism of the dogs. After much debate, my mother agreed to let me get a dog as long as it was beautiful and could fit in a purse. We agreed on the Papillon as a candidate that would be excited to do everything I wanted to try, and beautiful enough to meet my mother’s needs,” Graff remembers.
His interest in agility continued and he explained that he was able to find a local agility group and start attending classes. “Many hours were spent in a cold pole barn with my PAL-enrolled Papillon as we both learned a lot about being brave. I eventually found the dog training club of Chester County where my dad agreed to let me become a member as a junior handler. I think I collected almost all my supervised driving hours going back and forth from the training center.”
Graff competed in agility for the first time in 2009 and hasn’t stopped since.
For Graff, the lessons he’s learned from his dogs and from dog training have influenced every aspect of his life. These lessons were especially helpful during his teen years as he was in the process of coming out.
“My dogs have all played a part in teaching me that confidence can be created, but you have to start where you are. Agility gave me something to really focus on through high school and college.”
That consistency was key, especially as a teenager coming into his own identities. “No matter what was going on that week, I always had some time carved out to keep chipping away at the skills we needed for that next title, or to shave a few more seconds off our agility runs. Quiet training time has always been a balm to my ailments.”
While Graff has found tremendous support from the AKC community, some LGBTQ+ people may have initial fears about trying something new. Graff recognized this fear and encourages LGBTQ+ folks to come out to try a class with their dogs and get involved, saying they may be pleasantly surprised to discover they aren’t alone.
“When I first came out publicly, I had so many local competitors message me privately about their own lives and journeys to be where they are now” Graff explained.
Finding the right training community that treats everyone with respect is essential. He advises LGBTQ+ dog owners interested in getting involved in sports to “find people who want to support you through your growth as a trainer, handler, and human being.”
Mentorship from supportive people is key. Graff experienced this firsthand when he was first getting started in agility.
“I really don’t think I’d be alive today if it weren’t for dog sports,” Graff said. “I was able to find a brilliant mentor, Denise, at the Dog Training Club of Chester County, who really took me under her wing and helped lay the foundation for being a patient, kind, and empathetic instructor. She would stay for an hour after class chatting with me on my latest training ideas and how to best implement them.”
Graff has continued to give back to dog sports as a celebrated professional trainer and canine sports coach of Agility, AKC Rally, and Obedience in Texas. Graff loves working with his human students as much as their dogs.
“I feel so privileged to be able to coach people of all walks of life in dog sports. Every single team brings something special into my life and pushes me to keep thinking, and learning, and drives me to be better. Much like dogs, some days are big lessons in patience and finding new ways to explain a solution, while other days are big celebrations on skills we’ve chipped away at for weeks — or months!”
Being Professionally Out
In addition to being an active competitor in Agility, Obedience, and AKC Rally with his own dogs, Graff is a full-time dog trainer who is passionate about helping his students succeed. Graff noted that he feels very fortunate that so many of his long-time students have stayed with him through his transition.
“It was nerve-wracking to dance that line of ‘it is really important to me to be addressed as a man’ and wanting to avoid invasive and extremely personal questions in my professional life. I still get a jolt of fear when a client who’s been taking lessons from me for a long time slips up on my pronouns.”
Eventually, though, Gaff “hit a point a few years ago where [he] felt that being louder about being out and showing others that being out, happy, and successful is something that is possible was important [for him] to do.”
As a trainer and competitor, Graff is committed to doing what he can to help pave the way for making dog shows and sports more welcoming for other LGBTQ+ people who are interested in getting involved with their dogs. “I was at a point in my life where I was really comfortable with who I was and who I had to be to get where I am,” Graff said.
In addition to finding great allies, friends, and supporters in the dog world, a pleasant surprise for Graff was how easy it was to get AKC documents updated to reflect his name change.
“As a transgender person, I am used to there being a whole ordeal whenever I go to get my information updated as I’ve gotten everything changed legally,” Graff said. “I usually have to give over way more information than I’d like to. Often it takes multiple attempts to actually get things changed, and it typically involves having to out myself. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and no-questions-asked it was to get my CGC evaluator and dog ownership information updated to reflect my correct name. It was really nice for that not to be a drawn-out explanation and ‘prove it’ process. It is sad how often it is a dehumanizing process just to get everything to match my legal documents.”
Proud Moments & Private Wins
Graff has had tremendous success with his dogs. Just this year he has competed at both the AKC National Agility Championship and the AKC Rally National Championship. His proudest moments, though, are more private wins.
“I have a few dogs that absolutely love competing on the ‘big stage’ and it is such a blast to be able to attend those big events and show them off! I am always proudest when something we have been working hard on in training comes together out on the trial floor.”
Graff is committed to always showing up for his dogs and making every show a fun and positive experience for them. As a teenager, he even hand-made a seesaw for a timid dog to help with seesaw anxiety.
One of his proudest moments came with his German Shepherd Dog mix, Hawke, at an Obedience trial.
“After a particularly lackluster on-lead performance, I took a deep breath, asked for a few tricks he liked on our transition to the off-lead pattern, and handled with confidence like we were back in our training facility at home. The room fell silent, and my steps faltered just a moment as I let my eyes dart down to where my dog was supposed to be. The room hadn’t gone quiet because he was still at the start, it had fallen silent because Hawke had opened up into his gorgeous prancing heel. Just that moment of trust when a dog with a bit of stage fright feels comfortable enough to really show off his skills is unforgettable.”
Becoming an Advocate
The experience Graff has had with training and competing with dogs has had a huge impact on his outlook on life.
“Through teaching my dogs I’ve learned so much about finding the good stuff to celebrate, no matter howdifficult the situation. When life starts to feel unmanageable, dog training has taught me to take those huge tasks and break them down into pieces that are easy to tackle.”
These lessons learned from dogs have served him well in every aspect of life, including issues related to his transition. “Getting a legal name and gender change can look so intimidating when you’re staring this huge packet [of paperwork] in the face. Sitting down and breaking that huge task into little pieces made it much easier, and is something that now just comes naturally from my 15+ years of training” Graff explained.
Graff chooses to be out and visible to his students and fellow competitors. For Graff, this is part of making dog sports more open and accepting to LGBTQ+ people.
“I’m trying my best to use that space of privilege I occupy now to make sure people are aware that they know a transgender person, and that the choices they make in their community have an impact on real people,” Graff explains.
Every LGBTQ+ person’s identity and experience is unique. Graff likes to remind people that although he is open to helping others learn more about LGBTQ+ people, the next person you meet at a dog show might not be, and that’s OK. “ I personally also try to make sure that if I am taking the time to educate someone on something personal, like my transition journey, I tell them that my experience isn’t universal and while I am open to sharing that information with them, others in my position might not be,” Graff says.
Education is the key to making the dog sport inclusive and welcoming for all. Additional information on some common questions can be found here.