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Belgian Tervuren running Flyball
Altitude Dog Photos, LLC - Dana Nichols

When Emily Johnson first got involved in dog sports, she knew she needed a dog that would keep up with her after initially working with an Australian Cattle Dog and an adamant Maltese. Eventually, she settled on a Belgian Tervuren named Helo, now 5 years old.

“I wanted something with a little bit more drive. He’s actually my Novice A dog,” Johnson says. “All of the sports that we do, it’s brand new to him, and it’s brand new to me.”

But two years ago, he hit what Johnson refers to as a brick wall and literally fell over while waiting to come inside. Realizing he was having a seizure, Johnson immediately took him to the vet. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find anything that would be causing them.

The seizures kept popping up, and after rounds of blood work, MRIs, and other tests, Helo was finally diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy, where the vets and neurologists are still unable to pinpoint what would cause the reaction.

“My first thoughts were, ‘Oh no, I got this dog for sports, and is he not going to be able to do his sports now?’” Johnson says. “And so I worked with his breeder, I worked with neurologists, I worked with my vets and the combination of everybody working together has kept us going.”

However, they prevailed as a team.

Today, Helo competes in seven different dog sports and has titles in all of them. His favorite, though, is Flyball, and he and Johnson compete as part of the Omaha Speed Racers and recently competed in the Flyball CanAm Classic in early October at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Beligan Tervuren catching a frisbee
Photos by Courtanie

Managing His Symptoms

Despite finding a cocktail of drugs to manage his symptoms, the possibility of a seizure is always on the horizon. Luckily, the duo has endless support on their end, starting with Helo’s breeder.

“They’ve done everything right by encouraging me to be as transparent and open as possible,” Johnson says. “I can’t ask for better since you can’t genetically test for this. To the best of their knowledge, they didn’t think this could ever happen.”

When Helo first went on medication the side effects derailed some of his training. He experienced temporary rear-end weakness and was a bit clumsy, which is not ideal for hopping over hurdles. Instead, they continued to practice recall on flat ground. But after a couple of months with no side effects, they began incorporating props again.

From there, everything seemed to be on track. Though he is trying out some new medication after CanAm in hopes of reducing the number of seizures he has.

However, Johnson believes that any dog with a disability can still happily be involved in dog sports, so long as the dog still wants to compete

“But I think the most important thing is to just be yourself and be able to take a look at your dog,” she says. “Just be completely honest in your assessment and ask, ‘does my dogs still want to do this?’”

Omaha Speed Racers preparing to run Flyball
Altitude Dog Photos, LLC - Dana Nichols

Keeping With Sports

Helo first started Flyball when he was 16 weeks old and took to it instantly. Training for the sport began with both private classes and group puppy classes to ensure that he had a good recall around other dogs. Now, he is just in maintenance mode, practicing his box turn and passes with the entire team about once a week.

He also competes in Agility, Obedience, AKC Rally, Barn Hunt, Fast CAT, and Disc Dog.

The Omaha Speed Racers placed fourth in the Multibreed at the Classic, which was the team’s first time making it that far in the competition and their third time competing. “That was our first time making it to the finals like that,” Johnson says. “So, to do it on a big stage, no less, was extra exciting.”

Helo stunned Johnson with his best run times during the Flyball CanAm Classic, running the course in under 3.7 seconds. Before that Johnson has never seen him run under 3.8 seconds.

“It’s fun to have that group of people that you just know so well, and you can trust,” Johnson says. “Even though we know these dogs haven’t earned together before we can work together and make good decisions.”

Her advice for anyone who wants to try Flyball is to “just do it.” In fact, she regrets not starting sooner. But she does advise finding a team you get along with—because you will be spending a lot of time with them throughout training and on the road for competitions. But with the Omaha Speed Racers, they vibe well together, which keeps things enjoyable.

She has the same mentality with Helo.

“My philosophy with him has always been, if he enjoys it, we’ll keep doing it,” Johnson says. “And fortunately—and unfortunately—he really enjoys it all. I think it’s fun, my wallet not so much.”

The Canine Flyball CanAm Classic is coming to your TVs! The nation’s largest Flyball event was held on October 22 in Indianapolis, IN, and premieres on ESPN2 on Sunday, November 5th, at 3pm ET. Don’t miss these speedy dogs in action! 

Related article: Flyball Team Began Training in a Horse Barn, Now Competes on National Level
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