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Mark Baer

When you think of dogs that were bred to live amongst royalty, it might be hard to picture them sprinting across a football-length field. But that’s what Judy May has come to expect from her 10-year-old Pekingese, “Leila” (Leila Lu), despite being small in stature and having one eye. This past December, Leila placed first in her breed class, with a speed of 11.23 mph in the 2023 AKC Fast CAT Invitational. Her impressive ranking earned her an invitation to compete in the fourth annual AKC Fastest Dogs USA, on February 23rd in Glendale, Arizona.

“My goal is for her to run down the middle and come to me,” May says. “I don’t care if she goes fast or if she walks.” May considers it an honor to have received an invite. “In my wildest dreams, I never thought I could do something like that,” she says. “Well, I’m not doing it, Leila is.”

Thriving Despite a Difficult Early Life

Leila’s first owner bought her as a puppy at 3 months old. Another dog attacked her and injured her left eye. “The vet said that the eye had to come out,” May says. “The owner didn’t want her anymore and [said] to put her to sleep or find her a home.”

May’s friend offered to take Leila, but it wasn’t an ideal living situation. With grandkids running around, it was too much stress for Leila adapting to having one eye. That’s when May decided to give Leila a forever home. “I have a nice quiet life, so it worked out,” she says.

According to May, it’s rare to see a Pekingese in her hometown of Clinton, Iowa, where she lives with Leila and a Toy Fox Terrier named “Joey,” who is the same age as Leila. Over the years, May has taught obedience and agility to many dogs, but Leila is the first Pekingese she’s ever trained.

“When Leila came into my life, I had four dogs,” she says. “The last thing I needed was another dog, but I was blessed to have her become a part of my life. I enjoy every day.”

Getting Started in Fast CAT

May’s first experience with Fast CAT was at the Clinton Iowa Kennel Club Dog Show in 2018. Fast CAT is a timed event where dogs run a 100-yard dash while chasing a lure held by their owner. Both purebred and mixed breed dogs are welcome to participate in Fast CAT. “It was kind of a fluke,” May says. “I had never even heard of Fast CAT.”

It seemed like the perfect sport for “Tommy,” May’s Italian Greyhound. “Tommy was made for that, so I took him and Joey,” she says. “Joey loved it, and Tommy was scared, it was too much commotion for him.”

At first, May was apprehensive about Leila joining the sport. A few years prior, Leila had scratched her remaining eye on a bush, leaving her with only 40% working vision in her right eye. But, as usual, Leila surprised her and made it across the 100-yard dash.

“A football field is a long way for a Pekingese to run, but she did it and her rank was good,” May says. “I think Leila likes Fast CAT because it’s something she’s doing with me. She does not stress and seems to handle most of life pretty good.”

Showing What She Can Do

At the 2021 AKC Fast CAT Invitational, Leila won the Turtle Award, which recognizes the slowest dog with the biggest heart. The following year, both Leila and Joey competed in the AKC Fast CAST invitational where Leila placed second for her breed.

Her most recent win was the 2023 AKC Fast CAT Invitational in Orlando, Florida. “She got first place because she was over 11 miles an hour in every run,” May says. She had some of her best runs and managed to stay close to the middle for the entire run.

May was delighted to see people cheering for Leila at the finish line. “To think that they paid attention and even cared that my dog made it,” she says. “It was awesome. They just think it’s amazing that she’s missing an eye, but she’s still plugging away.”

Leila only competes during colder months and stays in shape with healthy meals and daily walks. Her favorite food is chicken, which she gets as a treat for taking her eyedrops. “Leila stays at a healthy weight of 11 to 12 pounds,” she says. “She’s very muscular, and the doctor said that she has an athletic heart.”

Her Vision Doesn’t Slow Her Down

Leila doesn’t let having one eye affect her daily life. “She’s a trooper,” May says. Where someone might notice a difference during Fast CAT is when Leila veers close to the fence while racing. One strategy that’s helped her performance is being carried to the start line rather than being walked in by the person who releases her.

“Leila didn’t know where I was until the person picked her up to get ready to release her,” May says. “When you’re on the ground, and you’re only 10 inches tall, it’s hard to see that far. Whereas if you’re up five and a half feet, you can see down that aisle much better and that made all the difference in the world to have them carry her in.”

Another strategy that’s worked for Leila is when May wears a bright yellow sweatshirt and black pants. “That seems to help her visualize where I’m at,” she says. “Leila comes more into the middle of the runway.”

She’s a Natural as a Therapy Dog

When Leila isn’t reaching top speeds in Fast CAT, she loves working as a therapy dog. And although Joey isn’t as comfortable around people as Leila, he has his own talents. “I have him as a service dog,” May says. “He alerts me when my blood sugar drops. I’ve learned to read his signals, and then I reward him for doing it, so now we have a system between us.”

Several of May’s dogs have been therapy dogs, and Leila took to it right away. She’s a registered therapy dog with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. She often visits seniors who love to hold her and talk to her. “She’ll sleep on their lap as they’re petting her,” May says. May also takes Leila to the library where kids enjoy reading to her.

Leila also knows how to have fun. Her favorite toys are balls that squeak. “She throws them up in the air and bounces them off of her nose,” May says. “It’s just so cute to watch her do that, especially a 10-year-old dog. She seems to be getting more and more loving in her senior age. It’s like she never meets a stranger.”