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Watch as 27-year-old Daniela Flores communicates with her deaf dog by waving her hands and giving signals. Holly, an Australian Shepherd, is completely deaf and blind in one eye.

Trust— this one word perfectly describes Daniela Flores and Holly, a 9-year-old Australian Shepherd, when they enter the Rally ring. Holly isn’t like most Australian Shepherds. She was born completely deaf and blind in one eye. Despite these challenges, the dog has a long list of accomplishments.

How Rally Helps With Communication

Holly and her owner, 27-year-old Flores, have a special relationship because of Holly’s abilities. By participating in Rally, they’ve learned to communicate in a distinct way. In this line of communication, Flores and Holly transfer social cues through facial expressions and hand movements. While this may seem intimidating, Flores trusts that Holly relies on her.

“She really trusts me to take her where she needs to go. To communicate effectively, I wave my hands to tell her whatever I want her to do. She trusts that whatever she needs to do is right because I’m telling her,” Flores says.

Holly recently placed 10th in the 2019 AKC Rally National Championship — but in 2018 she placed 3rd in the Championship class and 4th in the Excellent class in 2017.

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Inside the Ring

Watching the pair in the ring is inspiring, but for Holly and Flores, it comes with challenges that involve teamwork between the dog and handler.

“I trained her to watch my face,” Flores says. “If I’m smiling and happy, then she knows she is doing a good job, what I want. But if I look serious or angry, she wonders what she did wrong or how she can fix it.”

In AKC Rally, although each performance is timed, having a good race time is not the goal. The goal is to work together while your dog is performing under control. “I’m a competitive person and I get very focused,” Flores says. “When I walk in the ring I have to be careful because if she starts to think she is doing something wrong then she isn’t going to perform well.”

A Lifetime of Trust and Teamwork

Growing up, Flores cared for dogs and participated in 4-H. During the holidays of her senior year, she saw a posting for two Australian Shepherds online. “She was three months old when I saw the posting online. I convinced my mom that one of the puppies needed us. I figured since they were specially-abled, no one would want them. Our holiday activities were postponed and we drove an hour on Christmas day to pick her up and rescue her. That’s how we got her name Holly,” says Flores.

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Since she first picked up Holly, their relationship has been inseparable.

Flores has trained Holly to watch her face because she is unable to make noises to get her attention. Often times, onlookers are in disbelief when they meet the team for the first time. “A lot of times people will ask me if I’m sure she’s deaf. There is a lot of disbelief. People will ask: ‘Are you sure she is deaf because she seems to be listening very well?’ I talk to her in the ring a lot,” Flores says.

Though the pair has been successful in Rally, Holly also has titles in Obedience, Dock Diving, Trick Dog, Canine Good Citizen, and Therapy Work. For this year’s Rally event, the duo prepared by doing multi-trial weekends. Out of the two-day competition this year, she won High Combined and high Triple Qualifier awards for both days. She scored a total of 597 out of 600 points finishing her Rally Master Title (RM).

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Outside the Ring

Although the duo’s partnership has been dedicated to hard work inside the ring, it has inspired Flores outside of the ring. Recently, she graduated with her Master’s Degree pursuing a career in genetics because of Holly. In addition, she was just named the Veterinary Genetics Specialist at Paw Print Genetics, a company dedicated to researching genetic testing for dogs.

Flores says she has always been interested in biology, but after working with Holly, it has taken her passion to other areas of her life.

“Holly is my heart dog,” says Flores. “She knows my soul inside and out. She is perfect in every way but working with her is like having a third leg. She is always there when I look down at her and she looks back up at me smiling.”

Want to Try AKC Rally?

If Holly and Flores have inspired you, there are many ways to try out Rally with your own dog. AKC Rally is open to all AKC-recognized breeds and Foundation Stock Service breeds, dogs with an AKC PAL (Purebred Alternative Listing) as well as mixed breeds that have an AKC Canine Partners number.

So as long as your dog has an AKC number, he can compete when you feel you’re both ready. In addition, AKC Rally is open to people of all ages so you can get the whole family involved if you wish. A dog who is deaf can compete in any Rally trial.

Editor’s Note: The AKC does not encourage Merle-to-Merle breeding as it has been known to cause health issues.

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