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Dawn Boyce

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Fifteen-year-old Delia DiPonio of Dorado, Puerto Rico, started small when it came to dog sports. She got her start in agility training at home with just a small obstacle kit she purchased on the internet. But now, DiPonio and her dogs travel across the United States training and competing in dog sports including Agility, AKC Trick Dog, AKC Rally, and Herding.

From Dog Lover to Training Dog Athletes

Even before DiPonio got involved in dog sports, dogs were an important part of her life. “Growing up, I’ve always been connected to animals. My first childhood dog was ‘Oliver,’ a Golden Retriever. Wherever he was, you could find me,” she remembers. Now, DiPonio has two dogs of her own to train: “Biscotti,” a 1-year-old Miniature Poodle, and “Pearl,” a 5-year-old Havanese. DiPonio and Pearl got their first taste of dog sports in Trick Dog, unaware at the time of how much this choice would impact their lives and futures. “There was a whole new world outside of [having a] pet,” she says.

One difficulty that DiPonio soon faced when trying to get more involved was access. Because of where she lived, there weren’t many events around her, but that didn’t discourage her. She got an agility kit, and began practicing with her dogs in her backyard whenever she could. “Being in Puerto Rico, I had limited resources that would allow me to pursue my goals,” DiPonio says. “I trained at home and did whatever I could.”

Once she and her family found a place to take classes, she faced another hurdle: DiPonio didn’t know anyone, and felt a little insecure. She didn’t know what to expect, and didn’t feel like she fit in right away. “Seeing all of the common agility breeds, such as Border Collies, and being the only Junior I saw really discouraged me.” Thankfully, DiPonio stuck with training and was able to build relationships with trainers. These connections, though not instant, are what made her feel really at home in the dog world.

Discovering the Thrill of Agility

Leah Bray

To pursue her dog sports dreams, DiPonio and her family have traveled all over: from Wisconsin to Florida and Michigan, to get more involved with dog training. Through her travels, DiPonio met great instructors including Sheyla Gutierrez, who is also from Puerto Rico. DiPonio credits Gutierrez with connecting her to Puerto Rico Agility Team (PRAT). She now trains multiple times a week with her current trainer, Rafael Quiñones. “It was not a smooth ride embarking on this journey, but I’m sure glad I initiated it,” DiPonio says.

DiPonio and her dogs are involved with Agility, AKC Trick Dog, AKC Rally, Obedience, and Herding. Of all the sports she’s involved with, Agility has quickly become her favorite. “The adrenaline while running agility is unmatched,” DiPonio says. She’s found that she especially loves the deep, unique relationships she forms with her dogs through training in Agility and says that her enthusiasm is shared by her dogs.

“Biscotti is a driven, fun little dog who’s been loving the agility world,” says DiPonio. The pair recently traveled to attend the Boundless Junior Agility Camp, which brings Junior Handlers from across the U.S. and the world together to improve handling skills and help Junior Handlers compete more, both nationally and internationally.

Learning Through Her Unique Journey

Training any dog can be as challenging as it is rewarding, especially when you’re first getting involved in a sport. “We would have our ups and downs in training,” DiPonio says of her dogs. Through mentorship and support from trainers, DiPonio says she has learned important lessons. “Dog sports are meant to be about having fun and learning with your four-legged companion,” she says.

Delia DiPonio

Working through training challenges and building a stronger relationship with her dogs has resulted in success that DiPonio is grateful for. “Biscotti and I have really grown into a team that the younger me would be so proud of,” she explains. For Junior Handlers looking to get involved in any dog sports, DiPonio says her experience should encourage you to chase after your dream. Although it wasn’t as easy for her to get involved as she might have liked, continuing to make the effort to participate has made it all worth it. “[It’s important to] maintain a welcoming and inclusive dog sport community,” DiPonio says, citing that good sportsmanship and treating others with respect is the best support one can get in the sport.

Finding Success in Trying New Things

In addition to the other sports she competes in, DiPonio has recently gotten involved with Herding trials. This summer, DiPonio had the opportunity to travel to Carnesville, Georgia, to work with stock dog trainer Dawn Boyce of Lazy~J Farm. “I was welcomed instantly with muddy paws, the 12 loud Border Collies, and open arms,” DiPonio remembers. “I learned how to take proper care of livestock animals, such as sheep, ducks, horses, goats, livestock guardian dogs, and chickens,” she says of her time in Georgia. While there, not only did DiPonio gain an understanding of how to care for livestock, but her love and passion for them grew as well, through the hands-on opportunities she had living and working with livestock, and livestock dogs.

Herding is a unique sport where dog and handler are working collaboratively to maneuver livestock. While working with the stock dogs, DiPonio had the opportunity to compete in her first sheepdog trial. In her first novice sheepdog trial, DiPonio placed third with her matched dog, “Ray Ray.”

Delia DiPonio

“[It’s] a game of creating a confident dog that knows how to move livestock in an intelligent manner,” DiPonio says, and Ray Ray proves his confidence every time. “We both quickly connected with each other.” Together, DiPonio and Ray Ray placed third at DiPonio’s first competition. “To meet so many new faces and be able to get out of my comfort zone, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Though this may have been her first sheepdog win, there’s no doubt that this is just the beginning of DiPonio’s successful multi-dog sports career.