At 15 years old, Minnesotan Ella Lambert has already developed a strong passion for AKC sports. She and her dogs are active competitors in Tricks, Rally, Disc, Dock Diving, and her favorite, Agility, which she calls her “heart sport.” Lambert is also a Certified Trick Dog Instructor (CTDI) who helps junior handlers and adults get involved in Tricks as a sport with their dogs.
Lambert started training with her family dog in February 2018 and began competing in September 2019. She has two dogs—Zoey, her eight-year-old Labrador Retriever, and Zeke, her two-year-old Golden Retriever. What Lambert loves most about dog sports is the opportunity to build and deepen her relationship with her dogs. “Prior to training and competing, Zoey appreciated everyone in the family, but she definitely has a greater bond and newfound respect for me now, as do I,” Lambert says. “As a result of this, I was able to build up the training bond with Zeke starting from eight weeks old and now we are inseparable.”
Falling in Love With Agility
Lambert has done a variety of performance sports with her dogs, but she has completely fallen in love with Agility. “While we’ve tried many sports over the years, Agility is by far my favorite,” she says. “The partnership that forms between a person and dog throughout training to be competition-ready is unmatched.”
One of the most exciting parts of the sport, she says, is that as a handler you can have as much fun as your dog. “When my dogs are rushing through the tunnel or expertly placing their feet between the weaves, I’m right with them thinking of my next move. If my dog isn’t having fun, neither am I—luckily agility makes us both happy and excited!”
It’s the experience of running together in agility that brings Lambert back to the ring time and time again, regardless of whether they walk away with ribbons. “The feeling of crossing the final jump with the timers on either side and knowing you qualified is the best, but winning isn’t everything,” she says. “Qualifying or not, happiness is Zeke and Zoey.”
Becoming a Trick Dog Instructor
Lambert got her introduction to dog sports through Tricks. “Even though agility is my favorite dog sport, I will always give credit to Tricks for turning me into the handler I am today,” she says. The inspiration to get involved came from her best friend who had started competing in AKC sports after being involved with 4-H for years. “After my parents taught Zoey to shake as her first trick, I slowly gained interest and started on her repertoire of skills,” Lambert remembers. “It wasn’t until a year later in April of 2019 that I got her first Trick title, at the novice level. While it seems like such a small accomplishment now, that title is what sparked my decision to become a Certified Trick Dog Instructor (CTDI).” Being a CTDI has given Lambert the opportunity to help other kids, teens, and adults get involved in this highly flexible and accessible sport.
Earning Virtual Titles
Like so many other competitors, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Lambert and the activities she and her dogs were able to participate in. “The last trial I went to was March 1st of last year, which is absolutely crazy to me now since none of us saw the next year after that coming. As someone whose main focus was on dog sports, I was a bit panicked to see everything canceled because I didn’t know how I would keep Zeke and Zoey (and myself!) on track with our training.”
She says that AKC’s announcement of virtual title programs became “a light at the end of the tunnel” and she immediately got involved. “Zeke has struggled a lot with focus and had not really competed prior to the pandemic, so I immediately jumped on the Rally opportunity, and he got his RN (Rally Novice) in the summer. Not only did we keep our training up during heavy times, I got to learn about and teach my dogs a sport that I would never have gotten into without the virtual option.” Although she has been able to return to outdoor Disc and Agility competitions since late summer 2020, Lambert says that “these online options helped me and my dogs out a ton and I personally believe they changed the entire dog community as well!”
Sometimes the biggest successes with dog training aren’t the largest rosettes or the most prestigious shows—they are about the deep connections we have with our dogs. When looking back at proudest moments so far, Lambert notes that the moments that stand out for her are the way that she and her dogs have overcome obstacles. “In July 2020, my eldest dog earned her NJP (Novice Agility Jumper Preferred) title under judge Mike Teh. After overcoming my performance anxiety and a few NQs, we completed the necessary requirements, and I was absolutely thrilled. As my first dog and, a senior one at that, it meant so much to me that we were able to do it together!”
With her younger dog, Lambert’s proudest moment so far is overcoming his puppy struggles with focus and engagement to earn his Rally Novice title. As a junior handler, Lambert really enjoys surprising people with what she and her dogs can achieve. “Competing with animals is a lesser-known activity when it comes to teenagers and kids, so it’s really fun to show that we have the same abilities as all of the older, more experienced people.”
The pandemic significantly impacted Lambert’s training and competing over the past year and a half, and coincided with other challenges. “COVID put an immediate dead end to any progress I was making with Zeke and Zoey,” she says. “Around this time I also developed depression and my anxiety got a lot worse—showing was a huge part of me and handling my emotions and it was all gone once coronavirus came. The period from the start of the pandemic to the end of summer was one of the hardest I’d ever had to deal with.”
Although Lambert and her dog have been active in virtual competitions, and she’s enjoyed the experience, they also highlighted what she was missing. “Virtual titles absolutely helped but it’s not quite the same. I missed the buzz of the crating space, the cheers after a clean run, and the overall good group of people dog sports brought in my local area. But at the same time, COVID taught me what it really means to persevere through tough times. If we can get through a pandemic, we can get through any challenges!”
Perfect Doesn’t Matter
For kids and teens who don’t come from families already involved in dog shows, it can feel daunting and overwhelming, but Lambert encourages people of all ages to get involved. “I would encourage anyone who is thinking of joining dog sports to go for it, even if you’re past junior age,” she says. “You will not regret it at all—find a local club or some people near you and get to work learning and growing as a dog handler. Being a handler has changed my life and I know it could do the same to any wistful reader.”
She also recommends embracing the challenges. “The biggest piece of advice I’d give other kids and past me is that you will not always be the best, if ever,” she says. “I distinctly remember one of our first Agility trials when Zoey was super unfocused and had an accident halfway through her run. After cleaning it all up, I left immediately and cried the whole way home.” Anyone who has competed with their dogs will understand this feeling, but at the time Lambert felt alone and isolated in the experience. “I was so used to perfection that, when we made a mistake, I thought I had failed myself and my dog. The truth is that you will make mistakes, you will face failure, and you may never see yourself at a national competition with the biggest rosettes. But as long as you are happy and your dog is happy, you are a winner.”
Lambert has big plans for the future. She’s looking forward to finding a mentor and getting involved in Conformation and other dog sports. Lambert’s young dog Zeke turns three this fall, and she is making plans to begin competing with him in Agility. Outside of dogs, she’s also learning English-style horseback riding and starting her sophomore year of high school.
Getting Started in AKC Juniors
Teens and children under 18 have the chance to learn about good sportsmanship, dogs, and dog shows, and develop their handling skills with the AKC Juniors Program.
Juniors are eligible to compete in Showmanship, Obedience, Agility, Rally, Tracking, Hunt Tests, Herding, Field Trials, Earthdog, Lure Coursing, Coursing Ability, Coonhound Events, and more. There is no minimum age requirement for sports other than Showmanship (where you must be nine).
If your child is interested in becoming a junior, they should first watch a dog show and sign up for a class. Juniors under 18 years old can sign up for a Junior Handler number here. This number will let them both take classes and compete.
Junior participation in AKC sports will be recognized through the AKC Junior Recognition Program and at the end of the year, AKC will award the Junior Versatility Awards and Scholarships. You can go to this link to learn more about the AKC Junior Recognition Program.
For more information, email your questions to Juniors@akc.org.