Gabriella Casanova from Cicero, New York, is proof that you don’t need to come from a dog show family to be successful in dog sports. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the 18-year-old was scrolling on TikTok one day when she saw people and dogs competing in agility. As she started clicking through and watching more videos, she thought it looked really cool.
“At that point, it was super hard to get into classes because everything was shut down,” Casanova says about fining the sport during the pandemic. As a result, she got creative and started training her family dog at home, “Cleo,” her All-American Dog. “I registered her through Canine Partners, and I started trick training,” she says.
The two would later get involved with agility training, which helped Casanova find local mentors who introduced her to more aspects of the dog sports. Casanova currently competes with her Border Collie “Casey” Leapofaith’s True Blue DejaVu ACT2J FDCh-S FDX DM UADSJ UADSEJ UADMJ.
Building Community Through Social Media
Although social media was what got Casanova involved in dog sports, it wasn’t just her path in. It’s also become a way for her to connect and stay in touch with other Junior Handlers around the country. It started when Casanova and some of her Junior Handler friends, whom she met online, decided to play an agility-themed quiz game online. After they had fun playing trivia together, they started a group chat and became really close. “There are a good handful of us from the East Coast and a few in Central and few on the West Coast, but we all have one sport in common,” Casanova says, “and that’s agility.”
After months of chatting, the teens had the opportunity to meet in person for the first time at Boundless Jr Agility Camp in 2023. “It was just amazing. I had been talking to these people online, and now we’re in person bonding,” Casanova explains.
Casanova says that having the opportunity to attend the camp together was a great way to get to know other juniors, and also allowed her to sharpen her skills as a handler. “A lot of us were in the beginner novice group because we were just starting with our dogs, and it was just great being able to relate to issues we have but also success in the ring,” she says.
Overcoming Challenges with Support
Over-excitement is the biggest roadblock that Casanova and her dog have worked through with sports. Although this is a common novice dog issue, it can feel isolating. Casanova explained that being surrounded by other Junior Handlers at camp and seeing that this was something most of the other dog/handler teams struggled with helped her to realize that not everyone was perfect, which increased her confidence to keep training her own dog.
In their group chats, the Junior Handlers send videos from shows and practices. Some of the teens are competing internationally, while others, like Casanova, are competing in agility. Sharing techniques and training experiences is helping all the Juniors and their dogs to gain new skills and improve. These friendships have even grown beyond dog sports. “When we have personal issues and success, it’s not just limited to dogs, and I’ve made a great group of friends,” Casanova says.
The Myth of the ‘Perfect Dog’
Seeing the success that other Juniors are having can lead you to think you need the perfect sports dog to get started, but Casanova encourages Junior Handlers not to think that way. She started training in dog sports with her family’s pet dog during the COVID-19 pandemic, and her engagement in sports has grown from there. She notes that your beloved pet “may not be the perfect agility dog or dock diving or flyball dog, but there are a lot of entry-level sports to get your foot in the door.” Her first sports dog, Cleo, was reactive, which eventually led to her retirement from sports, but she says all the work she put into training with Cleo was so worth it. For Casanova, the training they did not only gave her an excellent introduction to dog sports, but training together was also a chance for Cleo to “show herself what she’s capable of,” which was helpful to their bond and working through her reactivity.
The Value of Mentorship
Casanova got involved with her family’s All-American Dog and benefited directly from the junior pilot program, which allowed Juniors to show dogs they don’t own or co-own. This program made it possible for Casanova to borrow dogs from mentors to show in Juniors and in the breed ring to gain experience. “It was such a privilege to be able to have that dog lent to me to guide me through my Juniors career,” Casanova explains. She says that being able to borrow a dog introduced her to a wide range of sports. “Without being able to show, I would never have learned about flyball and dock diving or any of the options,” she says. By being a Junior Handler, Casanova also could learn more about different breeds of dogs. “Once I got into junior showmanship, I started meeting new people and met so many different breeds that I wouldn’t have been able to find if I hadn’t done junior showmanship,” she says.
Social media once again had a way of helping Casanova realize her dreams. She connected with Casey, a dog looking for a new performance home, through a Facebook group. Casanova found a post by Casey’s breeder, Leap of Faith Border Collies, explaining how Casey had been returned as an adult. His first family rehomed him, without contacting his breeder, to a family unprepared to deal with the breed’s energy. That second family thankfully found his breeder’s contact information and sent Casey back. Casanova fell in love with Casey through that post, and her parents took her to Cincinnati, Ohio to meet him. “He was super under-socialized and very fearful of loud noises and people but especially men,” Casanova explains. “He and I just had an instant connection. We brought him home, and compared to now, from two years ago, you wouldn’t think he was the same dog.”
Overcoming Hurdles to Continue in Dog Sports
Casey and Casanova have since gotten involved in multiple sports, but unfortunately, he recently had surgery to remove two masses from his chest. Thankfully, it came back as benign, and the two are getting back to the activities they love.
Casanova expressed gratitude to Casey’s breeder and all her other mentors for supporting her. She says she has a special appreciation for the sacrifices her parents have made to support her dog sport dreams. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without them,” she says. Before getting Casey, Casanova’s parents were a little hesitant about adding another dog to the family. Still, they saw how dedicated she’d been in agility training with Cleo and with her borrowed junior dog. Eventually, Casanova’s mom convinced her dad that Casanova needed a sports dog of her own if she was going to keep growing as a competitor. Not only did they allow her to bring home Casey, but they’ve also supported her training and competitive goals, including driving to Nashville for Dock Diving Nationals last year.
Learning Life Lessons Through Dog Sports
When applying to college, Casanova wrote an essay on the lessons she learned through flyball training. In her college application essay, she explained that dog sports helped her develop both patience and perseverance. “Not everything is going to happen on the first try, and you’re not always going to have the instant gratification of getting first every time, getting that jump every time,” she explained. Casanova concluded this essay centering on the understanding that dog sports taught her the importance of pushing through hard times.
Not only did she use her dog training experience in her college essay, but dog sports also influenced where she decided to apply to college. Casanova is currently a freshman at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She chose to attend a school close to home, so she could live at home, commute to school, and spend as much time as possible training and competing with her dogs. It’s not uncommon to find Casanova driving home between classes to train with Casey. The campus is also very dog-friendly, and Casanova brings Casey to campus frequently, where he can hang out with her friends while she’s in class.
Looking Towards the Future
While she’s recently aged out of Junior Showmanship, Casanova says the connections she built with other Junior Handlers continue to encourage her to pursue her dreams. Casanova is looking forward to adding a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever as her next dog, with plans to compete in dock diving, agility, flyball, and conformation. In the future, she hopes to start her own breeding program for Tollers.
Casanova is currently studying business with an entrepreneurship concentration, which she hopes will give her the skills to build her own dog training business. “My absolute dream would be to open a dog sports facility,” she says. Casanova intends to incorporate community outreach as part of this new facility to help bring new people into sports. She especially wants to help people of all ages to realize they can get involved with their pet dog at home and they “don’t have to be a Border Collie or a Malinois, it can be your typical family pet and still succeed,” she explains. Casanova hopes that her story and future plans for a sports training facility will help people see the possibilities they and their dogs can have in sports.