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From sun-kissed Italy to California shores, and now onward to … Oklahoma? For one dog, her owners, and her handler, it’s been a journey through two countries and many states to make their Agility dreams a reality. In 2020 and 2021, MACH2 Il Granaio Dei Malatesta Ugolina MXS MJB2 PJD MFB T2B5—better known as “Monkey” the Lagotto Romagnolo—qualified for the AKC National Agility Championship. Both times, she was supposed to travel from Santa Monica, California to compete. In 2023, though, 11-year-old Monkey will travel to the Sooner State—Tulsa, to be exact—to compete in the AKC National Agility Championship, held from March 16 to 19.

Monkey-ing Around for an Allergy-Friendly Dog

Before beginning their dog search, Monkey’s owners, Chris and Linda Mansolillo, had never heard of Lagotti Romagnoli. Since Chris has allergies, the couple started out looking for hypoallergenic dogs, and in their research they learned about Lagotti. “[They are] super rare, super hard to find,” he says. “And it kind of just matched our personality in terms of what we wanted—and plus, I’m Italian, and I’m like, ‘That’s the dog for us.'”

Brown dog standing in grass
Chris Mansolillo
Monkey captured the Mansolillo’s hearts

After connecting with a local breeder, the Mansolillos fell in love with Lagotti. They bought a puppy from an Italian breeder and Monkey arrived in California in late May 2012. From the beginning, Monkey’s training and socialization was more than the Mansolillos were prepared for. She didn’t like most people aside from the Mansolillos, who struggled to work with her.

Enter dog sitter Kent Tsurumaru, who had developed a reputation for working with challenging dogs. “The one thing about Monkey, when I met her, is she flipped on her back and let me give her a belly rub,” Tsurumaru says. “I didn’t realize she’s actually aloof with strangers, and she doesn’t like to be necessarily touched or petted if she doesn’t know you. But here, I met her for the first time, and she flips on her back and it’s like, ‘Give me a belly rub.’ So obviously she and I hit it off.”

Building a Bond With Agility

Tsurumaru had fallen in love with Agility after a fellow dog owner recommended it to him. He took up the sport with his one-eyed mixed-breed dog Jamie. “So between the classes and the trials, it got us out outdoors, started making friends,” he shares. “It was a wonderful way to do something with your dog beyond the typical walks or hikes. There’s a discipline involved with learning the handling skills, and I just got very serious and focused about it. It was always about wanting to improve, be a better handler for my dog.”

Competing in the dog sport deepened Tsurumaru’s connection with his dog Jamie. “It definitely creates a bond; it’s a partnership,” he says. “And it’s not all about me—it’s not all about the dog. It’s how you work together, respect each other, communicate with each other.” Once he met Monkey, Tsurumaru realized her “bouncy, amazing energy” might make her a good fit for the sport. He suggested to the Mansolillos that Monkey might benefit from agility classes, and the couple agreed to let him run her.

“She just took to it like the cliché ‘duck to water,’ and she did the jumps. She was very obstacle-focused from the beginning,” Tsurumaru says. “So whatever was in front of her, she would take it. Jamie was all about being close to me and then I would guide her with my various cues, whereas Monkey, she just went ahead and said, ‘I got this.'”

Chris Mansolillo
Monkey has quite a few agility ribbons

He notes, “With Jamie, I ran with her because she was slower and it was just a very comfortable side- by-side. With Monkey, because of her speed and her drive, suddenly I had to run faster and I have to know what I’m doing faster. I can’t do these things last-minute or be late. So it brought this intensity. As much as I was learning from the instructor, I was also learning from her ability.”

Good Things Come in Threes

Monkey first qualified for the Championship in 2020, but the event was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Monkey automatically qualified for the following year’s competition, but she got injured. “Right around COVID times,” Chris Mansolillo comments, “we had noticed she was limping and kind of yelping, and some days it’d be fine, some days it wasn’t.” They took her to the vet and found out she needed Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy (TPLO) surgery, which is necessary when a dog ruptures the cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) in the knee.

After Monkey’s January 2021 surgery, the veterinarian prescribed weeks of crate rest. Tsurumaru would visit the Mansolillos’ house and just sit by his pal Monkey. Eventually, once the vet approved more movement, he took her out onto the porch. Coincidentally, the Mansolillos had recently moved near Tsusumaru, so he could visit Monkey as often as he liked.

Slowly but surely, Tsurumaru began helping Monkey build back her strength. “I rent an agility field once a week and I would video her going up and coming down the dog walk to see the balance of her back legs and then put it in slow motion so [Chris] could see as well,” he says. “And we just took our time.”

Brown dog with two toys
Chris Mansolillo
Some of Monkey’s favorite toys – and yes, one is a monkey!

By late summer 2021, Monkey returned to agility classes. Eventually, the fiesty Lagotto returned to competition form—and qualified for AKC NAC again. “I was focused on getting her MACH 2,” Tsurumaru says, “and it was just a wonderful surprise because it wasn’t necessary. Our goal, and our immediate goal, was the MACH 2. I thought, ‘Oh, maybe we qualified for Nationals as well.’ It was a really nice bonus for her, especially now at her age.”

The Mansolillos now have another Lagotto, a puppy named Panda. Tsurumaru is already beginning to train her in agility. “It’s also very humbling, always, with a beginner dog,” he explains. “I feel very blessed to have met Linda and Chris, and Monkey means the world to me. She really changed the course of my life. Largely because of her and my ability, my achievements with her—I guess, accomplishments—I’ve also been able to take on other agility clients.”
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