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Deborah Mayfield

Imagine stepping into the ring but not being able to see the dog at the end of your leash. This is what dog shows are like for breeder, owner, and handler Lexie Lanier, of Longview, Texas. Lanier got involved in dog sports before going completely blind, but losing her sight hasn’t kept Lanier from following her dog show dreams.

She’s currently an active competitor in conformation, Diving Dogs, AKC Trick Dog, Fast CAT, and field trials. Lanier wants to not only show her dogs but also to inspire others that they can do it too. “I know a lot of people with disabilities who think they can’t be active in AKC [sports] because of their disability, so I would love to share that it is still possible,” she says.

Kara Hamilton

Getting Involved with Dog Sports

For Lanier, getting involved with the dog world was the realization of a life-long dream. “I’ve always loved watching the dog shows on TV,” she says. Together with her dog at the time, “Haymitch,” she did AKC Trick Dog competitions, agility, and AKC Disc Dog. When he died after a long battle with Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia, she sought out her first purebred dog, “Astro,” a German Shorthaired Pointer.

During this time, Lanier was diagnosed with Neuromyelitis Optica, which caused blindness in her right eye. Adjusting to this was difficult for her, but training and showing Astro is what she says opened up her world again. “Astro finished his AKC Championship quickly in only a handful of shows with my novice handling, and I was hooked,” Lainer says. “We got into dock diving, Fast CAT, tricks, hunting, and he has even done a Tractor Supply commercial and print ad for dog food.”

Lanier brought home a second GSP, “Jemi,” who has now won group placements, owner-handled groups, and field trial placements with Lainer. Together, she and Jemi have even won her sweeps class at their GSP National Specialty.

Adjusting to Dog Sports After Losing Her Vision

Lanier learned to live with partial blindness and continued to excel in dog sports. Just as she was at the peak of her achievements with her dogs, she lost vision in her other eye, and became legally blind. “I was very scared that I would never be able to step into a show ring or out into the field with my dogs again,” Lanier remembers.

As worried as Lanier was, she wasn’t ready to give up on her dog show dreams. She and her dogs continued to train and work hard towards their goal, which was to compete in the National Owner-Handled Series championships in Orlando. “The year that I lose all vision, Jemi and I finished #4 NOHS,” she recalls. “I am stubborn and my goal was even if I didn’t regain any vision, I would take my dog to the Orlando NOHS Finals, and run around the ring one more time.”

Chantel Combee

At that point, Lanier considered the possibility that this could be the last time she showed her dog. Just as she mentally prepared for that, she got quite a surprise that reopened the possibility of continuing to show for her. The first time she’d gone into the ring after fully losing her vision, Jemi won an Owner Handled Sporting Group 1st Place. “That was a very emotional moment for me and confirmation that yes, I could still do this,” she says. “I can still show my dog.”

Since losing her vision, Lanier has also returned to doing dock diving and field trials with her dogs. And she’s not stopping there. She’s also made it to the top 25 in Breed rankings as an owner-handler in a handler-heavy breed, gotten multiple field trial placements on Jemi. She’s also bred her first litter, and has put AKC Beginner Puppy Competition (BPUP) Best in Shows on two of those puppies.

Training For What She Can’t See

Lanier takes preparation for field trials seriously, especially now that she has extra precautions to take. “In field trials, you want the dog to run as far as possible. That obviously is scary for someone who is vision impaired, so I need a scout to keep an eye on my dog,” she says. “I practice to make sure my dog has a solid recall.” Being unable to see her dog also requires Lanier to develop extra trust in her dog. “I practice to know what my dog is going to do and how they will react to certain things, like a gunshot, horse, or stray bird,” she says. “I have to make sure my dog is well-trained since I can’t see them.”

Deborah Mayfield

In January 2024, Lanier will be running four puppies from her first litter in AKC field trials and will be handling them herself. “Field trials have quite rough terrain, so most handlers are on horseback. I will be walking each brace,” she says. She explains that part of her approach is making sure to notify the judges of her disability. Having someone to guide her makes it possible for her to safely navigate the terrain at a field trial.

As for conformation, Lanier says it’s important for her to get to shows early. “I have had to go in the ring beforehand to get my bearings. I ask friends in the ring to help if I can’t see the judge point at me,” she says. She’s also developed a deep trust for her teammate on the other end of the leash. “[Jemi] has learned to take the reins. [She] turns the corners ahead of me, stops at the end of a down and back,” Lainer says. “She leads me around the ring honestly.”

Dock diving competitions bring their own challenges. Lainer says that she makes sure to walk down the ramp while holding onto the side. She hasn’t lost her sense of humor about these hurdles. “I have fallen in plenty of times before I lost all vision, so don’t be surprised if I did it now,” she jokes. Thankfully Astro, who Lainer does dock diving with, will jump without motivation. She says this is tremendously helpful, since he doesn’t mind that her throws aren’t always the best. “I try to practice throwing, but they usually go out of the pool or are too short for his big jumps,” she confesses.

Clove Westhoff 

At the end of the day, Lanier’s focus is having a good time with her dogs. “Dock diving is just a way for me and Astro to have fun,” she says. “I don’t take it too seriously,” she says.

Coming Together as a Community

Lanier encourages all competitors to be aware and thoughtful of each other. You never know what’s going on for the person next to you in the ring who might be taking longer to stack their dog or need accommodations. Thinking specifically about accessibility for blind competitors, Lainer says that interacting with so many people at shows can also pose challenges. “People forget I’m blind and come up and say ‘hi’ without introducing themselves,” Lanier says. “Even if we know each other it takes me longer to know who you are as I am picking up clues based on your voice and what you are saying.”

Lanier hopes that competitors can work to be more aware that many disabilities are invisible. She stresses that not all people with disabilities are going to look the same or have the same accessibility needs. As a blind person, Lanier says she gets frustrated because people think that all blind people wear dark glasses, have a cane, and use a guide dog. “I utilize none of these,” she says, “but I am still blind.”

In general, Lanier says she hopes for more awareness and inclusiveness in the dog world for people with disabilities. “Please be kind to others at shows/sports,” she says. “That young 22-year-old that looks healthy to you may be hiding a disability to try to fit in. That person eagerly looking on from their wheelchair may just need some encouragement to know they too can get in the ring and show a dog or do dock diving with their pet.”

Increasing Accessibility and Uplifting Handlers with Disabilities

Lanier has received a lot of support from friends in the dog world. Unfortunately, she’s also had negative experiences as a blind handler, when she’s asked for help or explained that she needs certain accommodations. “Sometimes judges forget that I’ve told them I’m blind and get frustrated when I don’t respond to their visual cues and commands,” she recalls.

When thinking about how to make dog shows more accessible to people with disabilities, Lanier encourages kennel clubs and show committees to focus on inclusivity and think about people with disabilities when putting venues together. Some ideas she’s proposed include setting up ringside chairs specifically for people with disabilities, using bigger signs to help people with vision impairments, and implementing accessibility features on websites.

Joshua Taylor

Blindness hasn’t kept Lanier from following her breeding or competition dreams, and she hopes that her presence and success will help inspire more people with disabilities to get involved with dog sports. She wants everyone, especially people with disabilities, to know these aren’t just activities they can watch on TV, and it’s possible to get involved yourself. “Find a handling class, sports facility, trainer, etc. that understands you and your disability or is willing to learn,” Lanier suggests to those wanting to get started.

Lanier also notes that you can get an AKC accommodation card to help make it possible to compete, but cautions there are times when you’ll need to be your own advocate. By attending classes and going to shows, you’ll quickly be able to find allies and supporters. “Once you become active, you will meet many people in your sports that will become lifelong friends,” she says.