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Susan and Dennis Shea, a husband and wife living in Dickinson, Texas, have always loved doing agility with their Labrador Retrievers. But they never could have imagined the heights they’d reach in the sport when they got their first Belgian Malinois, “Erina.” Erina, who is now 14-years-old, showed Susan and Dennis from the start that she was different than their other agility dogs.

Thanks to Erina, the Sheas have been able to attend all kinds of invitational and national agility competitions, including the 2024 AKC National Agility Championship. The trio will be at the event taking place in Perry, Georgia, from March 14 – 17, where Erina will compete in the preferred class.

Taking a Leap With a New Breed

The Sheas had been doing obedience with their Labrador Retrievers for years, but Dennis wanted to try a new breed. A friend of the Sheas had Belgian Malinois, and it sparked their interest in the breed.

After meeting Erina, they couldn’t wait to bring her home. Since they were used to caring for Labs, it took them some time to get used to her and her needs. “It was quite a different experience going from the Labs to her,” Susan says.

The family faced another challenge soon after getting Erina (MACH PACH3 Mpacts Erina Of The Shea ClanCD BN RAE MXS MJG MXP11 MXPC MJP13 MJPB2 PAX3 MXF T2B SWN SCA): another dog bit her while training. For years after, she was fine with the Sheas’ Labs and other familiar dogs, but very skittish with other dogs. She still doesn’t like when unfamiliar dogs to come close to her, and likes her space in all aspects of her life.

"Erina" (Belgian Malinois) and Susan Shea. 18th AKC Agility Invitational presented by YuMove, Orange County Convention Center, Orlando, FL, Dec 16-17, 2023.

In agility, the learning curve continued. Where their Labs would let mistakes in the course roll off their backs, Erina was committed to doing everything perfectly, and would keep trying until she did. “She lives to train,” Susan says. “We take any of the other dogs out, and she’s inside having a fit because she’s not outside.”

Navigating Obstacles Together

Though the Sheas have done agility with their past Labs, they found that Erina had a particular skill on the course. Through training, they found that Erina prefers being handled from a distance. Dennis initially handled and trained Erina until he had to get a knee replacement when she was about 8 years old. They decided that Susan would handle Erina in agility moving forward. The pair quickly got to work training and Susan’s been running Erina ever since.

While Erina is lighter and smaller than the Sheas’ other labs, adjusting to her drive and independent nature was one hurdle they had to work through. “It was totally different to try to work with her,” Susan says. “She’s fast, and she’s agile, and she loves being out there.”

With their Labs, Susan could run alongside them during the course for the most part. With Erina, Susan and Dennis simply couldn’t keep up with her speed at first. But, they’ve since learned to tune into her cues when running the course. “The challenge for her is that she wanted to work with you and wanted to show you how she wanted to run, not slow her down, speed her up, or try to race her,” Susan says. “If I tried to run really fast with her, she’s just going to drop bars to catch up with you.” Susan and Dennis have nearly perfected learning to have her pick her speed, and, by handling her from a distance, Erina’s speed is what she wants it to be. “She’s one of those that she would try everything just to be right,” Susan says. “She hates to be wrong.”

"Erina" (Belgian Malinois) and Susan Shea. 18th AKC Agility Invitational presented by YuMove, Orange County Convention Center, Orlando, FL, Dec 16-17, 2023.

Harnessing Erina’s Drive in the Agility Ring

The first time they qualified for the AKC National Agility Championship with Erina was in 2020, but the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite not getting the start they hoped for, they’ve qualified with Erina every year since then. “She’s taken us to new heights we’ve never dreamed,” Susan says. “She’s been an incredible dog, I’m so proud of her.”

Erina likes her personal space, but doesn’t have problems being among the crowds or dogs and handlers at agility competitions. In fact, she knows when they’re at agility competitions, and gets so excited that she’ll pull Dennis and Susan to the ring. Once in the ring, Susan says she’s completely focused on what she’s going. “She forgets anything else that’s going on. She pays attention to only me,” Susan says. “She doesn’t look at other people in the ring, and once we’re done, she comes straight to me, and we go back to her crate. She’s quite content. She loves to compete.”

Though Erina is incredibly focused, not every run is going to be perfect, and Susan knows that. “I’m never going to be angry with her,” Susan says. “When I get upset, it’s upset with myself, because I’ve messed her up.” Over the years, Erina’s brought them to the National Agility Championship multiple times, ranking highly in her classes, and competing against some of the best dogs in the country. “I think that’s pretty good. I’m not going to fault her for that,” Susan says.

Slowing Down, But Not By Much

Currently, Erina is one of four dogs in the Shea household, along with a 12-year-old Labrador Retriever, who they show in conformation, a 4-year-old Lab, and a Belgian Malinois puppy. “We love the breed,” Susan says. “The work ethic is unbelievable.” Susan says they’ve learned Belgian Malinois aren’t “just backyard dogs,” and need to be active and have something to do. Erina leads the pack, even training the younger dogs on the agility equipment in the backyard.

Ted's Photo Reflex

As Erina’s gotten older, people have told the couple that she’ll probably slow down and won’t want to do agility anymore. But Susan says that her speed is the only thing getting slower. “She’s given us no indication yet that she’s ready to quit,” Susan says. “We’ll go until she tells me she’s done.”

The couple do what they can to keep Erina healthy so that she can continue doing the sport that she loves as long as possible. Erina sees a chiropractor monthly, and trains on an underwater treadmill twice a month. She knows weekends are for agility, and gets antsy when they spend that time at home instead. “If we’re doing something else on a Saturday, and we’re not going to a trail, she’s at the door ready to go, and looks at us like ‘What do you mean we’re not going?'” Susan laughs.

Their expectations for the 2024 National Agility Championship are mostly to have fun, since Erina has already taken them higher than they ever expected to go. “We made invitationals two years in a row, which was far beyond my expectations,” Susan says. “If she can do it again, that’s awesome. If she doesn’t, she doesn’t, and she’s having fun.”

The 2024 AKC National Agility Championship will air on ESPN2 on May 5 at 9am ET. Watch these fast, agile teams to see the winners crowned in each height division!