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"Jazz" (Giant Schnauzer) and Ricky Penn. 18th AKC Agility Invitational presented by YuMove, Orange County Convention Center, Orlando, FL, Dec 16-17, 2023.

When handler Rick Penn started training his Giant Schnauzer to compete in agility competitions, some trainers told him he was wasting his time. They didn’t believe that “Jazz,” who was just over a year old at the time, was the right breed for agility, despite the sport being one any dog can do. But luckily, Penn didn’t give up – and now, they’re heading to Perry, Georgia for one last run at the 2024 AKC Agility National Agility Championship.

But, over the course of an impressive nine-year agility career, Jazz has gone beyond her underdog status that those early trainers tried to assign to her. Jazz now boasts more than 300 first-place titles, and countless other awards and placings. She will run her final agility course at this year’s AKC National Agility Championship, and Penn says their sights are not set on a ribbon this time – but rather, on retirement.

Taking the Leap Into the World of Agility

At 10 weeks old, Jazz was just one of many in a litter of bright-eyed pups. But Penn says he knew a champion when he saw one. “When I spoke to [the breeder], she said, ‘This one needs a job,'” Penn recalls, noting there was something special about Jazz. “I had begged [the breeder] to let me have her.”

Penn came across Jazz at a unique time in his life. As a self-described “adrenaline junkie,” he’d spent his free time rollerblading, skydiving, and flying planes. After a lung cancer diagnosis that limited his breathing capacity, he needed a way to get his fix without compromising his health. And, as a lifelong lover and owner of Miniature Schnauzers, getting a Giant Schnauzer had always been something that was on his bucket list. He felt, if not then, when?

Despite always being interested in agility, the road to being top preferred 20-inch Giant Schnauzer wasn’t always smooth sailing. “I got her home, and the first night, my wife and I said, ‘What the heck did we get ourselves into?’ She was running around — got the zoomies, was running around the halls,” Penn says. “But I knew she was good. I could tell.”

Early Obstacles and Diagnoses in Life

It’s hard to imagine now, but Jazz’s agility career was almost over before it even started. When she was 18 months old, Jazz slid on the tire slide, injuring her leg. She walked with a limp for three months after. Not long after, she broke her toe, once again putting a halt in her training. Penn was worried that Jazz wouldn’t be able to return to the course. But as she continued to prove, there’s no keeping this working dog down.

Penn noticed that Jazz was sick, and for months, he got testing trying to figure out what was wrong. Eventually, it was discovered that Jazz has stage two kidney failure, caused by Leptospirosis. Leptospirosis is an infection that targets the kidney and liver, usually spread through contaminated water sources that have Leptospira bacteria. It’s common for dogs to get it, and is unfortunately easily passed to dogs – and humans – through things like dog urine, water, and mud. It can also be passed in mother dogs to their puppies, or through open wounds and saliva.

Because it’s not difficult for the bacteria to spread, Penn says that some people were wary about Jazz’s return to agility, despite getting treatment. “[Other handlers] did not want me to run in the trials because she had Lepto,” Penn says. “But Jazz had been on antibiotics for months, and 24 to 48 hours from when you first give them the antibiotic, they’re no longer shedding the bacteria. AKC had to get involved and told the trial secretary, ‘You have to let them run.'”

Aside from this health scare at one point in her life, Jazz’s had a pretty healthy life. Her status as a dog sport competitor also gets her some special treatment and pampering. She regularly enjoys visits to her chiropractor to soothe her joints and pop her vertebrate into alignment. She even has her own acupuncturist, all to help make sure she’s in top shape and feels good.

A Unique Handling Style for a Unique Bond

At the start of their career, Penn and Jazz worked together five to six days a week, perfecting her agility, cues, and commands. Penn, an engineer, even came home on his lunch breaks to hone Jazz’s skills, wasting no time in prepping her for the competition ahead. After all, when going up against champions, Jazz would need to execute flawless runs if she were to be top dog.

“We’re a team,” Penn explains. “She got to where she understood what I wanted by the flick of my arm.” A few times, trainers and other handlers have told Penn that his handling style is “bizarre.” But it’s worked for them, and Penn has found that people respect it even though it’s different.

That unique handling style has guided Jazz to competitions all over the country, including Texas, Nevada, Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia. When Jazz retires, she’ll walk away with 4,075 unused speed points, three consecutive first-place speed ranks from Bad Dog Agility, and her very own PACH bar — a crowning achievement for many agility dogs.

Their bond doesn’t stop at agility, either. Penn has other dogs, but his nicknames for Jazz show just how special she is. He calls her his “sports car,” his “velcro dog,” his “comfortable shoe” — don’t worry if you don’t get it, some of these are between him and Jazz. But one thing’s for sure: she’s the boss. “I have three other dogs in the house, and they have to put up with her,” Penn says. “She’s in charge. She gives them a look, growls at them. She’s always been that way, but she’s a sweetie. She loves loving you on her terms.”

A Bittersweet End to a Sweet Dog’s Career

If there was another name for this senior dog, Penn says it would be “Einstein.” While her family watches TV in the evenings, Jazz listens for commercials. She’ll barrel into the living room the second she hears a dog on TV, whether it’s a cartoon, computerized sound effect, or a competitor in the televised Westminster Dog Show.

Penn notes that Jazz uses her smarts for something else: stealing his socks. “She is a sock thief and will steal my socks when I am not looking,” he says. “I will be looking for where I had left them, and I see her standing off in the distance, looking like a chipmunk with a mouth full of nuts.”

As retirement approaches for the 11-and-a-half-year old dog, Jazz will have more time to steal plenty of Penn’s socks. While Penn is sad to see the end of her career, Jazz is easing into her golden years as a pampered girl who loves nothing more than her kibble mixed with sardines and blueberries. Plus, having her last run be among some of the best agility dogs in the country isn’t a bad way to go out. Penn also intends to keep her active by running her in agility courses that are easier on her joints: think hoops instead of hurdles. “I love her. It’s amazing the bond that we have together,” Penn says. “I’ve never had a dog like her.”

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!