Search Menu
All photos courtesy of subject

At the 2022 National Agility Championship (NAC) in Ocala, Florida, hundreds of the nation’s top canines compete with hopes of being named one of the best Agility dogs. Of the qualifying contenders, it’s typical to see dozens of Border Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs. This year, there was even a Bulldog and a Borzoi!

But a one-eyed dog vying for a chance to be named a champion?

Meet Ninja, a Labrador Retriever, who competed at NAC for the second time despite having a life-changing injury that left her visually impaired.  

“I have never considered this dog handicapped,” says owner Dawn Mlatecek. “It’s always a matter of how do I get her through something safely?” 

Bringing Home Ninja

Currently, Dawn has a total of five dogs: A 14-year-old Border Collie mix named Sequoyah and four Labs, including Zion, 9, Ninja, 9, Aura, 3, and Salty, a 13-week-old puppy. But getting Ninja was somewhat of a happy accident. 

After competing in Agility with rescue Lab mixes, Dawn decided she wanted to get a purebred she could train and win with. 

“I want dogs that can keep up with you and run the courses,” she says. “And there are a lot of good conformation Labs that do Agility and they do just fine, but I want the speed that can keep up with the Border Collies and beat them.” 

Dawn found an appropriate breeder and got Zion, a yellow Lab, but was always drawn to a little black Lab from a different litter. Despite already having a dog, when Ninja came back to the breeder out of circumstance, Dawn had a gut feeling she was meant to have this dog. So she took the plunge and started raising and training two puppies just a month apart in age.  

“I jokingly said to the breeder, ‘I don’t know, she’s like a little ninja. So, she ninja’d me.’ I know it’s not a word, but that was our joke,” Dawn says. 

Losing an Eye, Returning to Trials

When Ninja was 2, the unthinkable happened. Some kids threw a rock at her, completely damaging her eye and leaving her skull fractured. “It’s something that you just have to scratch your head and be like, ‘Why in the world would you ever think to do something so stupid?’” 

Dawn rushed her to the closest animal hospital an hour away and after an overnight stay, she received surgery first thing in the morning where the damaged eye was removed.  

Ninja was just one week away from starting Agility trials and instead had to spend six months in recovery — something that isn’t easy for an energetic young dog.  

Despite the accident, Ninja never acted skittishly and wanted to return to Agility as soon as she was cleared to. But that came with its fair share of challenges, namely depth perception.  

“We had to go back up to the basics and go all the way back to ground zero to retrain and then try to figure out how to get her back,” Dawn says. “She loses her depth perception. So how do you get her over things? And there were all different kinds of challenges along the way that we had to figure out, like why does she keep crashing through the panel jump?” 

Luckily, Dawn had set her up with a good basic Agility foundation before the accident, so it was a matter of applying those same skills with a different lens.  

For example, when Ninja initially attempted weave poles, she would skip every other pole. To get to the bottom of things, Dawn and her trainer crouched down in front of the poles and covered up one of their eyes to see from Ninja’s perspective — it appeared every other pole was missing. Now, whenever there’s a miss on one of Ninja’s runs, Dawn will do something similar to be able to see from Ninja’s point of view.  

Sharp turns can also be hard to see, and Dawn finds herself calling out many more cues compared to her other dogs with full visibility.  

Even though she’s been able to return to the Agility ring, her impaired vision has still caused some fair share of injuries in her younger years during hikes and just running around the home. “She’s had hundreds of stitches, usually impaling herself on things as she learned to basically navigate with the one eye,” Dawn says. 

Aside from successfully competing in Agility, Ninja and the rest of Dawn’s dogs also compete in Dock Diving.  

Making It to the Championships

Calling her the One-Eyed Wonder, Dawn jokingly wonders what she’s going to do next. And despite not having any major titles and coming in 21st place for the 20” class, Dawn is incredibly proud of Ninja’s performance—especially the fact that they made it to NAC in the first place.  

The highlight of the 2022 National Agility Championship was Ninja’s standard run. It was thundering and raining outside in Ocala, and even though the courses were indoors, Ninja was trembling with fear 

“I sat her down that line and was expecting a nightmare,” Dawn says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way she’s going to go through this course with the thunder.’” 

But as soon as she hit the start line Ninja took off, and Dawn was running to keep up and guide her through the course. Unexpectedly, it wound up being one of her bests.   

“Everything I had walked, that I wanted to do, it just went out the window because I was just going from behind at that point and just doing what I had to do,” Dawn says. “And when I stopped and realized we were clean and saw her time that if it wasn’t her fastest standard time she’s ever had, it was in the top three.” 

Depending on some lingering issues like arthritis, Ninja may be retiring this year, meaning that would have been her last run at NAC. However, if she remains healthy, Dawn will still run her, and she’ll still be training for Dock Diving regardless.  

“Don’t ever think that dogs can’t do anything,” Dawn says. “We as humans handicap our dogs, but you don’t know until you try and you might as well try it because I’ll surprise you.” 

Related article: Dog Athlete of the Month: Hex the Samoyed
Get Your Free AKC eBook

Agility for Beginners E-book

Are you looking for a fun new activity for you and your dog? Agility may just be the perfect option. In the “Agility for Beginners” e-book you will learn everything you need to know to get started.
*Turn off pop-up blocker to download
*Turn off pop-up blocker to download