Meet d’Art (just call me Dart), a beguiling little character whose story has more twists and turns than a foot-long pretzel.
Everything points to a Pyrenean Shepherd competing at the AKC Agility Premier Cup in Ocala, Florida, on May 15 as a rarity. When it comes to sheer numbers that would be correct. There are 92 entrants in the second annual event competing at four jump heights and only the one Pyr Shep. Add to that, the breed is 182nd out of 195 on the AKC’s 2020 registry list.
But disregard those figures, says longtime breeder Terri Walker, of Eastern Tennessee, d’Art’s co-owner along with Ela Zalo, of McKinney, Texas, who doubles as his handler, too.
“Pyr Sheps have made it to the Agility finals at both the AKC Nationals and Invitationals on a regular basis,” says Walker, “since they were recognized in 2009 – including the World Team twice as well as the European Open. In Europe, they are on the podium at just about every big Agility event.”
Picking Out d’Art
Walker notes that Pyr Sheps (they’re dubbed that to differentiate between the breed and the Great Pyrenees) typically have small litters – three is the average, which somewhat explains its small numbers.
So it was a big surprise when d’Art’s mom, a French import, delivered seven puppies in 2015.
“I told Terri what was important to me and she picked d’Art,” recalls Zalo. “It quickly became apparent he was a perfect fit. I named him d’Artagnan because he is loyal and brave.”
Zalo’s priorities were sound temperament coupled with stellar athletic capabilities. Add to that a dog that would blend seamlessly into a household with a middle-aged Bichon Frise and American Eskimo Dog.
But what was the Pyr Shep’s appeal to Zalo?
“I met one that lived with a nearby trainer and saw others at Agility trials, where I was competing with Tikaani, my American Eskimo. At that point, I wanted to explore herding breeds. The size, drive, and trainability of Pyr Sheps were appealing, along with their willingness to work. They are super smart and very sensitive. Consequently, you must patient and tailor your handling style to the dog.
“I wanted one of the smooth face but Terri explained that they are larger and tend to have more prey drive, which would not work for me. Hence, I decided to take a rough-face puppy.”
The Challenges of Agility With d’Artagnan
From that point, their story is anchored around a foundation of love and trust. Yes, there were the early missteps and mistakes but today the 6-year-old, 25-pound d’Art (Noble D’Artagnan De Bien-Aime) and Zalo are a well-oiled machine in the Agility ring, where they have earned a coveted MACH 4 title.
Now back to the Dart acknowledgment to Zalo’s commands. “I don’t get an instant response when I call him Dart,” Zalo laughs. “But when I use D’Artagnan, it’s an instant come and ready to work. On an AKC run order sheet, I use D’Artagnan.”
Zalo loves d’Art’s independence. “He will do obstacles on his own and I don’t have to be on top of him. I like running with him and almost always he earns all the points possible in a FAST class.”
But Agility has served up a potpourri of challenges, too, for Zalo. “He is a social butterfly,” she explains. “He loves to visit everyone, especially the other girls in the ring. That’s how he acquired his nickname, Little Fabio. He wants to meet and greet every person there, so we take a long walk before he runs in order for him to say hi and get it out of his system.
“We have worked hard since those challenging early days to increase his speed and sharpen his focus, adding running contacts, proofing various behaviors, and finding creative ways to motivate him.”
Honing Their Skills
To hone their skills, Zalo and d’Art attend weekly classes at Kreuzung Dog Coach facility in nearby Pilot Point, Texas, under the tutelage of Brenda Kelly. “She deserves a lot of credit,” Zalo adds. “She has an eye for every little thing that needs improvement and how we can cut down our run times. In other words, she keeps us on track.”
Zalo, a martial-arts instructor and first-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, manages multiple facilities in the Dallas area. That discipline calls for a high degree of concentration on fitness, focus, and the need for split-second decisions on the mat. Adapting to the moment and boasting a consistent training philosophy have served her well in Agility.
The pair take that to another level with CrossFit type workouts at home, where she holds him to do squats or positions him on her back for push-ups.
Their Velcro-like bonding extends far beyond the house three to four times a week on two- and four-mile hikes along with kayaking and paddleboarding on non-Agility trial summer weekends.
With origins in the Pyrenees Mountains, this herding breed is right at home outside as well as indoors. In d’Art’s case, home on the outskirts of Dallas, is a utopia with several acres, a barn, and a pond. And it comes with his own best friends, Kitty Kat and Scuba, a duck. “They follow him around like he’s a rock star,” laughs Zalo.
“We have a turkey vulture that lays eggs in the barn every year. D’Art, who loves to steal eggs from the chickens and ducks, checks her nest but never bothers it because he knows they are her babies. And the crazy thing is that the momma bird allows him to do that. If my other dogs try it, she will drive them off.
D’Art isn’t a one-trick performer. He competes in Dock Diving, Conformation, Trick, Disc, and Coursing, too. But Agility remains his favorite, Zalo says. “That’s probably because it’s a team sport and requires both of us to bring our A-game each time out. Because the courses change, it’s challenging. I have to anticipate his movements and provide him split-second guidance.”
The Pyrenean Shepherd Club of America awarded him a Bronze Versatility Award at age 1 and two years later he reached the Platinum level, the youngest dog in breed history to do so.
D’Art’s versatility from dogs sports ranges far and wide. He is certified with Pet Partners, engaging in Read With Me and Walk With Me programs in local schools, and making weekly visitations to two area medical facilities, Children’s Medical Center Dallas and Scottish Rite for Children Hospital, pre-COVID. The former, where they returned May 10, provides popular trading cards for d’Art, too.
“D’Art is excited to get back to work,” Zalo smiles. “When I pulled his therapy-dog harness out of the closet the other day he started spinning and barking.”
He is also certified with the Pet Partners’ Animal-Assisted Crisis Response team that provides comfort and support to those affected by natural, human-caused, or technological disasters.
Although separated by about 950 miles, the co-owners boast lofty respect for each other.
“Terri has paid for all of d’Art’s health testing so that I am confident he is fit for the job,” says Zalo. “Anytime I have questions about his health care, she is always available to consult. You might say she is d’Art’s fairy Godmother.”
Walker adds, “Ela is d’Art’s modern version of a shepherd. They have a fantastic relationship and make a great team.”