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Paralympian Amy Dixon gazes into her guide dog Woodstock’s eyes as he attends a swim workout at the Encinitas, California YMCA.

Think about this for a minute: You’re a blind professional athlete (Paralympian and triathlon national champion) with a spirited German Shepherd Dog guide dog that needs an outlet, too.

Welcome to resourceful Amy Dixon’s whirlwind world for the past six years.

Since the 77-pound Woodstock came into Dixon’s life, he has segued into the template for a working dog-turned-show-stopper.

The black sable dynamo typifies the spirit of challenge both in AKC Rally and Obedience, where he has earned Masters and Novice titles, respectively. Dixon is believed to be the first blind person to win an AKC Rally Masters title.

It was all smiles for the pair following their first-ever Obedience and Rally competition in Valley Center, California, in 2018.

Life Turned Upside Down

Shortly after moving to Encinitas, California, from Greenwich, Connecticut in 2017, life suddenly became more challenging for the pair with the long distances between stores, the gym, and doctors’ offices. “In Connecticut, I lived in a downtown area where our regular stops were easily at our disposal,” says Dixon, who is 98 percent blind and without peripheral vision. In Encinatas, these venues are chiefly accessible via Uber, friends, and handicap transit.

Woody’s world was suddenly thrust upside down and sideways by the change of environment and lack of regular sidewalk work.

“He needed stimulation,” Dixon conceded. And by luck, Dixon was discussing her dilemma in a nail salon shortly after the move when another client responded that the nearby Hidden Valley Obedience Club should have plenty to offer.

And voila! After some get-acquainted group training sessions, Woody picked up quickly on both Obedience and then Rally. “I like the fact you can talk to your dog,” she says. “And Rally lends itself to that.”

Dixon and her instructor, Rachel Williams, discovered that rules allow for a guide to tell her whether her dog is sitting, and to read the signs to her that display the skill to perform during competition. The two use both hand and vocal signals in the ring.

Dixon waits in an ophthalmologist’s chair for one of her many appointments at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut as Woodstock patiently waits beside her.

How Team Woody Works

When seeking a trainer, she came without a checklist. It was a happy accident. She needed someone with patience and who was adept at problem-solving with her vision loss and could handle the dynamics associated with both Woody and her.

Here’s Williams’ play-by-play Rally role with Team Woody:

“Every dog is different in terms of warm-up. Some do best coming out of the crate and going directly into the ring. Others need to acclimate (stand around and watch) and then there’s those who need warm-up exercises.

“Because of Woody’s extensive training as a guide dog, he doesn’t typically need to acclimate much. We spend five to 10 minutes warming up, which allows him to switch to Rally mode. Next, his guide harness is removed, then Amy and I will find a clear area where she can fine-tune him with exercises.”

Rally rules allow competitors a 10-minute walk-through – stroll the course, read the signs and determine the path, etc., prior to competition. Dogs cannot accompany the handler, however, so Woody is quartered in a crate nearby or held on a leash with a friend who has come to watch.

“During the walk-through, I approach the judge and explain Amy’s handicap and that I will guide her around the course. Amy uses a cane as we move around the course together. When we approach each sign, I read it to her and ask if she has any questions. At that point, she acts out the commands she will use later. We repeat this procedure two to three times to allow her to memorize the layout.”

Woody clears a jump in a 2019 Masters Rally competition in Pasadena, California.

Trust, Timing, and Resilience

At the level Team Woody competes, all exercises are performed off-leash.

“I try to stay close behind, or just to her right side,” Williams notes, “always moving so that I don’t obstruct the judge’s view of the team. If there are exercises that require Amy to move away from Woody, I take her by the arm and guide her into position.

“When we’re finished, I get the leash, or assist Amy in doing so, leave the ring and return to the set-up area. Woody knows that’s cookie time.”

Williams cites trust, timing, and resilience as key factors in the team’s continued progress. “For the level at which she is competing you must be close to perfect.”

Rally and Obedience have deepened this union of soulmates, which has been a “work in progress” since they were paired when Woody was three by Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation in Connecticut.

“He lights up my life with his excitement in the ring,” Dixon smiles. “He’s working but having fun. Heaven knows, he’s serving me much of the day, so Rally has been the perfect outlet for him to do his thing.”

Prior to the pandemic, the two trained weekly at the obedience center. Now Dixon and Woody practice at a field near her home.

Woodstock stares intently at handler Dixon while navigating a Masters Rally course in Pasadena in 2019.

Finding Time to Rally

Dixon’s incredibly busy schedule leaves her only a tight window for AKC shows. For instance, she is not only a professional full-time triathlete on Team USA, but she is also a USA Triathlon Level 1 certified coach, a motivational speaker, and president of Glaucoma Eyes International.

Team Woody usually enters Rally trials during her triathlon off-season from October to February. But that isn’t happening this year, since she will be competing in the World Triathlon Para Championships in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 5-6. Her daily training regimen of swimming, biking, running, and lifting extends over six hours. Add to that, business engagements – which include appointments, sponsor obligations, speaking engagements, and media interviews – beginning at 5 a.m. and wrapping up about 6 p.m.

The 9-year-old German Shepherd wears one of the Dixon fan T-shirts while she competes at the recent Paralympics in Tokyo. Because of the many travel challenges, he stayed with Dixon’s friends in Southern California.

Hence, Woody’s competition calendar is totally flexible. It begins with Williams sending Dixon a three-month advance list of shows she plans to attend. If Dixon’s in town, she may enter.

The pair vie in only four or five Rally and Obedience events a year, all in Southern California. Downtime is not in Dixon’s vocabulary as she seeks out the perfect sports-work balance. When there is a lengthy amount of time between Woody’s ring appearances, the resourceful athlete brings her exercise bike along to work out in a nearby parking lot.

The availability of transport to shows within driving distance and her triathlon training calendar are key factors here. “I’m not supposed to be on my feet for long when I’m not training,” she explains. “Shows can sometimes demand a day-long standing in the sun, which isn’t ideal for recovery as a professional athlete. If our Rally or Obedience entry is early a.m. and there’s a pool nearby to get my swim done between an afternoon ring time, then I may enter.”

When training issues arise, Dixon texts Williams for advice. “We follow up with a phone discussion or two to nail down corrective measures,” the trainer explains.

The refreshingly candid Dixon acknowledges that the push and pull of emotions of keeping the intrepid Woody motivated and fine-tuned requires a mix of psychological buoyance and managerial prowess.

“He’s my partner and my heart dog,” she concludes. “He’s an athlete who takes his job seriously both as my guide dog on the street and partner in the ring. I couldn’t ask for more.”

Related article: 10 German Shepherd Dog Facts
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