As you’re watching dogs race and clear hurdles in a Flyball relay race, you might not notice anything different about Valley. But if you look more closely, you’ll see that she has three legs. When Valley was five months old, she suffered an injury that led to a loss of nerve function in her right front leg, leading to amputation of the limb. But that doesn’t stop her.
Her owners, Jayne McQuillen and Steve Branin, were told there was no chance of her recovering any sensation in her leg. “We knew that amputation would be the best thing for her because the leg was holding her back,” she says.
Despite her traumatic injury, having three legs has never stopped Valley, now a year-and-a-half, from enjoying life. She loves participating in Flyball along with McQuillen, Branin, and their 11-year-old daughter. McQuillen is the owner of Skidmarkz Flyball Club, the team that Valley competes on. McQuillen says she inspires fans from around the world with her “can-do attitude.”
Valley’s participation in the CanAm Flyball Classic 2023 may only be her second tournament appearance, but she’s exceeded already her owners’ expectations with her speed and athleticism.
Get to Know Valley, Age 17 months
Valley a mixed-breed dog, named after the song “Valley Girl” by Frank Zappa. When McQuillen first visited the puppies, she recalls being immediately drawn to Valley. “There was this beautiful, flashy, black-and-white girl,” she says. “She was a delight, just a really outgoing happy little puppy, and we were able to take her home.”
Valley is up for anything whether it’s competing in Flyball, jumping on the trampoline, or hiking around their property. One of her favorite pastimes is swimming. McQuillen says that she loves jumping into the pool, swimming, and retreiving. “Whatever you’re doing, she’s pretty much right with you.”
She also loves playing with her pet siblings and helping out in the yard. “She’s surprisingly good at digging in the garden even though she only has one front leg,” he says.
Adjusting to Life With Three Legs
A few days after her surgery, Valley was back to jumping on the couch. “I was amazed at how fast she recovered,” Branin says. “But it makes sense because, unlike surgery on a joint or a wound, her incision was on a part of the body where it didn’t have much motion left.”
Within a month of having her leg amputated, Valley returned to Flyball training. Her first challenge was learning how to run in a straight line. McQuillen and Branin were nervous about her competing, worrying she might trip, not be able to complete the jumps properly, or bump into another dog while passing them in a relay.
To compete in Flyball, each dog has to jump over four hurdles, hit the trigger on the Flyball box, catch the ball, and push off on the box to turn around and race back over all four hurdles. Since this maneuver can be tricky for any dog, they’ve taught Valley strategies to compete safely like slowing down and collecting her stride as she’s approaching the box.
“We just gave her time and the support she needed to help her learn those skills,” she says. “A lot of it was trusting that we really are good trainers, and we can teach a dog how to perform something even if they’re a little different and make sure they’re doing it without hurting themselves.”
McQuillen and Branin’s Flyball Journey
McQuillen and Branin have owned and fostered a variety of purebred dogs, like Australian Shepherd and Ra Terrier, as well as mixed-breed dogs. Twenty-five years ago, they were fostering dogs for an Australian Shepherd rescue group when a prospective owner approached them about participating in Flyball. McQuillen had seen competitions on TV and wanted to give it a try because their mixed-breed dogs could compete in the sport.
They started with one dog and soon expanded to include rescue dogs and dogs who needed to burn off some energy. “We also trained some really difficult dogs who were unlikely candidates for the sport, but really thrived in that environment,” she says. “They had an outlet and something they could do consistently and be rewarded.”
Putting Together a Winning Team
The Skidmarkz Flyball Club has been around for 21 years. They currently have 20 members and approximately 60 dogs of various ages and stages of training. The oldest dog in their club is over 12 years old. “Even at that age, it’s something that older dogs can enjoy,” she says. “And it also helps train the next generation of puppies.”
In 2018, Skidmarkz qualified to compete at the CanAm Invitational Championship and finished in second place Since then, the club has consistently finished first or second in the championship, except when it was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.
When choosing a lineup, they look at different classes to see where they can be the most competitive. “Once we determine which dogs to enter, we focus on practicing and getting those groups together to fine-tune things before we go into a race,” Branin says.
They select dogs who work well together and will sometimes adjust the lineup if needed. “We want our handlers and dogs to be very comfortable with each other going into big events,” she says.
CanAm Flyball Classic 2023
This October, Valley competed in the Classic Open class at the CanAm Flyball Classic 2023. She ran in fourth position and had backup dogs in case she was unable to race. Their hope going into the event was for Valley to feel comfortable in the ring and be safe competing.
She says that these tournaments tend to be loud and chaotic. “Bringing a green dog in that environment, you’re never quite sure how they’ll respond,” she says. “She likes to race the other dogs, but can also be distracted by them.”
What gets Valley excited is seeing her fan club at tournaments. People in the audience will call out her name and she’ll flop on the ground to get belly rubs.
Branin agrees, describing Valley as a very outgoing, friendly, and happy dog. “Her personality is infectious,” he says. “And it makes you think, maybe my problems aren’t so bad because if this dog can have such a good attitude, maybe I can work on my attitude.”
In their eyes, Valley is an amazing dog and “perfect” just the way she is. “It was devastating for us to see our dog hurt but then we found a way to go forward even though she’s different, and we had to change our expectations,” she says. “We hope that she inspires people to never give up on their dogs or themselves.”
The Canine Flyball CanAm Classic is coming to your TVs! The nation’s largest Flyball event was held on October 22 in Indianapolis, IN, and premieres on ESPN2 on Sunday, November 5th, at 3pm ET. Don’t miss these speedy dogs in action!