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Sassafras Lowrey
Sirius, a Newfoundland owned by Sassafras Lowrey, earned her Elite Performer Trick Dog title and Novice Rally title while at home during COVID-19. She is just the third of her breed to ever earn the top Trick Dog title.

When it comes to sports training, people oftentimes underestimate the drive and potential of giant dogs.

I’m always thrilled when my three-and-half-year-old Newfoundland, Sirius, is able to break some stereotypes about what giant dogs can do, especially dogs that have a history of medical conditions. This March, just as the COVID-19 quarantine began, Sirius became only the third Newfoundland to ever earn the AKC’s highest Trick Dog Title, the Elite Performer. No matter what, I would have been thrilled with my dog’s accomplishment — but to learn that so few other Newfs had earned the title made it even more special.

Quarantined? No Problem

Sirius has been learning tricks since the day she came home from the breeder. Her favorites now include playing basketball, orbiting backward around me, leg weaves, drawing pictures, and pushing her shopping cart. The sport is so flexible and thus perfectly aligned with these giant dogs’ fun personalities and it’s equally accessible to the safety considerations of giant dogs.

Sirius earned her Novice Trick Dog title when she was just four months old and then went on to become the 2nd Newfoundland to earn the DMWYD Champion Trick Dog Title. When the COVID-19 quarantine hit, it seemed like the perfect time to finish Sirius’ Elite Performer title and use her tricks to bring a little bit of joy to others.

Sirius knows dozens of tricks, so my strategy with putting her routine together was to first come up with a theme and then write a script that would meet the requirements and let her showcase the tricks she enjoys best. I’m a writer, not an actor, but Sirius and I had a lot of fun putting her video together.

To earn the Elite Performer title dogs and handlers must perform a skit using tricks and props. For Sirius’ routine, she “delivers” a history report teaching the audience about Seaman the Newfoundland that belonged to the explorers Lewis and Clark. Seaman joined Lewis and Clark on the Corps of Discovery and made the journey all the way across the country to Oregon. In her Elite Performer skit, Sirius acts out different parts of Seaman’s journey.

Sirius Setbacks

Like Seaman, Sirius has also made a cross-country journey. Although Sirius never did any high impact activities/training as a puppy and comes from a responsible breeder whose parents had excellent results on joint health screenings, Sirius began experience ligament instability in her left knee at 8 months old and at 18 months, she tore ligaments in her right knee. At that time, X-rays confirmed her growth plates were closed, making her a candidate for surgery on both knees.

Multiple surgeons in the NYC area (where we lived at the time) all evaluated Sirius but explained that because we lived in a townhouse with stairs there were concerns about healing. In addition, there are limited options for orthopedic rehabilitation that could accommodate a giant dog close to NYC. By this point, my partner and I had moved into the basement to keep Sirius comfortable/away from stairs and we quickly made plans to sell our Brooklyn house, rent a house in Portland, Oregon, and drive cross country with three dogs and three cats in an SUV.

Just before Sirius’ second birthday and two weeks after arriving in Portland, Sirius underwent bilateral TPLO (Tibial-Plateau-Leveling Osteotomy) surgery to reconstruct both of her knees. Low impact trick and Rally training were core components of the post-surgery physical therapy that was prescribed to her. In fact, Sirius’ rehabilitation vet who was doing her physical therapy after surgery credited all the foundation sports training Sirius had done with her fast and complete recovery. Though Sirius’ knees have metal plates and pins, she is pain-free and medically cleared to train and compete in sports. Watching Sirius, most people have no idea how much she has overcome in her short life.

Making Dog Sports Accessible — Virtually

Although tricks are our primary focus as far as training, Sirius and I have trained in Rally since she was a puppy. I don’t drive, so dog shows haven’t been especially accessible to us but I was thrilled when the AKC began their pilot program making it possible for dogs to earn the Rally Novice Title at home. Sirius already knew all the skills needed so I made some signs, propped up my iPhone and set up courses in my backyard. The courses were a lot of fun and a great challenge to keep us busy during this very strange time.

In early May, Sirius and I recorded three runs and sent them in. Sirius earned three qualifying scores of 95 points under three different judges and earning her Rally Novice title. I absolutely loved earning her title via the pilot program (and had some custom ribbons made for Sirius to commemorate the occasion). This pilot program is a perfect opportunity for anyone who is interested in getting their dog involved in Rally.

At a time when there are so many hard unknowns in the world, having the ability to complete big goals with my giant dog has been a welcome distraction.

It is always my hope that Sirius’ trick journey can help to inspire other people whose dogs have overcome injuries to (when safe to do so) give low impact sports a chance. I used to compete in Agility and will always love the sport, but the thing I appreciate most about Tricks and Rally are the way that these sports are high energy and fun but also very accessible to dogs of all sizes, as well as those who have overcome orthopedic injuries.

I hope that Sirius can also help inspire more Newfoundland owners to pursue Tricks, Rally, and other sports. These giants might have a reputation as being lazy, but they are true working dogs and if given the opportunity love the chance to learn new things!

Related article: Intimidated by Agility? Try ACT (Agility Course Test)
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