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Trying out a new pilot program in dog sports can be intimidating—even more so when you’re the youngest person participating. At just 13 years old, Mia Alvarez is the first and only Junior Handler competing in the AKC’s new Agility League with the Antelope Valley Dog Agility Group in California. She currently competes in Agility with her 3-year-old All-American Dog named Honey.

However, she isn’t the only Agility competitor trying out the pilot program in her family. Her grandmother Sandra Norris is also competing in the Agility League with her dogs.

Jumping Into Agility

Mia was just 11 years old when she started getting involved in Agility after attending an Agility class with her grandmother. The instructor’s dog can run with anyone, allowing Mia to do so in her very first class. From then on, she was hooked!

Initially, Mia had started trying to do agility with her family’s Standard Poodle named Coco. But despite going to class together and working hard, Mia knew Agility wasn’t an activity that made Coco happy. The team kept working together on Coco’s confidence—she particularly did not like the tunnel obstacle—but the family knew it was unlikely that Coco would ever be a competent partner for Mia. “She trained her and trained her and worked with her for a year and poor Coco she just was not on board with the program,” Sadra says.

Mia training with her family's Standard Poodle, Coco.
Courtesy of Mia Alvarez
Mia training with her family’s Standard Poodle, Coco.

Although Coco was not destined to be Mia’s agility partner, the experience of building motivation and training Coco helped prepare Mia for when the right Agility dog would enter her life. As luck would have it, the family’s groomer found a stray dog with a litter of puppies. The Chihuahua mix immediately caught Mia’s eye, and she got Honey. Then when her dog was just 7 months old, Mia started training Honey for Agility.

Mia credits Honey for being food motivated and deeply bonded to her as to what helped jumpstart their training relationship. By slowly introducing her to Agility foundation skills, Mia could see that right away Honey was excited about it. “She loved it and there was food and play and running,” Mia says.

Sandra adds that Honey was clearly energetic and Mia’s previous training helped accelerate the process. “She already knew sequencing and how to handle and now she had the dog that could actually do what she wanted her to do,” she says. “She had the training first and it helped them to work together as a team.”

Honey is a high-energy little dog who loves Agility but also has a high prey drive, so Mia had to learn to channel that energy in order to keep Honey from running off to chase birds and bugs while they were training. The two began competing in the spring of 2021 and have done very well. Mia says her proudest moment with Honey is all the first place ribbons.

Mia’s favorite part of Agility training is the opportunity that it gives her to really bond with her dog. In particular, she loves how training strengthens the relationship between dog and handler and the unique bond that forms between the dog and owner. Mia also enjoys the opportunity to meet and connect with other animal lovers.

Deciding to Join the AKC Agility League

The AKC Agility League is a new program that launched at the end of May and has 40 teams from across the nation—and 245 dogs—competing. The league works by having the teams run six courses during a 12-week period where both teams and individual dogs are ranked based on performance. Teams have been sharing their experience and results on the AKC Agility League Facebook Group, and the program will be expanding in the fall to more teams around the country.

As an opportunity to compete without excessive travel, Mia was down to join. As the first Junior Handler to compete in the AKC Agility League program she inspires others at any age looking for a new way to compete in Agility.

“I think it’s really cool because I’ve never done teams before,” she says. We’ve only done general competition, and it’s exciting being part of a team and seeing all the dogs and where Honey scores.”

Mia with Honey, an All-American Dog, and their Agility ribbons.
Courtesy of Mia Alvarez
Mia with Honey and their Agility ribbons.

Encouraging Other Juniors to Get Involved

Both Mia and Sandra expressed gratitude for how friendly and welcoming their training community has been to Mia as a Junior Handler. This kind of support is vital for kids and teens who want to get involved in dog sports. Mia hopes that there will be continued visibility of Junior Handlers in all sports—because if kids and teens don’t see people their age showing dogs, it can be hard to imagine getting involved themselves.

One way to make entering dog sports easier is for clubs to offer reduced-priced entries for Juniors. Sandra noted that recently she went to a trial and inquired about why there wasn’t a junior handler discount being offered. The response from the club was they hadn’t thought of it because there weren’t any juniors in the area. When Sandra reminded them about Mia, the club and the trial secretary immediately met to start offering Junior Handler discounts at their trials. Showing dogs can be expensive, and reduced entry fees for Juniors can make the difference between a kid or teen being able to show that weekend or not.

In Mia’s area, she’s the only Junior Handler, but she hopes to see clubs everywhere doing more to encourage juniors to get and stay involved in performance sports like Agility. Mia would love to see more kids and teens getting involved in dog sports, especially Agility. Mia hopes that more kids and teens to try out the sport even if they aren’t entirely sure what dog sports are. “Personally, I didn’t know [Agility] was a thing until I saw it,” she explains. “It’s really fun.”

She believes that dog training is a great way to increase your bond with your dog and that getting involved with dog sports can even help to reduce challenges in the home around a dog’s behavior. It’s something she recommends to any dog lover.

There are sure to be a lot more blue ribbons in Mia and Honey’s future, and hopefully, other Junior Handlers competing alongside them in the Agility League.