Top dog

Auburn woman’s Australian shepherd wins big at Westminster

By Pamela H. Sacks

WORCESTER LIVING

2008

Terri Collins can pinpoint the moment she fell in love with an Australian shepherd. She was at an agility competition, an event in which handlers direct their dogs through an obstacle course in a race for time and accuracy. Collins watched as an Aussie entered a chute. The fabric came off the barrel-like cylinder, and the dog got tangled up in it.

“When the owner signaled, that dog stopped struggling,” Collins recalled. “They fixed the chute, and he went right back in. I thought, `I’ve got to have a dog like that.’ I started looking for an Aussie,” she said, her face lighting up.

Collins never could have guessed that seven years later she would be cheering from the stands in Madison Square Garden as her own Aussie, Deuce, made history. In February, the spunky female with a glossy red merle coat and light blue eyes became the first Australian shepherd to win Best in Group at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.

“It was one of the most phenomenal moments of my life,” Collins said. “It was like a dream, and I was waiting to wake up.”

Deuce’s accomplishment may seem obscure to those unfamiliar with the dog show world. So it helps to know that Westminster and other shows are elimination competitions in which dogs are judged against the ideal physical characteristics for their breeds. All year long, shows sanctioned by the American Kennel Club take place across the country. Dogs work toward gaining the 15 points needed to attain championship status; some particularly big winners continue to compete, accumulating points that place them in the national rankings. Indeed, Deuce is currently ranked No. 1, having accumulated more points than any other dog in the nation.

The Westminster show is a competition among the elite; only champions can enter. The dogs first go up against other members of their breed. The winner moves on to compete in one of the seven groups into which the breeds are divided. Australian shepherds are one of 21 breeds in the herding group, which also includes the familiar German shepherd and collie, as well as the more obscure Briard and Bouviers des Flandres. Finally, the winners of the group contests compete for Best in Show.

Collins, clad in jeans and a pink sweatshirt embossed with the image of an Aussie, sat in her spanking clean dog training facility on a recent morning and talked about those two exciting days in New York City. She owns and operates Collinswood K-9 Services, which offers training, kenneling and day-care services. Her business is situated on 5 acres directly behind her home in Auburn.

She and her professional dog handler, Jessica Plourde, had not held out much hope for the breed competition because the judge had not appeared to appreciate Deuce’s finer qualities in the past. When the spirited Aussie won, Collins screamed with joy.

She had taken a hotel room across the river in New Jersey, expecting to drive home after the first day, when all of the breed competitions are held. Since Collins would be staying for the second day, Plourde persuaded her to move into Manhattan and stay at the venerable Pennsylvania House, which is across from the arena. The two women went shopping at Macy’s for new outfits. “It was a blast!” Collins said.

The herders were the last group to be judged, and Collins, clad in a black suit decorated with sequins, gradually moved closer to the ring as seats freed up. Deuce already had developed a fan base; rousing cheers went up when she took first place.

The show had started with more than 2,500 dogs. Collins’ dog was one of the superb seven to enter the final phase of the contest. The excitement was palpable when Plourde jogged out with Deuce, her soft coat flowing as she moved smoothly across the floor. “It was just such a thrill,” Collins exclaimed, smiling ear to ear. “She was so beautiful. People were yelling, `Deuce!’”

A beagle by the name of Uno was expected to capture top honors – and he did. But Deuce had made her mark, raising the bar for all Aussies in future competitions.

Dogs have always been part of Collins’ life. Two of her brothers became veterinarians. She considered entering the profession, but decided instead to be a veterinary technician. She laughed as she recalled that not long after she married, she and her husband lived in an apartment with a Rottweiler, a St. Bernard and a Newfound-land. “I clipped my landlady’s miniature poodles, and she let me keep the dogs,” Collins explained.

Collins and her husband, from whom she is now separated, starting looking for a house in 1982 and came across the property in Auburn, where she and her children, Steven, 14, and Siobhan, 9, now live. Employed in a field not connected with animals, she handled dogs in obedience competitions and competed with her Rottweilers in her free time.

Then 10 years ago, her brother, Dr. Mike Lappin, who has a veterinary clinic in Buzzards Bay, urged her to give agility a try. Her Rottweiler, Kyla, proved fast and agile, and Collins fell in love with the sport. She trained with Kyla every Friday night under the direction of Betty Belliveau, who lives in Leominster.

“I was hooked; it was so great,” Collins said. “Kyla got his title in three shows – the best you can do.”

When Kyla developed arthritis and eye problems, Collins looked around for a lighter breed, and it was then that she happened to see the Aussie who got tangled in the chute. She got her first Aussie, Razz, seven years ago, from a woman who bred specifically for agility.

Collins remembered that she swooned when she first saw Deuce’s mother, Mattie, at a Boston dog show. “There was this beautiful red merle Aussie,” she said. “I couldn’t tear my eyes away.”

Deuce was 8 weeks old when Collins first saw her. The puppy was beautiful, like her mother, but completely out of control. She was about to be sold as a pet. But first, the owner, Sandra Landry, asked Collins to take a look at her. “Deuce took off across the floor. I was impressed. I agreed to take her for a week,” Collins said.

Collins was hooked. Deuce was four months old when she competed in her first show. She won Best Puppy and, after a break to give her a chance to grow up, she moved swiftly to capture top dog status.

Over the coming year, Deuce will compete in the country’s most prestigious shows and may go to Crufts, the Westminster of England. Then she and Collins, who is 51, will take up serious agility competition.

On an early fall morning, Deuce, now 5 years old, had a big blue ball clamped between her teeth as she romped with Collins’ five other Aussies. She is a sturdy creature with captivating eyes.

“She is so beautiful,” Collins gushed. “She is a funny, full-of-spunk dog.”