One Shih Tzu's Journey from Novice A to UD

by Beth Scorzelli

Back in 1995 I knew very little about dog obedience and nothing about agility. All I knew was the big 80-pound mixed breed that my husband and I got needed some manners. We took our first obedience class and at graduation placed 2nd. Well, I was hooked. We already had a 2-year-old Shih Tzu that was (and still is) a pet. The only obedience in the area was AKC obedience. I needed a purebred dog. I drove my husband crazy for another dog. I wanted a Shih Tzu to do obedience with —I told you I didn't know anything about obedience. In the summer of 1995 Sawyer came into my life and changed it forever. We started taking obedience classes and she learned very quickly. I have found that Shih Tzu are very smart dogs. I have also determined that that is part of the problem with showing them in obedience (or any performance event).

Sawyer was very inventive if she got bored with an exercise. She was a very food motivated dog—she would do anything for a bit of hot dog. Take the hot dog away and she MIGHT do it—if she wanted to. I made countless mistakes with her. She was the lagging queen. Trainers of other breeds suggested a pinch collar. I thought that might work. After all, it worked for my mixed breed with pulling. I bought one of those micro-prong collars and put it on her—once. She was the only dog I have ever seen get worse with a prong collar on. She sat down and would not do anything until I took it off. I immediately gave the collar away. She went through a period of at least a year where she would attack my shoes through the ENTIRE heeling pattern. Always looking for the positive, I thought, "at least she is not lagging." She is the only dog I know that flunked ON leash heeling and had points off for misbehavior! It took us 10 shows to finish her CD. She finished it in Jackson, MS, in October of 1996.

We had already begun training for Open and Sawyer seemed to love it. She liked new things to do. She was a retrieving fool—for her dumbbell. It was very interesting since she rarely played with toys or retrieved them. Pull out her dumbbell and she would snatch it out of your hand. In fact, the week before we put her to sleep she snatched my Beardie's dumbbell out of my hand when I was trying to teach him to take it. As if to say, "See, dumb dog, this is how it's done!" In fact, at one show someone in the next ring threw their dumbbell while Sawyer was doing Heel Free. She spent the entire heeling pattern searching for the dumbbell throughout the ring. I have done many a heeling pattern all by myself.

She continued her shoe fetish in Open and developed a new, more chronic problem—stays. She did not see the point of sitting for three minutes when she could lay down. I cannot even count how many times we busted on the sit-stay. If anyone has a sit-stay problem, ask me for suggestions; I have a million of them. She also became inventive in Open. I have on video the new exercise she created at one show—drop on retrieve. Coming back on the retrieve on flat she dropped like a rock—with the dumbbell still in her mouth. The judge looked at me and asked “Now what?” I called her in and she came trotting in with the dumbbell still in her mouth.

She always needed new things to do or she would be bored. I didn't learn that early enough in her career. I also didn't learn how to make things fun for her. She became bored with Open too. It was then that I started agility with her and her daughter Brook. It was November 1998 when we started training agility. It was before there were weave poles in Novice standard. I figured we would do Novice standard just for something else to do. Well, 8 years later agility is my main obsession. Agility did help Sawyer's attitude in obedience. She quickly finished her NA and I had to go back and train weaves, since she really seemed to like agility. She never did learn to weave on the "off" side. Her entire agility career through her MX, AXJ, AXP, and MJP she never did "off" side weaves. I had to do some very inventive things to get "on" side.

In October 1999 Sawyer finally finished her CDX in Jackson, MS. Yes, if you're counting, three YEARS between CD and CDX. I wish I could say we took a break. The only break we took was for her to have puppies in March 1998. The only thing I can say that did was help her forget about her shoe fetish. I was so excited. We were finally going to get to do Utility. I figured that would be a breeze—there was no figure 8 and best of all NO STAYS! By the time we finished our CDX she could already do most of the Utility exercises. I taught her scent articles because I was watching a friend with a Lab have great difficulty teaching her Lab scent articles. Sawyer picked up scent articles in about 2 weeks. It was just "find the hot dog". I had all the articles tied to a pegboard very tightly except the correct article. She got to where she was getting the correct article every time. I thought, she's pushing them to see which one is loose, so I untied them. She still nailed it every time. If she ever brought the wrong one, I never corrected her for bringing the wrong article. That was something I learned from Competitive Obedience for the Small Dog. We don't know what that dog smells, so I always gave her the benefit of the doubt on scent articles. The only time she was corrected was for failure to retrieve. I taught her a forced retrieve and recommend it for anyone that wants a reliable retrieve, but be sure you know what you are doing before you do it. It never affected Sawyer negatively. In fact, she would retrieve anything I asked her to. That was the only thing I ever impressed my mother with. She is in wheelchair and she gave the dogs all a "goodie" on paper plates. Well, I told her to have Sawyer pick them up for her and she did.

Sawyer being Sawyer, however, utility was NOT the breeze I thought it was going to be. She frustrated me to tears numerous times at shows. It was not a given exercise. She busted them all at one time or another. Signals were the most frequently busted exercise. Once she went down, she would put her head down on her front paws and not get back up. ONLY in shows. She would do the sit signal at the training club, at home, at parks, anywhere but in a show ring. Then if she did signals she wouldn't bring the metal article in. Once she found the correct article, brought it halfway to me, dropped it and went back to the pile and searched, and searched, and searched. The judge finally told me to show it to her. At Shih Tzu Nationals she found the correct article and brought it ALMOST back to me and dropped it and looked at me. Just daring me to give her a second command. The judge waited, and waited, and waited. He even cleared his throat, walked back behind her to the other side—trying anything to get her to pick it up. After what seemed like forever, I told her to take it a second time, and she snatched it up and brought it in.

That was just Sawyer. Her first Utility leg was at a Toy Breed specialty in Houston, TX, on dirt in the freezing cold. We had an agility show that weekend too. The obedience was on Friday evening and after she got that leg, I told her she didn’t have to qualify the rest of the weekend. She didn’t. Wouldn’t even lie down on the table. I didn’t care; we got our first utility leg. Little did I know the second one would take over a year to get. She got her second leg at our local obedience show. It was very exciting to do it with all our friends watching, knowing how hard we worked and struggled. I don’t think she sat one time the whole run., although she made me sweat on the glove by taking a big arc toward #2 when we had #3.

In April of 2004 we were at an agility trial and she wouldn't even walk through a course. Something was wrong with her. At that time she was 9. I took her to the vet and he suspected Cushing's' disease. He referred us to the referral clinic in Dallas. After an ultrasound and more blood work, they determined that it was an adrenal tumor causing the Cushing's. In May 2004, she had major surgery to remove the tumor. It was a high-risk surgery since the adrenal gland is close to the inferior vena cava. Also, it was risky in that she could go into shock after producing so much cortisol and then having it go away suddenly. Suddenly it didn't matter if she finished her UD. It only mattered that she lived. She made it through and recovered very well. She had more energy and was back to her old self.

In December 2004 she finished her UD. We had entered Utility B because we already had a leg under the judge for Utility A. During the signal exercise, someone dropped a chair. She was very sound sensitive and she whipped her head around to check it out, but she did her signals. Next were gloves. She got the glove in the corner of the ring closest to where the chair was dropped. I thought, she's never going to go to that corner. She did. Articles were last. We had been having a problem with her bringing the metal article all the way in. She did it. I took the leather article and saw my friend that had struggled with me all through utility standing outside the ring with tears in her eyes and fingers crossed. She had struggled just as hard with her Ridgeback and had finished his UD earlier that year. I was standing there thinking, "She usually doesn't have any problem with the leather article, but it IS Sawyer". My hands were shaking when I handed the judge the article. She said, "relax." She had no idea what had come before this one exercise and how much it meant. I sent Sawyer for the article and she went to the pile and immediately indicated the article and LOOKED at me. I just kept staring at her. She snatched it up and came in. The judge said "you have qualified" and there was pandemonium. She said, "Is this a title or something?" She was very nice and patient with all of the friends and acquaintances that swarmed the ring to give us their congratulations.

Sawyer finished her UD at the same show site that she finished her CD and her CDX. She had prime rib that night. If they had let me, I would have sat her at the table with us. I told her she OWNED the couch. Before that day I promised her if she qualified one more time she never had to do utility again. I scratched her entry on Sunday.

In May 2005, we found that Sawyer's adrenal tumor had come back. We tried to do surgery a second time and after opening her up the surgeon said he only gave her about a 50% chance of surviving the surgery since the tumor had grown into her vena cava. I told them just to close her back up. She had a very hard time recovering from the second surgery. I was devastated that I did that to her for nothing. With support from our dog friends and veterinarians, we both recovered. Our wonderful vet in Dallas suggested a drug therapy that had been shown to shrink adrenal tumors in dogs. It was not a proven treatment, but it was all we had. It did shrink the tumor. She ran preferred agility and did rally obedience and ruled the house as usual.

In January of 2006 when we went for our follow up ultrasound appointment the vet found changes in her liver. She speculated that it might be liver cancer, but after the hard time Sawyer had recovering from the second surgery, I decided to do nothing about it. I also had a hard time believing anything was wrong with her liver since nothing was seen prior to this and we had biopsied the liver when we took out the original tumor. Well, the next month she got very sick and would not move. She spent two days at our local vet on IV fluid and antibiotics. Her liver enzymes were through the roof. They put her on medicine and she seemed to do ok.

Sawyer competed for the last time at the 2006 Shih Tzu Nationals in Frederick, MD. She finished her Rally Excellent title. In June my local vet convinced me to do another ultrasound to see where we stood. Her liver was almost totally taken over by tumor. They gave her 1-3 months to live. Just to prove them wrong, she lived 4 months and went to the Rainbow Bridge on October 12, 2006. She retired with 20 AKC titles and 22 titles overall, but I am proudest of the UD. She never scored over 186 in any of her obedience classes, but she still proved that these little dogs are more than just a pretty face. I miss her every day. She was my constant companion, even when I was asking her to do all those stupid things that didn't make any sense at all to her. Together we proved that these dogs CAN do performance events. It's not as easy as it would be with a more traditional breed, but it is well worth it. I believe she has made me a better dog trainer than I ever would have been with another dog. Here's to Scorzelli's Sassy Sawyer, UD, MX, AXP, AXJ, MJP, RE, P1, NAC, CGC, TDI.