Like a lot of Charlotteans, Piper Novick, 14, is a dog-lover.
But her love for furry four-legged friends exceeds the commitment most young people have: She’s chosen to be home-schooled so she can devote time to training her dogs for agility competitions.
Agility contests happen at big meets all over the country, on most weekends: Trainers guide their dogs through an obstacle course of seesaws, A-frames, tunnels, tires, jumps and weaves. At meets, called trials, teams – one dog, one trainer – can take a shot at two courses. The aim is to run each course quickly and accurately, and if a dog and its handler do so, they can gain a qualification. Amassing qualifications leads to different levels of achievement.
This past December, Piper and one of her Shetland sheepdogs, Happy, qualified for the American Kennel Club Eukanuba Junior Invitational in Orlando, Fla. She was one of 100 juniors, defined as 11 to 18 years old, to compete.
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Happy placed fifth and fourth in the events, but won first place overall for his jump height. Winning, Piper said, was a pleasant surprise.
“I was not expecting anything from him; he was already semi-retired and hadn’t competed in a while,” she said. “I went to go have fun and get experience.”
Piper wasn’t always interested in training dogs. She first learned about agility competitions about five years ago when her aunt passed away and left her agility-training equipment. She decided to see what she could do with Happy, whom she had as a pet, and not for competition purposes. (Piper has three other dogs: Shetland sheepdogs Scout, 6, and Dash, 1 1/2; and Kai, a 9-month-old Border Collie.)
In October 2010, she and Happy went to their first trial and took first place. “It was an immediate addiction,” Piper said.
The sport, she said, is really about teamwork and less about competing against other dogs. “It’s not just about the dog. You have to be in sync with the dog – you can’t screw up either.”
Her dad, Mike Novick, keeps agility equipment for Piper and her dogs in his backyard and agreed. “It’s a competition, but really a competition with yourself.”
Piper and her mother, Elle Novick, travel often on weekends, usually within a two-hour distance, to trials from nearby (Cabarrus County Arena) to farther out (Yadkinville, Fletcher or Savannah, Ga.).
Piper said she simply loves working with dogs and the agility experience. “It’s exciting, and the people are awesome.”
At 14, Piper is the youngest agility trainer in the area she knows of. She converses often with other young trainers across the country via Facebook, and she loves spending time with the “older” training crowd, she said. “I’d rather be with a bunch of dog ladies than anything.”
Deb Knowles, who runs Dog Haven Obedience and Agility Training in Charlotte, said Piper is the only teen she’s worked with who has stuck with agility training, and that she’s been impressed with her maturity. “Piper is an old soul,” Knowles said. “She’s never sounded like a child since I’ve known her.”
Piper has been taking Happy (and now Dash) to work with Knowles for the past three years, and recently began interning with Knowles to learn the ins and outs of running an agility-training business.
“She’s learned a lot on how to build and execute a course just by helping,” Knowles said.
Aside from winning national agility titles, Piper dreams of someday owning her own agility-training business or becoming a veterinarian.
As a home-schooled high school freshman, she has the flexibility to juggle school hours with training. She said she’d like to see more young people excited about agility. “It’s a great thing for you and your dog – it’s just a lot of fun, and I think it’s great for kids to be involved in.”
The most challenging part of competition, she said, is to not beat herself up about mistakes. “I know the second when I’ve screwed up – it’s not ever the dog’s fault, really. The hardest part is to not bring yourself down about it.”
Knowles said she thinks Piper has a strong future with agility, in large part because of how seriously she takes her goals of winning national titles. “She’s had a goal and dream and stuck to it and pushed on. I can easily see her at the national level this year with her new dog.”