Major and owner/trainer Debbie Beam stand atop the podium at last October’s Purina Incredible Dog Challenge. Major beat out the favored border collie field to take gold in the “30 Weave Pole” event, the first russell terrier to do so./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Underdog story

Local canine athlete brings home gold
by Jen Reeder

Durango may be a small town, but plenty of world-class athletes have helped put it on the map, often using a bike, kayak or skis. But the latest athlete to bring home a national title used just his legs – all four of them. Major, a Parson Russell Terrier owned by Debbie Beam, recently beat out the big dogs to win at the 2011 Purina Incredible Dog Challenge in St. Louis, Mo. the competition will be aired on NBC at 3 p.m. Jan. 14.

“It was a blast,” Beam said. “This was our first-ever national competition and win.”

Major, 6, who has trained in agility since he was a puppy, is the first small-breed dog to ever win the “30 Weave Pole Up and Back” event at the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge finals. The event, now in its 14th year, features seven different competitions categories, including agility, freestyle flying disk, Jack Russell hurdles and diving. In the weave event, dogs must race through 30 poles, sprint through a tunnel, and return and weave back through the 30 poles before crossing the finish line. Two dogs and their handlers race simultaneously in head-to-head racing. The “weave” is usually won by large breeds, and Major raced against the defending champ, a border collie.

“Because it’s been a fairly long-standing event, it’s become known for attracting world-class canine athletes,” said Jadea Abolahrari, who manages media relations for the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge. “We’re so excited that Major was able to take home first place. It was such a compelling competition – every time Major competed, he’d come from behind, so it was a nail-biter every time. He definitely won the hearts of a lot of people watching the event.”

The Purina Incredible Dog Challenge is by invitation only. Major and Beam were invited to participate in the regional trials last June in San Diego, Calif., after a judge saw them compete in an agility event in Moab. Major won the small dog agility event in San Diego as well as the weave, which qualified him to compete in the finals in St. Louis.

“No small dog had ever won the weave pole challenge, so he was definitely a crowd favorite heading into San Diego,” Beam said. “He had a lot of people rooting for him. I could hear the audience screaming.”

On Oct. 1 in St. Louis, with Beam’s husband, Larry, family and friends in the stands, Major and Beam had won two qualifying heats for the weave event to set up for the final pairing. Beam – who admits she was probably more nervous than Major – kept her focus on Major during the race so he wouldn’t break concentration, urging him on with the cue “Shoo shoo shoo.”

“They’re focused on their job, but they’re also focused on you because you’re directing them,” Beam said. “A dog never makes a mistake – it’s always the handler. I have to stay right there with him and watch every weave he makes, because if I look away or pull away, he’ll pull out, so I’m with him 100 percent.”

Because of her focus on Major, Beam had no idea how they were faring until the race was over and there was a press of cameras, handshakes and interviews. She still found time to play a little fetch with Major, his reward for a job well done.

“He got a ribbon around his neck with a little silver bone, and a nice round crystal trophy,” Beam said, adding that it is in their house where he and the family’s retired agility dog Aspen can’t accidentally break it. “He really stepped it up and ran well.”

Durango resident Leslie Donohue, a member of Durango Agility Dogs and agility trainer at Alpha Canine Academy, is a friend of Beam’s. From Durango, she watched Major competing via an internet stream and teared up when Major won.

“I was so happy – to go through all those steps and win is phenomenal,” Donohue said. “His weaves are like none I’ve ever seen. They’re amazing. He can speed up when it counts.”

She added that the win is even more impressive considering his breed, and a credit to Beam’s dedication and skill as a trainer. “Border collies are usually a piece of cake to train. They’re so focused on you, their attention span is really long … but terriers, on the other hand, they can be more challenging. She just has a keen sense of how to get the most out of her dog.

Beam, the equipment manager for Durango Agility Dogs who has lived in Durango since the 1970s, is humble about the success. “I’m just a small-town country girl who trains her dog in her back yard, and to be invited to such a big event was a huge honor for me,” she said.

Anne Klein, public relations consultant for the Durango Area Tourism Office, said Major’s win and resulting national exposure add to Durango’s reputation for being active and canine-friendly.
“We have been featured as being such a dog-friendly town in numerous publications,” Klein said. “This just adds support to what a wonderful place Durango is.”