Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

A broken ankle at the start of 2013 could have stopped other teams in its tracks, but LeaAnne Thorne and her 2-year-old Shetland sheepdog Lucy only took a breather for about four months.

By spring, Thorne — wearing a cast — and Lucy were back to working on the dog’s obedience and agility training.

“Lucy is super focused,” said Thorne of Charlotte Hall, a lifelong dog trainer. “I started to work with her in April, and she picked it right back up.”

Not only did Lucy get back in the groove, she qualified to compete against top American Kennel Club rally dogs and earned the top ranking for a rally dog — advanced excellent — in three months in 10 straight shows where she earned 10 first-place finishes.

This weekend Thorne and Lucy will be in Harrisburg, Pa., to compete for the top spot in the first AKC Rally National Championships.

Rally combines elements of obedience and agility and is a little more fun than the more structured straight-up obedience contests, Thorne said.

AKC Rally is a new dog sport that offers dogs and handlers a fun and energizing experience, according to an AKC news release.

The team is able to move at its own pace in the activity that is similar to rally-style auto racing and is designed to encourage traditional pet owners to participate but still can challenge handlers and dogs who enjoy competition, the release states.

“It is an excellent introduction to AKC companion events for new dogs and handlers and can provide a challenging opportunity for competitors in other events like agility and obedience to strengthen their skills,” wrote Stephanie Smith, the club’s communications manager, in an email. The rally was added “to give our rally dogs competing throughout the year a high-level event to work toward and the celebrate the skills of the top dogs.”

While it’s the dogs that maneuver through weave poles, climb and descend A-frames and balance on a see-saw, the trainers aren’t exactly statues.

They keep up with the animals and are able to give a few commands and encouraging words.

“It’s a team effort,” Thorne said. “We work together.”

Lifelong love

Thorne grew up in a family of animal lovers and veterinarians.

Her father, who thought about going into the field but instead became a lawyer, was known for picking up any stray dog he came across, much to her mother’s chagrin.

But Thorne loved it.

“I’ve been obsessed with them,” she said of her love of dogs that stretches back to childhood. “I’d brush them, clean their ears, try to train them.”

Every book she checked out from the library was about dogs.

She really had it bad for canines.

So much so that when her father took her to a dog show at the D.C. Armory — most likely for a Capitol Kennel Club event — it was sort of an awakening.

“I saw the famous people I would read about,” she said of well-known trainers. “I never dreamed something like this was in my own backyard.”

Joining the pack

As an adult, Thorne kept up her family tradition of having dogs, usually small and medium-sized breeds who are friendly, agile and smart, she said.

Among the dogs she and her family have had include a cocker spaniel, boxer, silky terrier, miniature pinscher, miniature schnauzer, cardigan Welch corgi, a papillon (that’s Pippin, 8, an agility champion himself who is now being trained to track and is a therapy dog), Lucy the sheltie and Boomer, an English cocker spaniel puppy, who will start training immediately.

Thorne takes her pets to shows even if they aren’t competing — she believes that they need to be around other animals and people.

“You need to socialize them with other dogs,” she said. “They hang out, sit on laps. We take them everywhere.”

If she’s going to watch her grandchildren — Maddie, 9, Jersey, 7, and Richard, 5 — play ball, the dogs are there, too, and when it comes to training, she isn’t a taskmaster.

“I’m all about positive training,” Thorne said. “It’s not like I’ll let them get by with everything.”

Trainers don’t have to be mean, just firm and patient, she said.

The dogs like working on agility, Thorne said.

When it comes to Pippin and Lucy, “They get jealous of each other’s training,” she said.

At the home she shares with her husband, Jeff — they have four grown children, Michael Gleason, Jeff Thorne, Ashley and her husband Matt Dooley and Wayne Gleason and his wife Destiny — Thorne has some of the rally equipment in the yard, including an A-frame, see-saw and weave poles for exercises.

She and the dogs head to dog shows about twice a month.

“It’s a lifestyle,” Thorne said. “I love doing it.”

“It’s super fun,” she said of participating in rally events, which encourages handlers to communicate with their dogs and praise them along the way. “The dogs love it, people love it. There’s nothing not to love.”