But the Wesley Chapel woman loves it
By B.C. Manion
While some people never find their true niche in life, Gabrielle Blackburn said she discovered hers in fifth grade.
That’s when her Lake Magdalene Elementary teacher brought her border collie to school and gave Blackburn a ticket to come see the teacher appear with her dog on Animal Planet.
“I told my parents I definitely have to go to this,” said Blackburn, 21.
But her parents didn’t expect her interest in dogs to stick.
“They thought it was just a passing phase,” Blackburn said. They also informed her that she would not be getting a dog.
Her parents were wrong on both counts.
They wound up giving her a sheltie. She named the dog Q and began taking it to compete at dog shows.
After Q competed at nationals, Blackburn said her parents agreed to give her a border collie.
“I got Zing for my 16th birthday,” Blackburn said. She’s been training Zing and entering the dog in competitions ever since.
The efforts have paid off.
Zing was named the national agility champion in his height division at the AKC National Agility Championship, which was March 30 through April 1 in Reno, Nev.
Zing won by zipping around the course without making any errors. He zigzagged through a series of poles, known as weaves. He scampered up and down a teeter-totter and raced through a tunnel. He cleared jumps and climbed up and went down an A-frame.
Blackburn ran alongside or directed Zing while he made his rounds.
While just the dog is judged, winning the competition takes a team effort, Blackburn said.
“Any little turn of your body and the dog will go off course. The dog is very attuned to you. It’s really hard to run somebody else’s dog,” said Blackburn, who teaches dog agility classes and has offered her expertise in Brazil and Colombia.
In agility contests, speed and accuracy are essential.
“If you make a mistake, you’re out,” Blackburn said. “At a national event, a lot of times what separates first and 10th place will be like 0.3 seconds. We’re talking every really tiny tenth of a second comes into play.”
Gearing up for a competition requires substantial training, said Blackburn, who has an agility field at her Wesley Chapel home.
“You have to get up really early to train before the sun comes out,” said Blackburn, who is in the midst of training six dogs, including Zing.
“I take each one of them out, and I stretch them out,” she said.
She then works with the dogs on skills, breaking them down into manageable parts.
“There are a minimum number of challenges on a course,” Blackburn said. “There are different handling maneuvers you do to change sides.
“The most important thing when you get to a big event is how tight the dog takes those obstacles. It takes a lot of training to get them to go really tightly,” Blackburn continued. “Nationals are a very pumped atmosphere. When everyone is screaming and everything, the dog is more likely to make a mistake.”
But Blackburn said Zing loves the excitement.
She’s unabashed about her love for dogs.
“The house I buy, the car I drive, everything in my life revolves around dogs. It’s an insane lifestyle, in a way. It’s not for everyone,” Blackburn acknowledged.
When she was choosing her car, for example, she made sure it had enough room to handle dog crates.
When she chose her property, Blackburn made sure there was ample room for an agility field.
When she plans her vacations, she considers Zing’s needs, too.
Blackburn gives the dogs under her care special treatment.
There’s an aboveground pool where the dogs can cool down. There’s a treadmill where they can exercise. They eat special food. They even go to chiropractors and get massages.
“It’s crazy, but it really does make a difference,” Blackburn said. “They get sore.”
Her days revolve around training, teaching classes to owners and traveling to competitions. She has created a business called Impulse to Soar, and she likes to hang out with people who understand her passion.
“My dad is finally resigned to the fact that my life has gone to the dogs.”