The Unwanted Shelter Dog Who Found His Way to Westminster

Miles, an All-American dog, the American Kennel ClubÕs name for mutts, who belongs to horseback riding teacher Christine Longnecker, trains at Countryside Agility in Erie, Pa., May 6, 2024. (Daniel Lozada/The New York Times)
Miles, an All-American dog, the American Kennel ClubÕs name for mutts, who belongs to horseback riding teacher Christine Longnecker, trains at Countryside Agility in Erie, Pa., May 6, 2024. (Daniel Lozada/The New York Times)

ERIE, Pa. — A strange thing happened a few years ago when Christine Longnecker, who teaches horseback riding in and around Erie County, Pennsylvania, brought her new rescue dog, Miles, to a class. Instead of waiting quietly with the other nonhorses in the barn, Miles suddenly sprinted into the ring and bounded over the fences himself.

“He looked so excited,” Longnecker said. “And then he turned and barked as if to say, ‘This is how you do it.’”

That was the beginning of Miles’ career as an agility dog — the sort of dog you might see sprinting over and through obstacles while its owner frantically rushes around, yelling commands. On Saturday, he is scheduled to compete for the second time in the agility competition at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which will be held in the New York City borough Queens.

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The agility competition might be the rhythmic gymnastics of Westminster, derided as less than by traditionalists, but it’s a growing sport with meritocratic principles and an air of antic fun in its favor. Tuesday’s classic dog show finals, with best in show on the line, are open only to good-looking purebreds — never mind if they’re indolent, overbred or a couple of biscuits short of a box — whereas the agility competition rewards speed, intelligence and enthusiasm. Any dog can compete, no matter who its parents are.

Miles is an All-American dog, the American Kennel Club’s name for mutts. He looks vaguely Doberman-y, with a partially black, shiny coat and a long snout, but he’s actually 40% cattle dog, 23% Labrador, 10% border collie and 27% mélange of hound, according to an Embark dog DNA test commissioned by Longnecker.

He is also an unlikely success story: a once virtually unadoptable rescue dog who now competes against the top agility dogs in the country.

“Miles is proof that you can overcome anything with a little bit of belief and a lot of love,” Longnecker said. “You don’t need a ‘well-bred dog’ to have a best friend to play in dog sports with. You can find one right down the street at your local shelter.”

At the age of 7 or so, Miles is working toward his third MACH, or Master Agility Championship. He has competed twice in the agility nationals — an annual competition separate from Westminster — finishing as the top All-American dog in his category each time. Longnecker said Miles had little expectation of beating all the entrants in his category, which is often won by border collies and other dogs bred for speed, but that it was a thrill to have come this far.

At its heart, agility is a partnership between owner and dog, and Longnecker, 33, said that the minute Miles stops having fun, they will stop competing.

“If we weren’t here, the dogs wouldn’t band together among themselves and go to agility competitions,” she said. “They’re doing it for us, and we have to make sure they’re happy.”

‘Love at first sight’

Longnecker and Miles met six years ago at the Because You Care animal shelter in McKean, Pennsylvania.

Miles, who was known as Tank at the time, had a skull-and-crossbones collar and a tendency to snarl and growl from his bed in an uninviting manner. Once, he ripped a hole in the sleeve of the sturdy Carhartt jacket worn by the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, Becky Mancini.

“To say he wasn’t receptive to new people is an understatement,” Mancini said.

But when Longnecker arrived, Miles walked quietly to the front of his kennel and sat down. “And then he looked me straight in the eye and said, clear as day, ‘I just want to be a good boy,’” she recalled.

“All of a sudden this overwhelming sadness washed over me, the sense of his not being able to prove himself because he’d been told that he was a bad dog,” Longnecker continued. “My heart broke into a million pieces.”

The shelter workers were incredulous. “It was love at first sight,” Mancini said. “We all stood there open-mouthed as she loaded him into the car.”

At first, Miles was a mess — shaking, panting, his tail between his legs. Every time he got out of the car, he threw up, thinking he was returning to the shelter.

“When we turned on the garbage disposal, he ran upstairs and hid for three hours,” Longnecker said.

But gradually Longnecker, who is known among her friends in the dog and horse worlds for her ability to communicate with animals, convinced Miles that he was safe, even away from the house. “At first he didn’t believe me,” she said. “The way I ended up having to express it was to say that you’re part of my pack and my pack travels in a car. He jumped right in the car, and since then he’s been fine.”

Longnecker enrolled Miles in a class at Countryside Agility, the center of Erie’s agility community, and the two began competing, first locally, then regionally and nationally.

“It started as this incredibly fun thing to do, and then it turned out he was awesome at it,” Longnecker said. “He was racking up points.”

Miles’ growing enthusiasm for agility coincided with a newfound sense of purpose in other aspects of his life, especially when he appointed himself to an auxiliary role in Longnecker’s riding lessons.

His main job is to make sure the horses are jumping correctly.

“When the horses are jumping and knock over a rail, Miles gets really upset,” said Anna Buhl, 16, one of Longnecker’s students. First he registers his dismay by barking. “Then he’ll go jump the jump, to show the horses what to do,” Anna said.

Maddy McLaughlin, 20, another student, described Longnecker as “good cop” and Miles as “bad cop,” albeit one who is more critical of the horses than of the riders.

“It’s always been a running joke that he coaches more than she does,” she said. (Recently some of Longnecker’s clients made him a little “Assistant Coach Miles” canine T-shirt.) “When she gives us pep talks, he comes and licks our faces.”

Once, Anna fell off her horse.

“Miles came running,” she said. “He was the first person there to make sure I was OK.”

The animal whisperer

Agility competitions are high-intensity undertakings. After Miles returned exhausted from nationals in Ocala, Florida, in 2022, Longnecker hired a personal trainer who decreed that he should focus more on his core. In the regimen: doggy burpees and a balancing exercise involving four uneven pillows and some mindful paw-lifting.

He’s now in peak physical condition and ready for Westminster. On Monday, he and Longnecker drove to their weekly class at Countryside Agility, a vast facility in a converted department store on a commercial strip, for a final precompetition session. Among the other participants: a Portuguese water dog named Avery, a goldendoodle named Nittany and an Australian shepherd named Emmy.

Emmy’s owner, Jen Niebauer, is part of a four-human entourage planning to travel to New York for Saturday’s competition.

“We’re going to support Miles,” she said. As always, Longnecker will be in the ring with Miles, but the group will take along a photo of Carol Maxwell, Miles’ coach, affixed to a piece of cardboard — so that Flat Carol, as they call her, can stand in for the real thing.

Maxwell, 79, was in the arena Monday for a final coaching session. “Dogs need a job, and it’s really good exercise,” she said of agility. A former nurse anesthetist who started teaching agility when she was 65, Maxwell said that strictly speaking, she’s Longnecker’s coach, teaching her the correct hand movements, body language and verbal cues to help Miles master the course.

“She really understands animals, and she communicates with him so well,” Maxwell said.

Longnecker has a reputation here not just as Miles’ owner but also as an expert in animal communication, meaning that she helps humans find out what is going on with their pets. Almost everyone she knows seems to have sought her help.

Maxwell once enlisted her to find out why one of her dogs, a young Doberman pinscher, had become dispirited.

Longnecker said the dog wanted to spend more time in the water. “I said, ‘No, Dobermans hate water,’” Maxwell recalled. Then she found a video on her phone showing the dog happily playing in a creek in the background, and she realized Longnecker was right. “She didn’t want to get in the pool,” Maxwell said. “She just wanted to splash a bit.”

Longnecker says that animals send images to her, which she then translates into language. She likes to know as little as possible before a session so she comes to the problems fresh.

“I always want the animal to talk first and say what is most important to them,” she said.

She charges $50 for a 35-minute session, more if there are multiple animals. Business is booming. Among her recent cases: an elderly betta fish that said it was not afraid of dying, and that it had found joy in watching its 11-year-old owner dance around and do her homework when she returned from school each day; a bird that said it was pulling out its feathers in anxiety because it was too cold (the owner solved the problem by moving the cage away from the air conditioner); and a snake that said it resented being cooped up while the cats in the house roamed free. (The snake seemed to have an ulterior motive, Longnecker said, and the owner decided not to let it out of its cage.)

Asked by her mother to interpret the motivations of a squirrel that looked intently at her when she doled out peanuts in the backyard, Longnecker said the squirrel wished it could have walnuts instead. When Longnecker’s mother offered it a choice of nuts, the squirrel chose the walnuts and ignored the peanuts.

“It feels like there’s a universal energy stream that I’ve been able to tune in to,” Longnecker said. “It’s like calling someone a cellphone, but it’s in my brain. And I know that sounds wonky. I’m very scientifically motivated and I like things to make sense, but the stuff I get is absolutely bananas. I hope that science catches up with this one day.”

‘Under Miles’ thumb’

Longnecker said Miles was the first animal she truly communicated with. But no matter what is actually going on, one thing is clear: When he’s not working, Miles is a big, spoiled, cuddly baby. In a crowded house — he shares it not just with Longnecker and her housemate, Abby Sorensen, but also with two other dogs and two cats — he exudes main-character energy.

“Everybody lives under Miles’ thumb,” Longnecker said.

Allowed to select his own toys at the store, Miles always goes for the sparkliest plush unicorns. Reclining on the sofa, he covers himself in blankets, with only his snout visible. Riding in the car, he snuggles with the nearest available passenger. (It is admittedly difficult to maintain a professional journalistic distance from a subject who has jumped onto your lap and is licking your face.)

Longnecker’s bedroom is decorated with blown-up photos of Miles, and its walls are covered with his ribbons, alongside her equestrian prizes. Miles sleeps on her bed, using her legs as a pillow and courteously scooching over for her boyfriend of three years, a dentist.

“He and Miles are obsessed with each other,” Longnecker said of the boyfriend, who is part of the Team Miles entourage headed to Westminster. “He jokes that he’s dating me so he can be with Miles.”

“They say you save a rescue, but a rescue saves you,” she added. “Miles is the best thing to ever happen to me.”

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