A Balancing Act – Achieving Titles on Both Ends

Photos by Jeremy Kezer Photography & Rich Knecht Photography
irish water spaniel jumping over an obstacle


It is great to have a dog that has high-level titles on both ends. But how does one go about doing this when, in reality, there is limited time and most people have limited resources?

The first step is being honest with yourself about which venues and titles are most important. If the attainment of high-level titles in specific venues is most important, then the first step is setting the goal and ensuring that it is realistic.

2 combined images, left: irish water spaniel jumping over an obstacle, right: irish water spaniel with her handler

Not every dog or breed is cut out for every Performance venue. Some breeds excel in particular venues due to their structure and/or what they were bred to do. You have to be honest about what you are committed to doing. Where is your passion and why are you doing it?

Then you have to prioritize. (There is only so much time and money for most people.) Most venues require an enormous amount of commitment (time and money) when you want to achieve the highest-level titles, whether that be campaigning a special (national ranking, the various levels of grand championships), achieving a MACH, OTCH, or high-level field or herding titles, etc. Again, as there is only so much time, you have to prioritize where you spend your training time and which events you can enter. But it is achievable if you take advantage of the various stages of the
dog/handler team.

I start with an extensive amount of puppy foundation training and socialization. Even with this foundation, I prioritize what kind of foundation I put on my dogs. Then I work to achieve their breed championship. Most likely, they have to mature a bit more before being specialed. So, that is when I focus on bringing the dog out in a Performance venue. They start earning titles in that venue and, for me, that is Agility.

dog going for titles; irish water spaniel jumping over an obstacle

When they have matured, I will then special them. During this time, I will still train and maybe trial in Agility trials a bit, but the main focus is the Conformation ring. When they are done with the Conformation ring, then I go back to the Performance events. Typically, my dogs have run Agility up to and past 11 years of age, so there is time to achieve the highest levels.

Foundation is key to achieving titles on both ends. Socializing a puppy and exposing them to a ton of different settings so that they can be confident in any situation is very important. A high-quality Puppy Foundation class is also very important to provide positive experiences. A good Basic Obedience class, so that the puppy learns to love learning, is also incredibly important—if you have a good instructor. Dogs need to learn to love training and working with people. (And yes, a great Conformation dog can learn a “sit” as a puppy and still have a beautiful free-stack in the ring.)

But it is not just about classes. Not everyone has access to quality instructors, and most training occurs outside of the class, including going to different environments. I am lucky as I have older dogs that are competing, and the puppy always comes along. I showed my young girl in Conformation while I trained her Agility foundation. That taught her to love to learn and work with me, and now she just started to compete in Agility and she already knows how to handle a crazy dog show environment.

dog going for titles; irish water spaniel jumping over an obstacle

It does take a team to achieve titles on both ends. It starts with the breeder, and that is one of the most important relationships during the life of the dog. Having a partnership with the breeder who understands and supports your goals is incredibly helpful. You need to be honest with the breeder about what you want to achieve. That will help you select the puppy that will give you the best shot at achieving your goals. Then there are the instructors, from the Puppy Foundation class, Basic Obedience class, and Agility (or whatever sport) classes. Going to an instructor who has an awesome relationship with their dogs, where you can learn the skills to develop that same type of relationship, makes for a wonderful experience for you and that dog.

Then there is the handler. Entrusting someone to take your dog on the road, a dog that you have spent so much time training and developing that relationship, can be difficult. But if it is the right handler, they can develop the same relationship with the dog. I am incredibly fortunate in this area.

We know there is not a financial reward to all of this. The expenses far outweigh any potential “prize.” The reward is the journey, and the relationship that is developed with that dog on the journey toward the titles is priceless. The bond that is developed is incredible. And finally, achieving that title is immensely rewarding. The feeling of accomplishment that is achieved when you finally get there is magnificent.


Photos by Jeremy Kezer Photography & Rich Knecht Photography.

  • Stephanie O’Reilly has been “in dogs” for over 25 years. She started in Obedience with a Great Dane, and then fell in love with the Irish Water Spaniel and decided to do many other venues. Stephanie competes in Conformation, Agility, Obedience, Rally, Hunt Tests, and FastCAT. Her primary sport is Agility. She has earned 19 MACH and six PACH titles with five dogs. Stephanie’s dog, CH MACH9 PACH Cuardach Blaze The Trail CD RN JH (Clark), has earned the most MACH titles by any IWS. Currently, she has the No. 1 Sporting Dog (Sloane) in Conformation who also has multiple Performance titles and is half-way to his MACH. Stephanie has also had the top IWS in Agility for the past three years.

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