Don’t let her size or impish looks fool you,
this young handler is making big impression

Photos courtesy of Jerry and Lois Photography

By Ranny Green

Emma Hughes and Milly are focused on each other during Excellent level agility competition at the Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show last March.

What she yields in maturity and size, 9-year-old Emma Hughes overcomes with commitment and energy in the agility rings of the Pacific Northwest.

The 4-foot, 2-inch, 51-pound Woodinville wunderkind and her tri-colored Shetland sheepdog partner Milly have been turning heads in the sport for several years with their continuing progress in this demanding dog sport. In fact, the Energizer bunny has nothing on the radiant Emma . . . other than a battery pack. Emma is one of those charismatic people who change the environment that she’s in.

Robin Cohen, Woodinville agility trial secretary and longtime enthusiast in the sport, says, “Emma is an amazing young girl. She’s doing things with her dog that lots of adults have a hard time doing – both training and showing in the agility ring. It’s fun to watch such a small person run the course and do quite well. When things don’t go as planned, she has the maturity to get herself together and back on track without being flustered. It’s all the more remarkable that she is training her own dog to boot.

A good workout deserves some special bonding time afterward, hence Emma and Milly emerge from the tunnel together.

“When she doesn’t run so well, she keeps her head up and continues to have fun. But you can always tell when she does run well – for she receives some of the biggest rounds of applause.”

The foundation for Emma and Milly’s weekend successes is built during the week in their yard, where her parents, Margaret and John, have fashioned an agility practice layout featuring all the implements of the sport.

“I never have to tell her to go practice,” say Margaret Hughes, an agility competitor herself. “She knows what she needs to work on and savors the time with Milly. That dog totally adores her and has been the perfect partner. Shelties have a high tolerance for training and bond strongly with one owner and are great around a variety of other animals.”

Emma takes a break as the goats enjoy a meal.

The Hughes family lives on 2.8 acres with four goats, two chickens, two dogs (Tia, the other dog is also a Shetland sheepdog), two cats, a hamster and five fish. These all add up to chores for Emma, which include feeding the dogs, letting the goats and chickens out each morning, moving the agility equipment around, driving the tractor and watering the garden. When the goats and chickens decide to make themselves right at home on the agility course, that tends to make things a bit more challenging for Emma and Milly. This prompted Emma to teach one of the goats to follow her over a jump or two.

At school, this little dynamo is involved in math and book clubs. Add to that, Girl Scouts and summer swimming lessons and she has a full plate.

Even this goat enjoys getting some attention on the family’s practice agility course.

Emma started agility in 2007 at age 4½ with her mother’s dog Tia, but they failed to click. In March 2008 Milly was brought into the family and pair has been virtually inseparable since.

Emma has focused keenly on agility ground work, adds her mother, Margaret, who been involved in the sport for 15 years. She didn’t begin jumping Milly until the dog was 10 months old.

At age 6, Emma entered Milly in her first agility competition. A year later, she ran the dog in her initial AKC shows, qualifying in eight out of eight runs and moving from Novice to Open in two weekends. She now competes in Excellent.

Margaret Hughes adds, “Emma has natural talent and doesn’t always follow normal agility processes. Consequently, she expands Milly’s challenges because she has no preconceived ideas that Milly can’t do it. She tries and tries and Milly keeps right on trying with her until they get it right, together. It is an amazing process to watch.”

Asked what appeals to her most about the sport, Emma replies with a megawatt grin, “It makes me feel free, happy and full of life. And Milly lets me know she is happy, too, with her body language and that look on her face.”

Weather permitting, Emma tries to work Milly three to four times a week after school.

Emma proudly poses with Milly in her bedroom beneath a colorful mosaic of agility ribbons the pair have won in Northwest competitions.

“We like to try different courses and I challenge mom and Tia to try and beat us in practice,” she says with an impish beam.

Despite mom’s longtime involvement and knowledge of the sport, Emma prefers to seek out others and videos for instruction.

One of those is instructor and fellow competitor Sally Hildt, of Issaquah, who met Emma four years ago when they had identical puppies.

“She told me then that Milly was her dog and that she would be training the dog herself. I believed this sprite of a kid, for she was very clear from the start. Since then, Emma and Milly have become the team to watch in agility,” says Hildt.

“The weave poles were taller than Emma when she first started competing. These two have a teamwork and partnership that is just not mirrored in the sport very often. They have their own relationship and I doubt very few handlers could run Milly to Emma’s success.

After an afternoon practice session, Emma and Milly playfully clear a jump together, totally focusing on each other.

“Agility is a challenging sport because things can go awry in the blink of an eye. Emma and Milly may not always go ‘clean’ but they always have a teamwork that cannot be shaken. They are mutually proud of each other at the end of each and every run, be it in their yard, in practice or in competition in front of many people.”

Another longtime influence and quiet cheerleader for Emma has been Woodinville trainer Lisa Carol Ross, who says, “The sky’s the limit for Emma! She is growing up with the sport and will have the opportunity to be active when she is in her physical prime.”

Ross lists the youngster’s attributes as positive attitude, drive to improve, respect of her canine teammate and master of rear crosses. Her next skill to master, notes Ross, are front crosses.

Emma lists her idols as Hildt, Ross and AKC/USA World Agility Team member Daisy Peel , of Bonney Lake.

When it comes to competition, the family limits its shows to one a month and usually not farther than two hours-plus from home. As the spirited Emma’s accomplishments grow and her ambitions soar, don’t be surprised to see those horizons broaden in the not too distant future.