For Holly Hughes, nothing beats making a connection with a student and helping guide them flawlessly through obstacles in order to reach the end of their path.
That’s true for students she teaches as a professor of art and design in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, of theatre and drama in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and of women’s studies in LSA.
But it’s also true for four-legged furry students as well.
Ever since she came to U-M by way of New York City in 2001, Hughes has been involved in dog agility, a passion that helps draw her closer with her dogs, provides quality exercise for both handler and dog, and involves patience and learning by both parties.
“There’s a lot of training, and you learn a lot about yourself and about the dogs,” Hughes said. “It’s not that hard to teach a dog to jump over something, but it’s a different thing to have them see a set of 12 poles, set 24 inches apart, and know they always enter the same way, with their left shoulder around the first pole no matter where you’re standing, and they do all 12 of them.”
In dog agility, handlers guide eager dogs through nearly two dozen obstacles ranging from teeter-totters and A-frames to weave poles and tunnels. At competitions, the goal is to complete the course safely, quickly and with as few errors as possible.
Hughes currently trains and shows three dogs — Quibble, a brown Norfolk terrier; Risqué, a black standard poodle; and Rider, a white miniature poodle — and will take Rider to Florida at the end of the month for the American Kennel Club’s National Agility Championships on April 1-3.
The prospect of competing for a national championship on the massive stage of the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, is both exhilarating and nerve-racking.
“We’ll be seeing some of the fastest dogs and best handlers in the country competing,” Hughes said. “I didn’t think the people who were more experienced got nervous, but I should have known better because I’m a performer and I get nervous before I go on stage.
“It’s similar because you have to be in the moment and stuff can go wrong. All sorts of things can go wrong. There’s a real adrenaline rush.”
The dogs are trained to handle each obstacle, but the order of the obstacles, and which ones are included in an event, are not known to handlers until they receive a map of the course the morning of the competition. Handlers are then given eight minutes to “run” the course without their dog to get acquainted with it.
Hughes’ goals were not to compete on a national stage when she first tried her hand in dog agility two decades ago.
Her wife, Esther Newton, a retired professor of women’s and gender studies at U-M, was active in dog obedience. Hughes said that took more of a “disciplined and precise person” than she was, so when she first adopted a Norfolk terrier and sought to connect with it, she chose dog agility.
“I wanted to do something with the dog. I thought, wrongly, you just run around with the dog and you point at things, and they jump over things and go through tunnels,” she said. “It was harder than I thought it was going to be, but I kind of got hooked on it.”
Over the years, Hughes has shown nine dogs and trained seven. She occasionally will show two of Newton’s dogs, but with three active trainees, she has her hands full. She took classes at the Ann Arbor Dog Training Club when she first started and currently trains the dogs at Northfield Dog Training in Lodi Township as well as Highest Hopes in Fenton.
While there is a lot of training for dog agility, the dogs are not overworked.
“It’s one of those things, if you want to play music even on an amateur basis, you have to practice, and any sport, you have to practice,” she said. “Whatever training we do, even on a training day, it’s minimal. It’s not like hours and hours of practicing the piano every day.
“Most of the time, they’re like ordinary dogs. They’re on the couch watching Rachel Maddow with me.”
Dog agility provides plenty of challenges for both dog and handler. Hughes said her youngest dog, Quibble, who at 3 years old is only just now into competitions, is not a fan of stopping once she starts.
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“My pandemic project was not sourdough or re-writing ‘King Lear.’ I was teaching her in my basement how to do the weave poles,” she said. “She loves it. She just doesn’t want to stop, which we’re working on.”
Risqué has already qualified for the 2022-23 national championships in agility, while the speedy Rider did so for this year’s championships by executing enough error-free runs — or double Qs — and by competing in the more difficult premier events.
Hughes has shown the dogs around Michigan, Ohio and Florida. For the national championships in Florida, she is sharing a horse stall with retired colleague Karla Taylor, who is showing a Welsh corgi, and two other handlers and their dogs. Her sister will be there for support, and as what she calls a default member of the varsity dog agility team, she is hoping to represent U-M there.
“I’m hoping to have some really good runs,” she said. “It’s not a regular competition so you can score points even if you have mistakes. I’m looking to have some fun and test ourselves and cheer on my friends.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
When a faculty member complained that there was too much laughter coming out of my classroom. “We’re trying to learn, and all you are doing is laughing.”
What can’t you live without?
Coffee and dogs.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
I love the Arb.
What inspires you?
Going to the theatre, which I haven’t been able to do as much in the past two years. Also, I really love being queer, and the joyous resistant culture of queerness inspires me.
What are you currently reading?
“Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder, a renowned historian about Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My career and indeed my life was and is made possible by generations of politically engaged intersectional artists, starting with the New York Feminist Art Institute and the WOW Café.