Jumping Through Hoops: Q&A with Trainer Stacey Hawk

Q&A with Stacey Hawk: image of black and white dog jumping over hurdle

To say that Stacey Hawk has helped shape Chicago’s animal community would be an understatement. Her vision, drive, ability to bring people together, and passion for pets and their people are at the core of everything she does. From serving as founding director of Safe Humane Chicago to co-chairing the Dog Advisory Work Group (DAWG) and founding Wiggly Field—Cook County’s first dog-friendly area—Hawk has earned “wise, elder stateswoman” status in the local animal world, and has dedicated her entire life to the human-animal bond.

Today, Hawk teaches private and group lessons for K9 scent work, obedience and manners training, and beginner through advanced competition agility at numerous Chicago-area training centers. We caught up with to her to learn more about her long journey in the animal industry and her tips for pet parents who want their pup to try out agility.

TAILS: What was your first job in the pet industry?

Stacey Hawk: As a kid, I trained our neighbors’ dogs and our family dogs. In elementary school, I “helped” take care of our neighbors’ horses. My first paid job in the pet industry was in college, at a horse stable. I took care of 18 horses, led trail rides, and assisted in training lessons.

Did you know right away this was going to be a career for you?

I always knew that animals would somehow be a big part of my life. When I was younger, for a time, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I quickly realized though that I was too soft-hearted and emotional. I couldn’t handle the grief and sadness that obviously comes along with that.

What is agility?

Agility is the best thing that you and your dog can do together! Technically speaking, handlers and their dogs work as a team to navigate through timed obstacle courses.

How did you first get into it?

I watched one of the first competitions at McCormick Place and I was hooked. I was already training dogs part-time, and started taking agility lessons with my own dogs. Soon after, I began assisting in classes and learning as much as I could. I went to seminars and camps and trained with numerous instructors throughout the country. I began competing with my own dogs, and 25 years later, I’m still hooked!

How do you know if agility is a good fit for your dog?

Any healthy dog, regardless of breed, sex, size, or shape can benefit from and succeed in agility training.

What are the benefits for the dogs when they participate?

Agility training provides a positive, stimulating outlet for active dogs to release excess energy, while simultaneously strengthening the dog-handler bond. It also helps increase a dog’s confidence by offering her the enjoyment of learning and accomplishing new skills. It’s the perfect sport for shy, timid, and insecure dogs, since it increases physical and mental capabilities, alleviates stress, and focuses on fun.

What are the benefits to the humans?

Agility is addicting! It gives people an avenue for communicating with dogs and challenges humans, as well as dogs, both physically and mentally. People get to see how happy their dogs are learning new skills, while meeting and spending time with like-minded people who also enjoy being with and learning new skills with their dogs. We love to celebrate the successes each step of the way.

Who are you really training… the people or the dogs?

As a dog-training instructor, I am mostly training people. Yes, we teach dogs how to successfully perform obstacles through repetition using positive, motivational, reward-based training methods. But the harder part is training handlers how to get their dogs smoothly from one obstacle to the next. Dogs instinctively know and understand our body language and cues. Our mantra is: “Our dogs are perfect—we are not.”

What do people need to know before they start?

For first-timers looking to participate in agility training classes, I strongly suggest a basic foundation of obedience/ manners class, and that the human/animal team has some kind of group training experience. Agility classes can be very exciting and stimulating, and it really helps if dogs are comfortable working in the presence of other dogs with a basic understanding of “the training game.” So much about agility is focused on the handler learning new concepts. When the dogs are more comfortable, the humans are in a better position to learn. Safety is, and should always be, a first priority. And people with puppies should know that dogs do not have to wait until they are full-grown before starting. There is so much to learn and do before using obstacles.

What kind of commitment is a human/dog team looking at?

It really depends on what the goals are. I have competitive students who are in classes 2-3x/week, as well as students who have been coming once a week for the life of their dog—it’s their weekly date. I have two students with dogs who are 17 years old, who have been coming to classes for years. They swear it’s what keeps their dogs young at heart. We’re easily able to adapt classes and exercises for individual dogs’ needs.

What has kept you around people and dogs for so long?

I am in it for the pure joy of being around dogs and humans—having fun, learning, and progressing. I get to meet so many different, incredible people and their dogs, all of whom want to spend time having a blast. I learn so much from each and every one of them.

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