On any given weekend, you can go to many places in the country to observe a variety of canine competitions, such as agility or dock diving. These are often organized by groups such as the American Kennel Club, Canine Performance Events, or United States Dog Agility Association.
At a performance by The Marvelous Mutts, as the name suggests, you won’t see any pedigreed dogs, but you will definitely witness focused owners and competitive dogs! Looking at a photographic gallery of The Marvelous Mutts, one could easily be confused with having found the listing for a rescue promoting their mixed-breed adoption candidates. Instead, it’s an inspiring model, both for what rescue dogs can do and what highly motivated dog owners can do for shelter and rescue dogs.
The Marvelous Mutts was founded in 2011 by Nadja Palenzuela and Kara Gilmore, two dog-obsessed women who competed in various dog sports with their own mixed-breed rescue dogs while pursuing their law and architecture careers. This started with Nadja’s participation on the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge Team, Kara’s advocacy work with National Canine Research Council on behalf of pit bulls, and Nadja’s participation in the Animal Farm Foundation’s Shelter Dogs Can Fly program.
Prior to that, they operated a small dog supply store, Hooked on Dogs, in Red Hook, New York. They also used the store as a base for some local rescues to hold adoption clinics. After they decided to close Hooked on Dogs in 2010, partially in response to the economic downturn, they created The Marvelous Mutts, which binds together their shared love of dog sports and rescue.
I spent an afternoon with Nadja, Kara, and all The Marvelous Mutts on a late fall day at their Columbia County, New York, “base lodge.” As we spoke under a gnarled oak tree that sits in a field on the property, two of the stars of the MM show, Shazam and Boo-Ya, came barreling out of the home to see what’s happening – happy, lean, and ready for action.
The Marvelous Mutts Traveling Show
The Marvelous Mutts split up into two or three teams, each comprised of eight to 12 dogs, and travel in recreational vehicles to county and state fairs, trade shows, and schools. They put on more than 700 shows in 2017! The dogs show off their energetic skills in agility, disc dog, and dock diving in what they describe as a “high-energy action-packed family friendly show.”
As part of the show, Nadja, Kara, and other handlers answer questions, invite children to assist, and have after-show meet-and-greets with the dogs. Their message is to promote rescue: encouraging people to get their next dog from a shelter.
The Dogs Selected for Marvelous Mutts
All of the MM dogs were rescued and trained by the two women or by one of the trainers they work with, such as Christina Curtis, who has been performing with MM since 2011. The women stress in speaking to audiences that The Marvelous Mutts athletes are not necessarily the type of dogs one wants as a pet. These high-energy dogs are chosen for their strong interest in playing with toys and interacting with people; they thrive on training and performing.
No force is used to train the dogs; they are motivated to work for toys and, to a lesser extent, food treats. Because they get so much training, conditioning, and attention, they do not bounce off the walls for lack of mental stimulation or physical exercise (as many of our pet dogs do), and are happy to chill out until their next meal or workout.
Nadja and Kara beam as they speak of The Marvelous Mutts’ original performers, Bandit and Clementine, who were the best man and maid of honor at their wedding in December 2013. Clementine passed away in May 2014, and Bandit is retired at age 15-plus.
All the MM dogs have permanent homes with the two women. “Once we adopt a dog, we are committed to him or her for life, whether or not the dog ends up in the show,” Nadja tells me. “We have one dog who has been with us for more than six years, and who still hasn’t made it into a show,” she says, laughing. “Some people who have traveling-dog acts treat their dogs like equipment. Our dogs are family members for life.”
Once a dog ages out of performing, they are welcomed into the slowly growing pack of semi- and full retirees who stay at the MM home base. Kara now spends more time at home with these dogs than on the road with a performance team, and the women are planning to start a home-based training and boarding facility to help support the retired dogs.
Nadja and Kara no longer have to seek out new performers; some of the shelters and rescues they have worked with know what kind of temperament would be a match with MM and provide certain dogs’ bios and video to the women (in case you have such a rescue, the MM has a full house at this time!).
Nadja and Kara sometimes agree to take on a foster dog at the request of one of their friends in rescue. Through all their contacts and the use of social media, they have a good success rate of helping to place these dogs.
Most recently, the women adopted a three-legged dog from Arizona Cattle Dog Rescue. Cha-Cha-Cha is the third dog they adopted from that rescue and has turned out to be a great disc and agility dog. Audiences love to see her – and often don’t realize until the end of a show that she has only three legs.
The women spend lots of time with new dogs; those with less than three years in the program have daily training sessions. Those with more experience are exercised daily with fetch and other games, but are not drilled in the sports they perform. This daily conditioning keeps the dogs happy and fit, to prevent injury. On the road, their performance time is limited in order to avoid overwork and soft-tissue injuries. This program enables the dogs to continue to perform well into their senior years.
Kara and Nadja showed me their dog kitchen, where a white board tracks the supplements, individually tailored for each dog, that are added to the high-quality raw and kibble diet. Their veterinarian, Dr. Tina Aiken, is an integrative practitioner who supports the team at home and on the road with both conventional and complementary modalities.
Nadja and Kara are helped by a number of dog-trainer friends who have their own rescue dogs that compete in agility, disc dog, and dock-diving. These guest performers are added to the show in different parts of the country.
The women also continue to build their own training skills by continuing to take classes (mainly online) with trainers such as Denise Fenzi (of Fenzi Dog Sports Academy), and manage to enroll in some local classes to keep themselves and the dogs tuned-up during the slow periods.
If you are attending a county fair or other event and hear about a performance by The Marvelous Mutts, be sure to check it out! You can’t help but be inspired by seeing what can be done by and for rescue dogs of all shapes and sizes.
Helene G. Goldberger, Esq., PMCT, CPDT-KA is a certified professional dog trainer in the Capital District of New York. Helene is also an attorney with the law firm of Tooher & Barone in Albany, NY, an environmental and land-use law firm.