SHARON – This spring was supposed to be Valur’s retirement tour.
A nearly 11-year-old saluki, Valur and his master, Chris Klein, have accomplished a great deal, some unprecedented, in the world of canine agility. Not that it’s easy; As a breed that reacts to sight more than anything, salukis are not very easy to train for obstacle courses and other things that dog shows look for in a champion agility.
It’s gotten more difficult over the past six months. First Klein, 62, was diagnosed with stage IV gastric cancer at Thanksgiving. Then the coronavirus struck, not only making travel problematic for Klein, but ultimately canceling the last event Valur was scheduled to compete in, the American Kennel Club National Agility Championship at the end of March.
On the other hand, you wouldn’t know how depressing such a punch could be when talking to Klein, who hopes to return to competition later, despite his health issues.
“Basically he’s my once in a lifetime dog,” Klein explained in a phone interview last week while soaking up the sun outside his Sharon house. “I don’t expect another saluki to be like this.” I agree with the others who are picky, but he does whatever I ask. I couldn’t love her more.
If all had gone as planned, Klein and Valur would have done the “triple crown” of canine agility for the first time this season: Orlando, Fla., For the AKC Invitational last December, followed by the Westminster Dog Show in February. in New York and the national championships in Perry, Ga. two months ago. The duo participated in the first two events.
A veterinarian at the Riverbend Veterinary Clinic in Plainfield, Klein amassed many friends by showing Valur. They are also admirers.
“She’s really a team with her dog, and she really understands the breed,” said Noreen Bennett, of Belchertown, Mass., A longtime competitor, judge and event organizer. “I can say that 95% of people who show dogs in agility could never show a saluki in agility. They don’t understand how the breed works. Either they gave up, or the dog gave up, or they both gave up. It’s unique to see someone with this patience and love for the breed do what they’ve done.
Klein admits to being “a collie at heart”. She is also a former long-distance runner who wanted to have a dog to accompany her on long-distance races, but long-haired collies were not ideal for training in the heat and humidity.
The questions she asked about salukis as an option only raised red flags. Even with his experiences to date, Klein describes the breed as “a cat in a dog’s costume.”
“I admired the Salukis, so I went to Westminster to talk to them,” Klein recalls. “And they said, ‘No, you don’t want them. They are independent. Never leave them off leash. You don’t want it.
“I took this to heart for a few years and then I dug again. If I have to, I’ll keep one on a leash. They can run on a leash and do not gasp. I became addicted to the breed.
Border collies, Bennett’s favorite dog for agility, do well thanks to their shepherding instinct. Salukis – which are similar to Greyhounds, although smaller and with longer hair in their ears and tails – are so-called sight dogs that react visually, and they can be difficult to train because of this.
Millie was Klein’s first saluki, a super independent female who could let her master debate her breed choice on occasion.
“I was coming home from practice crying,” Klein confessed. “Once she climbed onto a frame (of an obstacle course), jumped out of the ring, and ran off on her own to the lunch stand. I’m calling, “Millie, come back!” She came back and jumped into the ring. The judge was laughing so hard she couldn’t whistle.
Still, Klein was sold enough on the breed to eventually forgo the Saluki Company along the road for the Saluki agility competition in the ring. Millie, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 12 and a half, drove in Valur, and Valur drove to all levels of success and joy.
Valur is the first saluki in the world to achieve a Masters Agility Championship, or MACH. The dog and the handler accumulate points during the tests to beat a time standard and avoid mistakes. Some teams show almost every weekend; However, it can take a year of competition to make the MACH standard. Valur has three MACH titles; only one other saluki in the country has as many as one, Klein said.
Valur has also achieved the Masters Preferred Agility Championship, or PACH, standard twice. Aimed at older dogs, it features a slightly longer maximum time and slightly shorter obstacles. He made the Orlando invitational breed record seven times, winning four; he is the only saluki to compete in the Westchester agility events, doing it twice and the final once; and he is the only saluki to qualify for the AKC Agility Nationals, having done so three times. Georgia would have been his first visit.
“With AKC stats,” Klein wrote in a Friday email, “he is by far the most decorated saluki of all time.”
Klein uses Valur’s MACH success to describe his ongoing health battle in real terms. The diagnosis of her cancer – very rare, she said – initially led to chemotherapy and significant time off work. She has since been hooked up to another treatment that she hopes to at least stop her cancer from progressing. She thinks June 1 is her “expiration date”.
Having cancer is difficult, but “it’s harder to get a MACH,” she joked.
If Klein can stay healthy, possible competition options await him with his two other salukis. One, 6-year-old Yama (“named after our favorite restaurant”), didn’t do the training as well as Valur. Two-year-old Betty is another story.
“Hopefully the puppy will be well enough trained for the competition,” Klein said. “Women are tougher, a lot more independent. Boys want to please you and girls want to please each other. It is a thought well known to the breed.
It wouldn’t surprise Bennett to see his friend return to agility competitions. Betty is half the age Valur was when Klein first showed her, so it may take a while.
“We all learn,” Bennett said, “from dog to dog.”
Greg Fennell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3226.