Once-condemned pup shines at Westminster show

In a wags-to-riches twist, rescue-dog Emma competes in the agility competition

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  • Emma, a rescue dog, was selected to be part of the Westminster agility event. She failed to advance, but Emma’s owner, Christy Wrede, said it was a good experience.
    Emma, a rescue dog, was selected to be part of the Westminster agility event. She failed to advance, but Emma’s owner, Christy Wrede, said it was a good experience.


    Abandoned in an apartment in South Carolina, rescued by a volunteer in New Jersey, Emma went home from the Westminster Kennel Club 138th Annual Dog Show in New York without a frilly ribbon or a shiny trophy.

    However, the mixed-breed wonder dog is winning cross-country acclaim, days after her Westminster performance — jump, leap, wiggle, run, run, run, run.

    The happily-ever-after reason for the dogged hype? Emma has not only survived, but thrived.

    It was winter, 2010, when Emma, then a puppy, was left alone in an apartment in Gaffney, S.C., where she was found by a landlord after tenants moved out. It’s not known how long the bewildered pup was in the apartment, all alone without her mom or human contact.

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    Taken to a local dog pound, Emma’s plight turned into a matter of life or death.

    “It’s a city-run shelter. It has no adoption program,” said Christy Wrede. “Once dogs end up there, they are reclaimed by their owner or they’re dead.”

    Emma faced certain death without someone’s help. That someone was Ms. Wrede, 35, of Eatontown, N.J., where Thursday she was spending at-home time with her dogs as a winter storm pelted the area, shuttering schools. She is a teacher in middle school special education.

    Initially, Ms. Wrede had no plans to take Emma into her home, or into her heart. At the time, Ms. Wrede was in graduate school and her mother was ill.

    But then an email came from a rescue group, the Humane Society of Cherokee County, that does whatever it can to save what are sometimes called death-row animals. To urge adoptions, volunteers photograph dogs, write short descriptions, and send emails to rescue groups throughout the country, she said.

    Ms. Wrede, who runs a volunteer group known as Luv Furever Animal Rescue in central New Jersey, read the email. She saw the puppy’s photo. “I already had a dog. I was not looking for another dog.”

    However, “I saw her little face. I couldn’t pass her up,” she said. “I was planning to foster her.” And Ms. Wrede was planning a quick adoption. “I hoped she would adopt out quickly so I would not get attached.”

    Step by step, though, dogs gently paw, and nuzzle pathways into our lives.

    One day she took the puppy, up for adoption, with her to a dog show, hoping to find Emma a permanent home. While at the show, friends commented, “I love your new puppy.” When others in dog agility circles told her to keep the puppy, that cinched it.

    Emma had a new leash on life. Emma had a Furever home.

    Basic puppy obedience classes led to agility training, and “it went from there,” Ms. Wrede said.

    Emma, who won a first-place ribbon at her first agility trial in June, 2012, competes at a level that made her eligible for the Westminster event.

    Ms. Wrede’s reaction to being selected? “Wow!” But then, “Do I really want to do this?” Several of her friends’ agility dogs were selected as well, and she figured it would be a fun day of competition and a day of celebration for being selected to be part of the First Westminster Masters Agility Championship, she added.

    As they compete, the canines are judged on accuracy and speed as they navigate jumps, tunnels, ramps, and other objects off-leash. Handlers guide the dogs by use of calls and signals.

    On Emma’s standard run at Westminster on Feb. 8, the canine zoomed past weave poles, a costly error. On her second run, her paw touched a bar, bobbling it downward.

    Considered a “baby dog” when it comes to agility competitions — Emma has competed for 18 months — it was a good experience, even though Emma failed to advance in the competition, her owner said. “Emma was born a star, even with her humble beginnings.”

    Gary Willoughby, the Toledo Area Humane Society’s executive director, emphasized that dogs that end up in a pound or shelter are not “damaged goods.”

    Familiar with what he described as a serious pet overpopulation problem in some southern states — he worked in Aiken, S.C., for six years before taking the job with the Toledo Area Humane Society about a year ago — Mr. Willoughby said Emma’s chances for rescue were slim.

    “She had a very strong chance to be euthanized,” he said, adding that in some areas in South Carolina, 90 percent of dogs and cats that enter some shelters never leave alive.

    He is pleased that rescue groups, from Wisconsin to Maine, work hard to save as many pets as possible in places from Texas to the Carolinas and said it warms his heart that Emma was rescued, whether she ended up as a couch potato or a Westminster star.

    Rescue groups recognize the urgent need for homes for cats and dogs from the southern states. Some pilots volunteer to transport animals from overpopulated shelters to rescue groups in areas where people are searching for rescue animals to adopt, he said.

    Whether mixed breed or purebred, dogs awaiting adoption can “do a lot of things,” he said. Some get adopted into careers such as bomb-sniffing dogs or service or therapy dogs.

    Luv Furever Animal Rescue has rescued 180 dogs in three years, Ms. Wrede said. Sometimes, the group rents a van and rescues 16 dogs at a time.

    David Frei, director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club, applauded Emma and said Thursday that he was “very thrilled with her competition.” Of the 653 entries for the agility event, 225 dogs were randomly selected to compete. Of those, only 15 dogs were mixed breed.

    “We’re proud of Emma, too. God bless her for being a rescue dog. That’s great.” Billed as the “first annual,” there’s no reason the agility event won’t be held next year as the “second annual,” he said.

    Adding the agility competition allowed the premier show to include mixed-breed dogs in part of the event, said Mr. Frei, who co-hosts the television broadcast of the competition.

    Not only is Emma a supermodel for what can happen when a mutt is rescued and given a good life, she is a furry fashion statement. She has been photographed as part of advertising for a clothing line.

    And mutt is used as a term of endearment for dogs considered mixed-breed, and for many dog lovers, a “mutt” is the best breed possible. And this rescued dog has an all-American ego to match her super-charged energy and enthusiasm, said Ms. Wrede.

    DNA testing shows Emma — registered name: “Lil’Cherokee Dreamcatcher” as a tribute to her Cherokee County connection — is 50 percent Boston terrier, 25 percent boxer, and 25 percent mixture of numerous breeds.

    As she considers Emma’s then-to-now adventure, she pauses. “It has been unbelievable. There are no words for it. Every little thing that happened to get us to where we are. An abandoned dog in South Carolina, ending up in New Jersey, going to Westminster. Who would ever have thought?”

    Contact Janet Romaker at: jromaker@theblade.com or 419-724-6006.