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Progress: Dogs go full tilt at Full Tilt Agility Training: Canines come excited, leave exhausted

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Donna Niggeler (left) and Loretta Mueller own Full Tilt Agility Training, off Highway 210, east of Brainerd. Mueller started the business in her home in Buckman. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch 2 / 9
Faye, a tricolor border collie, jumps a gate during an agility training exercise. Faye is Donna Niggeler's dog. She co-owns Full Tilt Agility Training in rural Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 9
Full Tilt Agility Training is off Highway 210, east of Brainerd. Loretta Mueller started the business in her home in Buckman. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch4 / 9
Donna Niggeler, who co-owns Full Tilt Agility Training in rural Brainerd works with her dog Faye, a tricolor border collie. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch5 / 9
Donna Niggeler, smiles down at her border collie. Niggeler, who has been doing agility training since 2002, had two border collies and a rescue mix dog. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch6 / 9
Faye, a tricolor border collie, jumps a gate during an agility training exercise. Faye is Donna Niggeler's dog. She co-owns Full Tilt Agility Training in rural Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch7 / 9
Loretta Mueller, co-owner of Full Tilt Agility Training, works with her border collie named Gig. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch8 / 9
Faye, a tricolor border collie, rests in-between an agility training exercise. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch9 / 9

They jump amazing lengths.

They scurry through collapsible tunnels.

They bark when they are excited.

They listen to their handlers' commands.

They are the dogs—such as border collies Gig, Faye and Spot—who have gone through Full Tilt Agility Training. Full Tilt Agility Training was started by Loretta Mueller in 2007 out of her home in Buckman. Mueller, who has been involved with animals all her life, trains dogs and their handlers for agility, among other skills.

Whether people want to go through Full Tilt to train their dog for fun or for sport, Mueller said there are many benefits not just for the dog, but for the people themselves.

"If you are training your dog daily it reduces stress, your dog's behavior will be more subtle and they will want to be with you," Mueller said. "You will have more control of your dog and they won't run away. There are a lot of benefits. You dog learns life skills so they just won't bolt out the door when they see someone or jump out of your car window and get hit by a car.

"We can help people with leash pulling, house training, crate training, all the basic stuff."

The American Kennel Club reports agility is one of the fastest growing dog sports in the country—and for good reason. "It's incredible exercise for both you and your dog and forges an even deeper relationship between you," the club noted on its website. "Dog agility is a sport where you direct your dog through a pre-set obstacle course within a certain time limit."

Courses typically have between 14-20 obstacles such as tunnels, weave poles, tire jumps, seesaws and what are described as pause tables where the dog must stop for a set time. "At each trial (competition) you and your dog will race around the unique courses designed for that day. All of this is done with your dog relying solely on the cutes and body language you use to direct them on course."

Since the business started in 2007, Mueller moved the training facility indoors to a pole building with state-of-the-art flooring and equipment on Alfalfa Lane, just off Highway 210 west of Brainerd.

Donna Niggeler joined Mueller as the office manager to round out the Full Tilt team. Niggeler is in charge of the day-to-day operations in scheduling seminars and private lessons and training dogs herself. Mueller travels all over the world teaching agility, coaches a USA World Agility Team, teaches agility training in-house when she is not traveling and teaches online classes through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. The academy is an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Full Tilt instructors mainly teach agility for sport. However, they teach other skills, such as obedience and nose work, where the dog is asked to find a specific scent. And even though teaching agility may be at the forefront of the company's mission, the owners' focus is more on the bonding relationship between the dog and the handler.

"If we can get people to play and interact with their dog we are winning," Mueller said. "That is my number one thing. I just want people to work with their dog and for them to see there is so much more that they can do than the everyday stuff. It is cool to see people's faces being blown away when they see what their dog can do. We do a reward-based training. We do not discipline. We train all dogs and do all positive rewards when training. We use toys, balls, et cetera."

Business for agility training is high. Mueller has been traveling for eight years to do private lessons. One week this summer she was in Indianapolis, then home for a few days then she was off to Chicago.

"I'm not here for the day-to-day stuff. Donna does all that," Mueller said. "Donna holds it all together so I can travel. There is such a high demand for it. There is not enough of me to fill the demand. I just do agility when I travel and a lot of times I train people at training clubs or dog clubs."

And Niggeler said she is "very lucky to have been able to train with Loretta."

"One of the most fun things for me in my foundation class is having people come to my class who have never even played with their dog, to six weeks later to playing with them," Niggeler added. "Their dogs are doing obstacles and they are just having fun. That is half the fun is to see that bond with the dog and the handler. And seeing the confidence the dogs have is huge."

Foundation classes teach behaviors the dog needs to be safe and successful in agility.

Mueller and Niggeler worked with their dogs this summer. They use short commands—stay, leave, stop, lie down—as they conduct different training skills, such as having the dogs steadily walking on a A-frame plank, going through a tunnel chute, running through cone obstacles to jumping over single to triple bar jumps. When the skill is complete, the dog is rewarded, which can be a toy or a treat.

Niggeler said her dogs know when they are on their way to the training facility.

"They get excited and are so happy," she said.

Niggeler has always loved dogs and doing things with them. She was attracted to the agility sport and started with a Labrador. She said she began struggling with the training and was ready to quit the sport. Then Niggeler heard about Mueller's training business and took some private lessons from her to see if she could help.

"We took a year off trials and she started us from the ground level," Niggeler said. "I had a dog that was phenomenal. I have been training with her ever since and I am on my third dog. It is a sport I love. It is so fun, I enjoy it a lot."

Mueller said most dogs want a job of some kind to do to feel useful. Agility training is a fun job for them.

"When dogs leave this facility they are exhausted," she said. "And we train all dog breeds. A lot of people don't want to compete, but want to have fun with their dog. This training is good exercise for the dogs and the handlers.

"If you have more than one dog we offer classes to help people to get their dogs to get along and have a calm house."

At the training facility, dog obedience classes take place Monday nights. Full Tilt not only teaches dog agility, they also do rally obedience training. Rally obedience is where the handler and their dog run through a sequence of obstacle courses. Mueller said there are signs set up at each station telling the handler what they need to have their dog do. Once it is accomplished they move on to the next station.

Another sport that is taught is fly ball, which is a relay race where the dog goes through jumps and a ball shoots up for them to catch. They began teaching nose work. Mueller said she just started her 14-year-old border collie on nose-work training. She said there are 10 containers set up with scenes and the dog has to find the right scent.

"This is for sport," Mueller said, as she doesn't train the dogs to work with law enforcement K-9 officers. "We use birch, clove and ... each stage it gets higher. They start at a novice level then go to intermediate and then to master or excellent level as you have in every sport."

Mueller recommends if people want to train their puppy for agility, they can start classes when they are eight weeks old. Then when the puppy is older they can start to train them for trials.

Mueller has always been an animal lover and has wanted to help others with their animals. As a youngster, Mueller was very active in FFA and showed cattle, pigs and she had farm dogs. She bought her first dog when she was in college. The dog had a lot of behavioral issues, such as separation anxiety, chewed up things and destroyed her apartment.

"I needed an outlet for him," Mueller said. "I went to my local dog training club which was in Columbia, Mo. I took a few classes. It started with obedience and then I moved to agility, and it just caught on and I was hooked. I then got into sheepherding. I had a dog named Ace and he was mix between a border collie and a Labrador retriever pointer. He got me hooked on all the dog training stuff."

Mueller's first official dog trial was August of 2004 in Missouri. Three years later, she moved to Minnesota and started Full Tilt Agility Training. The business started in Buckman, then moved to just outside of Randall and this past January moved to its current location, west of Brainerd.

There is special, high technology flooring at the new facility designed for dog agility. Mueller said it helps relieve pressure on the dogs' joints. The walls are painted blue as it's an easy color for dogs to see as dogs are color blind, Mueller said.

Mueller, who has trained thousands of dogs, also coaches a Team USA dog agility team through the UKI International, an agility organization. She said the world team event is similar to the competitions in the Olympics. The Olympics does not have a dog agility category, but she is working on them adding it.

Mueller said each year hundreds of dogs try out to be on the team and only the best are chosen. This year, the tryouts are in Jacksonville, Fla. Once the team is chosen, practices take place in Georgia and then the competition will be May 16-19, 2019, in Ermelo, Netherlands. Mueller said her team will compete against teams from more than 65 countries, who come from all over the world.

"I have been doing this since 2015," she said. "It's a lot of fun."

Factbox:

Business: Full Tilt Agility Training.

City: Rural Brainerd.

Number of employees: Mueller, Niggeler and five part-time instructors.

Interesting or little known fact: "The flooring is specifically designed for dog sports, it is super light and very supportive of the dogs joints. The very beginning stages of this business, the dogs were taught in a horse arena."

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