2014 AFM Fittest Dogs

Introducing the pick of the pack

photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

Ready for Adventure

Sometimes you see dogs accessorized with frilly bows, stylish scarves, or cute little shoes. It’s a little less common to see a dog with an adventure backpack.

Mowgli is a German shepherd mix, with one perky and one floppy ear. She’s mostly black-brown with an outline of toffee-colored coat. Although she’s already 2 years old, Mowgli still retains that puppy look. And in a city full of active people and their pets, Mowgli leads the pack.

“She loves to please us,” said owner Kristen Keiser. She also loves to jump.

Mowgli, lover and destroyer of Frisbees, can jump high in the air to catch them. Her current favorite toy, however, is a plain purple squeaky ball she found at a park. Since then, the two have been inseparable. “She’s obsessed with it,” said Keiser.

Mowgli loves adventure as much as she loves her purple ball. She’s traveled to Moab, Utah with her owners, where they go mountain biking and hiking in the vibrant desert setting.

Mowgli wears her orange backpack. “As soon as her backpack comes out, she knows it’s time for some kind of adventure,” said Keiser.

As active as Mowgli can be, she is also calm and sweet with children and other animals, and her puppy face makes her approachable. Keiser recalled, “Last time we were in Moab, a little girl came up to us and said ‘Did you know your dog’s ear is broken?’” While Mowgli enjoys chasing squirrels, that gentle, approachable character remains constant; she’s been know to simply let a squirrel scamper away after catching it. “She has yet to meet a person, child, dog, or creature that she doesn’t want to be friends with,” Keiser said.

Like a true Austinite, Mowgli relishes her time outdoors at local parks, including Zilker Park, the Barton Creek greenbelt, and Barton Springs spillway. She can also be found canoeing on Lady Bird Lake and socializing at local bars.

“As long as she is with her family, she’s the happiest dog around,” Keiser pointed out. That is, unless it’s bath time.

— Sara Sanchez

Standing Out from the Crowd

Meet Steve—the dog who outruns his owner for longer distances, catches fish with his mouth, and stars on his own Instagram account.

Steve is a 2-year-old pit bull and pointer mix. He’s white with black spots, his coat vaguely resembling an Oreo shake from P. Terry’s. He’s an unstoppable ball of energy who remains fiercely loyal to his owner, Buck Ashcraft.

Steve was adopted from Austin Pets Alive! on April 2. Ashcraft had been looking to adopt a dog, but hadn’t found a compatible one. Everything changed that morning.

“I woke up on a Monday and thought, ‘Go adopt a dog,’” Ashcraft said. Since joining his new home, Steve has been by Ashcraft’s side on all sorts of high-energy adventures. He even pulls his owner on his skateboard.

Steve isn’t your usual mixed breed. His pit side gives him high amounts of energy, while his pointer side makes him a hunter and a herder. This mix has created some memorable occasions.

Once, when Steve and Ashcraft were hiking, Steve took off running and returned with deer he herded straight toward his startled master. “As funny as that may sound, there’s nothing more frightening than to look up and see 100 deer, with a ‘deer in the headlights’ look, coming at you at full speed because they’re being herded by the dog you adopted with a herding instinct,” Ashcraft said.

Aside from his natural instincts, Steve can perform some pretty cool tricks. He can catch fish with his mouth while stand-up paddling with Ashcraft. He can also run at speeds up to 20 mph while pulling Ashcraft on his skateboard with incredible agility. Steve also likes to run along the trail as Ashcraft wakeboards.

Steve’s Instagram account (@spottedsteve) features pictures and videos of the dog in action, such as jumping through a tire swing.

Since Steve is so active, his diet has to be able to keep up with him and provide the proper nutrients. Ashcraft feeds him a lean diet with little to no “people food.” Steve eats grain-free dry food mixed with Healthy Hound lamb and brown rice packs that Ashcraft finds at the farmers market. “I like that they are local, and I know [the food is] natural and fresh, and it shows on Steve,” Ashcraft said.

Under the layer of Steve’s active personality is a more gentle side. He greets his owner at the door—and has learned how to close it, too—and is an overall gentle dog.

“People make assumptions about certain breeds,” said Ashcraft. “Like people, if you show them love, you will get love.”
— Sara Sanchez

Overcoming Obstacles

When you think of a dachshund, you might picture tiny legs and creatures prone to lounging in the sun. But Faith, a 4-year-old female, is out to prove everyone wrong.

Faith was adopted from a breeder as a companion for her owner Shelly Mattson’s other dachshund, Bevo. She was first enrolled in agility classes as a way to boost her confidence and help her come out of her shell.

“We noticed her immediately due to her loud black and white coat color, and the fact she was twice the size of the other puppies. We picked her up out of the crate and you could tell she was extremely scared and nervous,” Mattson said. “It really was love at first sight.”

Faith is now an active member in her agility classes, and she can keep up with classmates that are two to three times bigger than she is. Mattson can use voice commands to guide Faith through the agility course obstacles, and she said that Faith has passed her classes “with flying colors.”

Outside of agility classes, Faith spends the majority of her time running around with siblings, chasing squirrels in the backyard, and getting in a fair amount of stretching. According to Mattson, Faith hasn’t seemed to figure out that she’s a dog, and enjoys being the center of attention.

Since dachshunds are prone to weight issues that can cause back injuries, Faith eats three meals a day. Two of those consist of organic weight control dry food, and the other of fresh protein and vegetables.

Faith’s personality emerges as she starts on the obstacle courses. Is motivation provided by a fresh bag of turkey? It appears that, overall, Faith enjoys her obstacles. “She is extremely eager to learn,” explained Mattson. “My only challenge is keeping up with her once she starts.”
— Sara Sanchez

Someone to Watch Over

On her own, Riley won’t come up to you when you first meet. Instead, she’ll look for a while, and then look some more. But when you see her with her owner, Jay Cushman, it’s another story.

Riley first came into Cushman’s life a little more than a year ago. She was being fostered by Cushman’s wife Ashley’s hairdresser, who cares for as many as ten dogs at a time.

The Cushmans decided to adopt Riley, who has a slim build that, except for her tan color, bears a slight resemblance to a coyote. As far as agility is concerned, she could be one. But Riley’s a basenji mix, which means she very rarely barks and is more reserved. Nonetheless, she enjoys running around with other dogs and swimming in a retention pond at her local dog park. She also likes jogging and exercising with Cushman, who has multiple sclerosis.

Cushman found out he had MS after going for a run and then mowing the lawn; suddenly, parts of his body went numb. Since then, Riley has been by his side on the jogs and during the exercises that help Cushman manage his MS symptoms.

Riley is as loyal and gentle as she is active and curious. She received training from her previous owners that included such unique and whimsical activities as wiping her paws before coming inside. She can also play dead and dance.

Riley also herds the Cushmans when she feels it’s their bedtime. “The main signal that she is ready for bed is that she will jump into my lap (even though she is too big to be a ‘lap dog’) and put her muzzle on my neck as if she is hugging me. She loves to cuddle,” Cushman said.
— Sara Sanchez

A Model for Her Breed

Bailey the therapy hound catches curious glances everywhere she goes. With her classic floppy ears, tri-color markings, and ample muzzle, the skeptical watch in awe as thoughts of rotund, waddling basset hounds cloud their perception. “There’s really only one reason why people think she’s strange looking—she isn’t fat,” owner Cynthia Martinez said.

Martinez, a former gym rat, now tailors her activities to Bailey. She quickly realized that her previous notion about having a basset hound meant “the occasional walk during the week” was far from true. This team gets moving multiple times a day, logging between two and five miles on their long walks. Bailey’s slim swagger can be seen at many area charity dog walks. Her favorite event, Strut your Mutt Austin, gives her the opportunity to raise money for Helping Hands Basset Rescue. To date, Bailey has donated more than $700 to the group that treated her for heartworms and gave her a second chance at a healthy life. “She’s always been an advocate for dog rescues, basset hounds, and giving people kisses after they’ve eaten,” Martinez explained.

Spreading joy comes naturally to Bailey, who was titled “Canine Good Citizen” in February 2013. Her aptitude for exuberance and high energy slightly prolonged her training time, but she persevered and now makes weekly therapy visits while wearing her neon green “therapy dog” vest. Bailey is a member of Divine Canines, and she recently completed her 50th dog therapy visit, which includes frequent rounds at her favorite place, St. David’s Rehabilitation. She is now eligible for the American Kennel Club’s prestigious “Therapy Dog” title.   

During her downtime and on a rainy day, you won’t find Bailey lounging idly on the couch. Instead, she keeps her mind sharp with daily mental exercises such as nose work and puzzle toys. “Sniffing for fun with food rewards is the best thing ever, for her,” Martinez said. All of her hard work deserves a treat, and Bailey keeps her paws crossed for her unquestionable favorite, peanut butter.  

You’ll find this fit dog sharing her sense of adventure anywhere dogs and people mingle. Whether it’s on a local trail, at a dog-centered charity 5K, an event like Dogtoberfest, or even the vet (yes, the vet), Bailey’s fun-loving spirit is contagious: “She’s a serially happy dog.”
— Lori Burkhardt

Thrill Seeking Soccer Star

Gunnar is unconventional in many ways. His journey into the lives of Terry and Liana Collie was not that of your typical rescue dog. The couple had always owned “big dogs” and was dealing with the heartbreak that comes from saying goodbye to an older pet. After a month or so of watching some friends unsuccessfully attempt to raise a then three-month-old Yorkshire terrier for use as a “good chick magnet,” Liana convinced Terry that a heartworm-positive and flea-ridden puppy should be the newest member of their family. After being treated for both health issues, he was primed for adventure.

The Collies have always been an active couple, but Gunnar has spurred participation in more regular outdoor activities. “We like to plan outings that he is able to participate in,” Collie said. The Collies worked diligently with Gunnar to overcome serious issues with carsickness so frequent outings would be possible. He is now a “happy little fur-baby, hanging his head out the car window, enjoying the wind in his face.”

When Gunnar isn’t taking advantage of the outdoors, by hiking on the greenbelt or around Lady Bird Lake, chasing squirrels, or on duck watch from atop a kayak, he’s showing off his “mad soccer skills.” Using the house hallway as his field, he can dribble, trap, stop, and control the tennis ball he uses as a more proportionate soccer ball. “We have no idea where [the ability] came from,” Collie said, though she speculates it could be due to his “need to play with all his toys at once,” as he plays with one toy while carrying another in in his mouth.

Even though Gunnar prefers to play soccer solo, he is a team player. He tags along with the Collies to pet-friendly sporting events like local races and CrossFit competitions to cheer on friends. When Gunnar visits Liana’s mom, he is eager to join her Georgetown Triathlete Club evening track workouts and swims in Lake Georgetown.  

Thanks to Gunnar’s early exposure to a myriad of energy requiring activities, this Yorkie was never destined to be toted around in a handbag or spend lazy days on his owners’ laps. When asked to comment on the notion that small dogs can’t be active, Collie said, “It’s all about how they are raised early on. He could have easily been an inside/patio dog for the rest of his life.”

— Lori Burkhardt

Bundle of Brawn

Raised from puppyhood by Jerod and Christina Rollins, this pint-sized inspiration for perspiration is just what his owners needed to stay healthy. With a name like “Ninja,” this Pomeranian was destined to tear down small dog stereotypes, and he hasn’t stopped yet.  

Weighing in at seven pounds, Ninja has always been at the breed’s target weight. His daily enthusiasm for activity and inclination to be outdoors keep him active. “His in-your-face, take-me-out personality is what we absolutely love about him,” Jerod Rollins said.

Four years ago, the Rollinses made a commitment to positive change. “[We] wanted to see a change in ourselves and become proactive in living a healthier lifestyle,” Rollins said.  
Busy workdays forced workouts to be scheduled in the evenings and were initially done without Ninja. Admitting to feeling a bit guilty for leaving Ninja at home, the couple found a way for their pet to join in their outdoor exercise adventures. They would soon find out that Ninja was the perfect personal trainer who was thrilled to spend time with his owners and “overly eager and itching to burn some energy …He brings joy to our day, every day, and that’s what it’s all about,” Rollins said.

With Ninja’s ever energetic, “go-getter” attitude, he’s helped Team Rollins lose more than 40 pounds. On average, he runs six to eight miles per week and has increased his stamina enough to tackle the challenging hills of Lakeway. In 2013, he logged more than 100 miles between trail and pavement, and Ninja holds a 26-minute 5K personal record. Not what you might expect from such short stature and petit poundage.

When the Central Texas heat starts to take its toll, Ninja and team don’t retreat to an air-conditioned living room. Instead, they look to the water to keep cool. Passersby often do a double take when they see Ninja, who may possibly be confused with a vibrant puffball, riding shotgun aboard a SUP or at the bow of a kayak. “Contrary to his physical aesthetics, he is ready to get down and dirty if the activity calls for it,” Rollins said, citing “anywhere water is accessible” as a preferred destination for Ninja. “Sometimes he even surprises us with what he can accomplish, being so small,” Rollins said.

Since Ninja has proven he isn’t a just-along-for-the-ride pup, “cycling” may be in his future. Rollins is a cycling enthusiast, and he and his wife recently welcomed their newborn son Colt to the family: “I’m sure an attachable [bike] trailer is in our near future.”

— Lori Burkhardt

One Tough Cookie

At just six years old, Rosebud has overcome more trials and tribulations than most dogs see in their lifetime. A double rescue, Rosebud was adopted by her current owner Max Woodfin and his family in 2009 from Austin Dog Rescue.

Rosebud immediately showed her love for swimming, diving, and running. Every morning at sunrise, Woodfin and Rosebud run the MoPac-Pfluger Bridge loop, with the Deep Eddy trail as an occasional addition. This usually equals 3–3.5 miles; Rosebud, however, has shown her endurance by running as much as ten miles.

A couple of years back, Rosebud was diagnosed with a fleshy, non-cancerous tumor on her left rear leg. The vet assured them that there was no hurry to have it removed and advised waiting to do so until Rosebud could be confined for a few days, which is difficult considering Rosebud’s active lifestyle.

Just last year, before the Woodfins had the opportunity to have Rosebud’s tumor removed, she dug her way under their house to chase a cat across the street. While in the middle of the street, Rosebud was struck by a taxi and immediately dropped to the ground. After taking several x-rays, the vet determined that there were no broken bones or internal injuries, just a lot of soft tissue trauma on her left rear hip and knee, the same leg as her tumor.

After a quick three-month recovery, Rosebud was back to her old self, running with Woodfin and living her active lifestyle. Her tumor was removed three months ago, and Rosebud’s leg and spirit offer no evidence of trauma. She runs close to Woodfin’s side, matching and keeping his pace. She loves the water, will swim or run as far as it takes to retrieve a tennis ball, and proves the strength of her leg by climbing over rocks and boulders.

Not only is Rosebud tough, she has a sweet, calming presence that makes her lovable. Woodfin summed up her character best when he said she has “the sweetest disposition of any dog we’ve owned in our almost 40 years of marriage.”
— Alexa Harris

Can’t Stop this Climber

Climbing and running up trees is usually an activity more suitable for squirrels, cats (big and small), and some people. However Sugar doesn’t know this. At the sight or sound of a squirrel, the 3-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback/Labrador retriever mix runs up a tree faster than you can say “Sugar, where’s the squirrel?”

Andrew Collins was at Pease Park when he first saw Sugar effortlessly climb 30 feet up into a live oak, all in the hunt for a squirrel. Sugar has caught two squirrels since that day; she remains on the constant hunt to catch more.

When Sugar is not climbing trees, she spends her time running, swimming, hiking, and playing catch, and her favorite places to play are the Barton Creek greenbelt and Pease Park. While Sugar is extremely friendly and loving, she also likes to spend time alone. She enjoys sunbathing in her yard or sitting on the porch and paying close attention to the happenings all around. Sugar is very observant.

After a long day of activity, Sugar tends to have a big appetite. She eats grass, bones, and lean dog food throughout the day, but her favorite foods are asparagus and watermelon.
While Sugar is fearless now, she has not always been this way. “My earliest memory of her is as a puppy, underneath the streetlight at night, reluctantly whimpering, but eventually following me on our first night walk,” said Collins. “Since then, she has pushed herself to the limits in life, and that’s why I know she is Austin’s fittest dog.”

— Alexa Harris

Steven JalapeÑo
Nothing Short of a Miracle

Weighing just 8 ounces at birth and the runt of the litter, Steven Jalapeño’s life was expected to be short. At eight weeks, he fit into Ashley Hargrove’s palm, and his new owner knew she wanted to fight for his life. After Steven became unconscious several times and had near-death experiences, Hargrove was forced to feed him by syringe every two hours around the clock for two weeks in order to keep the pup alive.

Thanks to her efforts, the 4-year-old Brussels Griffon is now a little ball of energy with no sign of his past medical traumas.

One of Steven’s favorite pastimes is swimming. He is a frequent visitor to Barton Springs and enjoys interacting with all the other dogs. After swimming, Steven runs around in the open grassy areas before lying down and drying off in the sun. Brussels Griffons are natural climbers, and Steven channels that ability to navigate challening obstacle courses created by Hargrove.

Steven also uses his climbing skills on hikes. He can run up and down the Hill of Life, an extended, rocky incline near the Barton Springs greenbelt at the Camp Craft trailhead, without a problem.

Finally, like any active dog, Steven loves a good chase. Whether it is a squirrel or the occasional cat, his little legs get going faster than might be expected based on his pampered lapdog appearance. After a long day of playing, this energetic pup is often completely spent. “Steven will literally lay like a baby in my arms, on his back, never flinching and will just pass out,” Hargrove said.

— Alexa Harris

Canine on the Move

Nicole Fisher’s sister was the one who originally rescued Lacy from the pound. For the first six months of the puppy’s life, she had spent most of her time closed in a kennel. Her high energy was too much for a house already full of young children and three cats, and Lacy was growing faster than the toddlers; she couldn’t stay. After much persuading, Fisher was convinced to take Lacy in, and the rest is history.

Now 2 years old, Lacy is a loving, jumping fireball that likes to be outdoors as much as possible. Her favorite form of activity is swimming. This was recently demonstrated at Lake Georgetown when, at the first sight of water, she took off and completely immersed herself in the water. She loves sticks and, when one is thrown, she’ll swim as far as it takes to retrieve it.

Fisher explained that Lacy’s theme song is Reel 2 Reel’s “I Like to Move It, Move It” because she really never stops. At this photo shoot, she was a whirling dervish of activity; she ate leaves, ran enthusiastically, slid across concrete platforms, and jumped into the creek, all without tiring.

Lacy spends most of her weekends hiking. She runs ahead on the trails but always checks to make sure Fisher is not too far behind. And she jumps belly first into the first body of water that she finds.

But Lacy is most famous for her love of tug-a-war. She has proven that the game need not be played with a rope; any object will suffice. She demonstrated this when she began playing tug-a-war with a stick.

When Lacy is still, she likes a good belly rub. Fisher said that she signals when she’s ready by laying on her back with her paws up in the air, and any location is fair game for a massage: “Whether wading across rivers at the greenbelt, chasing Frisbees at Zilker, or enjoying the cool hardwood of the office, every place is a good place for a belly rub.”

— Alexa Harris


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