E354: Junior Handlers in Agility with Sasha Zitter, Benah Stiewing, McKenzie Minto

Boundless Junior Agility Company or BJAC exists to support junior agility handlers — join us for a conversation about the future of the sport, how you can lend your support, and what challenges junior handlers face that may be overlooked by other competitors.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Sasha Zitter, Benah Stiewing, and Mackenzie Minto here with me to talk about Boundless Junior Agility Company or BJA and the camp they put on for junior handlers. Hi all, welcome to the podcast!

All: Hello. Hi Melissa. Thanks for having us.

Melissa Breau: What Super excited to chat about this stuff today. So to start us all out, I wanna give listeners a little bit of an idea whose voice is whose and have you guys share a little bit about yourselves and the organization. Sasha, do you wanna start us off?

Sasha Zitter: Sure. So I'm Sasha. I am a senior at UC Berkeley graduating in May, which is very exciting. I've been doing agility for a long time since I was 10 and I'm 22 now. And I just love being involved with BJC and you know, running all of these initiatives to support junior handlers and definitely wish it was something that I could have had when I was a junior but I was actually busy running it. So yeah, I'll let the others tell you a little bit more about the organization as well.

Mackenzie Minto: Hi everyone, I'm Mackenzie. I am 23 years old. I'm also a senior in college. I am pursuing an accounting degree, which I know is very not related to agility in any way, but I also grew up in the sport of agility. Started when I was eight years old and what my friend Sasha here forgot to mention is that she founded BJA and we have been friends for a long time and so she has now brought me and Benah on board to help her run this amazing organization and I'll let Benah take it from here.

Benah Stiewing: Hi everyone, my name is Benah and I'm gonna feel really old when I say this, but I'm 26. I am a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant in New York, which is very much related to growing up in the agility world. I started agility when I was about 12 years old and continued to do it through high school and college and now, and I joined BJA somewhat recently.

When Sasha and Mac invited me to join, it was like the thrill of a lifetime to get that email and I am just beyond excited to be part of this team and just like really, really honored to be watching us grow and watch our community continue to build and move in a progressive direction.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic. So I'd love to have you guys each kind of share a little bit more of your own stories, how you got into dog training or maybe agility specifically. Sasha, you wanna start us off again?

Sasha Zitter: Sure. I guess I first got into dog training when I was like five or six when my mom and I would go to this shelter in New Jersey and we would walk the dogs and we would do basic obedience training classes with the dogs and that sort of sparked my love for dogs,

but I didn't find out about agility until I was 10 and I had moved into a new neighborhood in California and my neighbor just said, "Hey you, you love dogs, you wanna come to this agility class with me?" And I, I was like sure. And I had coincidentally gotten a standard poodle puppy at like around that time and I decided I wanted to start it with him and yeah, the rest is history.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic. Mackenzie, you wanna go next?

Mackenzie Minto: My story is a little similar. I was around the same age, I think I was seven or eight and I was actually riding horses at the time and we had, my mom had actually signed up for agility classes with our family dog named Sasha. Fun. Funny enough, my first dog is named Sasha too and we were at the horse arena and my mom fell off of a hay bale and broke both of her heels. And then I was her little 7-year-old daughter who had to replace her in the eight weeks of agility classes that she started. So I actually initially had no interest in agility and then this sort of act of fate occurred and to this day I, as you can tell, became hooked in agility and have been competing ever since. So obviously I love it and it's a passion of mine to bring it to more juniors and just sort of let them experience the joy that I got to have growing up in the sport. So I kind of have a weird agility origin story in that as a child in elementary school I was like a hardcore animal rights activist and was like lobbying and marching and started a nonprofit.

Like I was really into it and through being in that sphere I learned about dog sports actually kind of like through a negative light, but I was like, wait a second, that looks really fun and pivoted and like all the energy I was putting into animal welfare work went into dog training. I started with my like family toy poodle at the time and it was just like the most wonderful thing ever.

I had always, I was like the animal obsessed child who had a million pets, just like so many pets. Like I was, I had rats that I was training to do agility with and so finding agility and like having an actual animal who could properly do it was just like the best thing ever. So it really, really changed my life and like I would not be who I am or do what I do today without agility, without being a junior in agility.

Melissa Breau: So let's talk a bit more about BJA. So Sasha, kind of what led you to found it and for everybody else kinda what led you to become involved?

Sasha Zitter: Yeah, so when I was 15 I was looking around for summer camps that I could bring my dog to and do do agility, but I wanted some, I wanted this specific feeling of community among juniors because when you're a junior in agility, you're usually, at least in my area, the only person probably under 30 at a trial. And that's all well and good, you know, I think the three of us can probably agree that we've developed a lot of skills at a young age because we were always interacting with adults when we were, you know, very young.

But it does make it a little bit harder to find community. So I was looking for community and I couldn't really find anything like that anywhere in the US. So I am from a very entrepreneurial family. My dad has started many businesses and is now advising a lot of businesses and he kind of was just like, what, what is stopping you from starting something? And I thought about it and I thought nothing I guess. And so I had posted some stuff on Facebook, I was very active on Facebook at the time and I was like, would anyone be interested in this? And I just got an outpouring of support from, you know, so many people in the agility community and this other junior handler at the time, Madison Edmonds had essentially reached out and was like, I wanna do this too, I wanna help you do this.

And so we were both 15 at the time. I believe the first camp happened when I was 16 and we sort of just built the organization from the ground up and that was, you know, obviously like a huge accomplishment that I'm very proud of and I'm so glad you know that I have Mackenzie and Benah helping me grow it.

We have so many cool initiatives happening right now and I'm sure we'll talk more about them later. But yeah, it just kind of came from this whole in the community, we just didn't really have resources like that for juniors and so I just decided I wanted to to make it myself.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic. Mackenzie, you wanna go next? Yes. I have a kind of unique relationship with this organization because I grew up in California with Sasha. Granted I was in SoCal and she was in NorCal, so we didn't, our circles didn't overlap all that much, but we've been friends since she founded this camp and I actually attended as a camper for two years back in 2018 and 2017 I think, and or maybe 2019. Anyway, so yes, I attended as a camp camper and I immediately loved it and wanted to be involved.

And then when this opportunity came up, Sasha invited me to join her as a director of the camp. And so now I'm on board and I'm kind of on the behind the scenes side of it, which I think is really interesting. So I love that I'm helping sort of improve that camper experience now that I have both perspectives.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic. Benah.

Benah Stiewing: So I knew I didn't find out about BJA until I had aged out of being a junior, but so I couldn't have attended, but when I found out that BJA existed, I was very sad that I was already too old because BJA is just about one of the coolest things ever. And it's been so wonderful because I started during last fall during the winter and our camps happened in the summer.

This summer 2024 will be my first time getting to attend camp and it's just been like such a wonderful experience getting to hear from a lot of our past campers, including Mac and other campers as well about their experiences there because I feel like as amazing, like as amazing as it was just learning about BJA and hearing about BJA, actually talking to people who have like campers who have gone to BJA, especially campers who have gone to BJA like year after year after year. The experiences they're having are just like transformative and

I think exactly like what Sasha intended it to be just like a truly steadfast community that is united in their love to like have fun with their dogs and grow in the sport. So it's been just really wonderful getting to be more involved in the organization and be able to actually work towards providing those experiences to campers. And I'm so excited to get to see it in person this summer.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic. So talk to me a little bit guys about the application process. How do folks get to actually attend, what pre-req skills do they need? What skills do their dogs need? Who wants to dive in?

Sasha Zitter: So we actually have two camps. We have one on the west coast and one on the east coast this year. The East coast. One is in Pennsylvania in August and the west coast, one is in Oregon in June and they're slightly different. So the west coast camp being smaller than the East coast camp, it has a slightly less broad age or not age range, I'm sorry, experience range. And so that basically means that, you know, on the west coast we have some people who are pretty new to agility.

You do have to have like your dog needs to know the obstacles and you need to know like what is a front cross, what is a blind cross, like how can, how do I run a 15 obstacle course? Like you need to know, you need to be able to essentially complete a course. And so that's the prerequisite for like for West camp, that's kind of our, our more novice group that can span from people who have those skills down and are sort of starting out all the way to people who are competing maybe in like novice or open level, you know, in, in AKC or you know, even in UKI or any, any of the organizations.

And then we have a more advanced group that you know, that's kind of full of maybe kids who have gone and competed overseas or kids who are competing at the masters or like ISC level. And so that's the west camp. And then the east camp has a much broader range and so basically we have, you know, a group that's more geared towards younger kids and you know, again they can be pretty new or they can be competing already.

And then we have groups that are geared towards like master's level AKC stuff and then we have intro to international and that's learning skills like backsides and throttles. And then we have the international group, which is the highest experience level and those are the people who are pretty much all competing overseas already.

Melissa Breau: Fantastic.

Sasha Zitter: So the application process is just a video that they submit and the junior fills out sort of what level that they feel they compete at or they can run at and then we review their application and put them in the group that we feel would be most productive for them during camp. So it really just, it's open to all levels of experience and we're gonna place you in the group that would be probably most effective for you to be part of.

And I will add onto that, that while we do expect our, our campers to come with at least like a baseline knowledge of what Sasha said, like front cross, blind, cross rear cross, how agility works, how a course works, we actually have a great program called the Lend A Paw program for campers whose dogs maybe camp isn't gonna be like the best setting for them or maybe they have younger dogs who aren't proficient on all obstacles yet. So in the case that one of our campers does not yet have a dog who is ready to attend camp, our absolutely amazing agility community at both of our camps, west and east, lends their fully trained dogs to work for a camper while they're at camp. 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

FREE Webinar with Petra Ford - In the House: Train...
E353: Loretta Mueller - Getting Started in Agility

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/