Four-legged athletes from across the country will soon pad their paws into Murfreesboro for an opportunity to show off their skills in a five-day agility competition to reveal which canine competitor is top dog.

The Cynosport Dog Agility World Games sponsored by the United States Dog Agility Association, is set to take place at the Tennessee Miller Coliseum from Wednesday, Oct. 20 through Sunday, Oct. 24. The Middle Tennessee event is one of two national championships to take place this year. The other will begin on Nov. 30 in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Pooches will be partnered up with their handlers to run, jump and weave their way through a series of obstacles that showcase obedience, coordination and the bond between owner and pet. Pairs are scored based on timing and accuracy in completing the course in the correct order for a chance to win $15,000.

Murfreesboro previously hosted the event in 2019, when Tawni Millet of Christiana took home the Grand Prix of Dog Agility win in the 22-inch division with her border collie, Jolt, named after the Mountain Dew Live Wire drink.

Millet, a full-time dog trainer and owner of LiveWire Agility, is scheduled to compete again this year with Jolt’s canine kids, Little Sparkle and Legendary. Jolt will compete in the “performance level,” which includes jumps at a lower height to accommodate aging dogs.

Little, who took home gold as the U.S. competition at the World Agility Championships in Hellendoorn, Netherlands, was the littlest dog of the “Little Sparks” litter and Millet’s first homebred pup.

“She was born at only seven ounces. The rest of her litter was twice the size of her,” said Millet. “I wanted her to have a very special name because she was so small, and I couldn’t change it after eight weeks.”

Millet, who moved to Middle Tennessee from the Chicago area three and half years ago, owns a brood of border collies, whom she posts regular updates about on her social media pages. When she’s not working with her own dogs, she’s helping others in and outside of the county learn how to become better connected with their own.

“Staying positive and relationship building is one of the most important things in my opinion. If you don’t have a relationship there, it doesn’t matter how good all the other pieces are. It just doesn’t come together the same way,” said Millet, who has been competing in agility since she was in the seventh grade in 2004.

Training Dolly Barkin

One — or two — of the clients Millet has taken on in the last year are Mahayla Shirley, 10, and her 4-year-old Havanese Dolly Barkin, named after the Country Music Hall of Famer Dolly Parton.

Because her parents own Family Pet Health, a veterinary clinic on Manchester Pike in Murfreesboro, Mahayla has been around animals all her life.

This year, the McFadden School of Excellence student successfully raised two breeds of chickens as a part 4-H Chick Chain Show project and regularly helps out with cleaning and fabric-cutting tasks around the clinic. She also worked with horses before severe allergies came into play.

She’s the middle child of three, with an older brother Tristan, 20, who used to show pigs in 4-H and FFA and a younger brother M.J., 8, recently started testing his border terrier Cookie Dough’s speed at the Murfreesboro Obedience Training Club.

Agility training truly came into Mahayla’s focus after her father, former Riverdale High agriculture teacher Michael Shirley, took her on a “daddy-daughter date” to the 2019 competition. He credits his FFA students for brainstorming Dolly’s name.

Mahayla’s mom, Dr. Amy Shirley, said Dolly was the preferable option to the suggested name, Oreo.

Shirley remembers having a ringside view of the competition dogs winding their way in and out of the weave poles while shooting photos and video for the clinic’s Facebook page.

“Mahayla said that she wanted to try that with Dolly, and the rest is history as they say,” said Shirley, who came home to his daughter’s DIY-version of an agility course assembled from household items strewn together in the family’s living room.

“I used a hula hoop, and I used chairs, and I tied it together for the first jump,” said Mahayla, explaining the elements of her homemade course.

The pair now uses the former agility equipment Dr. Jean Lavalley, a Murfreesboro veterinarian who competes in events with her Shetland sheepdogs.

Lavalley will team up with Venture, co-owned by Linda Robertson, and Bee, co-owned by Jennifer Crank. Crank will compete in the individual events and Lavalley in the team events.

Shirley and Dolly began their training journey at Wag It Better before moving on to the Murfreesboro Obedience Training Club. Since then, Dolly has earned her Canine Good Citizen certificate and completed her Tricks and Acting class.

Shirley said the biggest benefit of the agility training has been the physical and mental stimulation it has for pets and their owners. Rather than “building a super athlete” with jogs and games of fetch, they’re getting a workout of the mind.

Mahayla and Dolly have since worked their way through the beginner and intermediate classes at Murfreesboro Obedience Training Club and now meet with Millet on Wednesday evenings for advanced practice of the numbered obstacles.

To Mahayla’s surprise, Dolly’s favorite agility obstacle is the A-frame, an incline shaped like the letter ‘A’ that the dogs will ascend and descend.

“I thought she’d get scared when it comes time to running straight down something pretty much, but she’s like, ‘Oh, Yay!,’ ” said Mahayla, who’s now working to get Dolly more comfortable with the seesaw and weave poles.

Her dad agreed, noticing the physical change in Dolly’s demeanor when approaching this specific obstacle.

“When she sees the A-frame and hears Mahayla say, ‘Climb it! Climb it! Climb it!’ she starts running hard, and her tail, which is naturally curled up, stretches out in a straight line and she shoots right up that A-frame and right down the other side,” said Shirley.

The biggest lesson the pair have learned is to lock eyes and “stay connected,” the piece of advice that has been Millet’s tagline for quite some time.

In the few months that they’ve worked together, she’s noticed a great deal of improvement in her youngest client’s confidence, techniques and handling choices to guide her girl through the course.

“It reminds me of when I first got into this sport, and just seeing her happiness, her attitude with Dolly, it just lights up my day when they come to class,” said Millet, who teaches between 75 and 100 clients in and outside of the county. “She’s hardworking and she’s just the sweetest girl. It’s great to see her and her dog having fun.”

Mahayla and Shirley will be volunteering at the Cynosports, taking competitors’ leashes from the starting point of the course to the finishing area and setting and resetting jumps.

Mahayla competes with Dolly in other dog agility competitions, but she’s typically the only competitor in the beginner division. Her biggest competition is herself.

“First off, there’s not a lot of junior handlers, so that’s one thing that I would encourage,” said Shirley. “For kids at home with a dog, this is a phenomenal sport for them because they’ve got to take care of their dog anyway.”