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By SHELLEY TOPP

Eight-year-old Fernside girl Niamh Lappin is a champion, thanks to her unbeatable partnership with a beagle named Halo.

Niamh has won the 12-years-and-under Champion Dog Handler of the Year Award at the New Zealand Dog Agility Championships with Halo.

The championships were held in Kihikihi, a small town near Te Awamutu, in the North Island.

Niamh’s parents, Helen and Ian Lappin, also show dogs and travelled with her to Kihikihi for the championships. They travelled by road and ferry, taking five dogs to the championships, including Niamh’s three – honey-coloured Halo, a black cocker spaniel named Topsy, and a tiny poodle-cross called Magic.

Helen’s dogs, Sketch, a young border collie, and Baz, a border collie-fox terrier cross, also made the highly successful trip.

All dogs bar one (who only got one placing) placed in multiple events.

Niamh also won the 12-years-and-under Jumpers Class with Halo. She was also runner-up in the 12-years-and-under Dog Handler of the Year competition with Topsy, and runner-up in the 12-years-and-under Jumpers Class with her, too, plus she finished second in a standard jumpers class, competing against adults, to qualify for the finals with little Magic.

It was a huge achievement for all three dogs, but to win the top prize with Halo was particularly special for Niamh and her family because Halo was rehomed by the Lappins when she was three years old after being badly beaten.

It took a long time for Halo to trust people again after her rough start to life. “She was terrified of being around people,” Helen says.

“It is a miracle she actually competes, let alone making it to the top grades after being badly treated in the past, and beagles aren’t the most reliable agility dog breed, so she does extremely well.”

Topsy is also a re-homed dog. “She just wasn’t wanted, so we were asked to rehome her. I can’t understand it; she is a total sweetheart.”

To qualify for the Handler of the Year finals, Niamh and Halo had to get two clean runs in the dogs’ competing grade at any official championship show or ribbon trial. The courses comprise multiple pieces of equipment, such as seesaws, weaves, jumps and tunnels.

“For an eight-year-old to achieve at least two clean runs at this level is pretty tough going, let alone with a beagle. Topsy had to qualify for the finals also but she is in the lower grades, so the requirements were not quite so rigorous. She only had to go clear in a course with jumps, tunnels and weaves,” Helen says.

“Once at Kihikihi, Niamh had to run (and win) a judged course with both dogs she had qualified with, then take out the champion title (and runner-up title) for Handler of the Year,” Helen explains. “For the 12-years-and-under Young Kennel Club jumpers’ course she was able to run all of her dogs (and borrowed one of mine).” She, however, had the win again with Halo, and Topsy was again runner-up for this class, too.

Niamh also competed over all four days of the event with all dogs in classes against adults, with several clear rounds.