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Hot dog! Teenager trains her canines to do cool stunts

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 19, 2021

By Melissa Hart Special to the Washington Post

Mesa Smith struts across a county fair stage to the beat of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” as her slender brown dog, Delta, weaves between her legs. Mesa turns, and Delta puts her front paws on her trainer’s back to dance behind her.

You might recognize Mesa and Delta from their June performance on “America’s Got Talent,” where they wowed judges with their dance routine – part of a performance by the Canine Stars Stunt Dog Show (thecaninestars.com). Mesa, 17, is a trainer with Canine Stars, and she started working with dogs in Anchorage, Alaska, when she was just 7.

“The bonds I have with my dogs are really special,” she says. “It’s amazing to get to train them to do all sorts of things and then get to travel with them.”

Mesa’s parents started Alaska’s first flyball club. Flyball is a relay race in which two teams of dogs run alongside each other leaping over hurdles to retrieve a ball. She began training with Zoya, the family’s rescued pug/sheltie.

“Actually, she trained me,” Smith says. “Dogs catch on really quickly, but you also have to train people. Zoya knew everything my parents had taught her, and she showed me how to work with her correctly.”

Mesa has four dogs at home, and she trains them for competitive flyball, flying disc play, freestyle dancing, diving and agility (racing through an obstacle course). She also teaches dog agility classes. Sometimes she uses a clicker – a small device that allows her to make a clicking sound that indicates to the dog that it has performed the correct behavior. Other times, she uses a simple word such as “yes.”

“Training your dog helps with the bonding process,” she says. “You’re teaching them what to do, and they’re thinking through tasks and figuring how to do them. They’re just so happy to get to work with you.”

Delta is her newest dog – Mesa describes her as a “mixy mix” of whippet, border collie and terrier. Members of the Canine Stars specialize in working with rescue dogs.

“Our goal is to show how amazing rescue dogs can be,” Mesa says.

Before their audition for “America’s Got Talent,” team members had to quarantine in hotel rooms because of the pandemic. Mesa took advantage of the downtime. Part of her performance required her to collapse onstage in a shower of golden confetti, so she trained Delta to press her paws on Mesa’s chest, pretending to save her life.

Backstage, she packed her pockets full of Delta’s favorite food: burgers and chicken.

“With the lights and everything, it was a stressful environment, and I wanted to make sure she was super happy,” she says. “Delta performed beautifully, but I really smelled for a while.”

A senior in high school, Mesa plans to study criminology at an out-of-state college. “I want to help people in the justice system, and I want to explore new areas of the country,” she says. “But after I get my degree, I’m moving back to Alaska. It’s my home.”

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