From Rescue Dogs to Champion Competitors

4409 from rescue to champ our stories jack ferris in air

High-performance competition dogs come in all shapes and sizes and from many different backgrounds. As the head dog trainer at Purina Farms, I see this firsthand.

It’s true that purebred dogs can be found participating in competitions like the Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge, and, often, the perception is that to be a high-level competition dog, a dog must be a purebred. At Purina we know that incredible dogs can come from anywhere.

And a new shelter program at Purina Farms that provides basic dog training and more for rescues, proves it.


Every Dog Has Potential

There is plenty of room in the wide world of performance dog competition for any dog with the propensity for competing, no matter its breed or background. Rescue/shelter dogs make great competitors. It may come as a surprise because rescues often come unfairly saddled with preconceived notions that they have too much energy or can be difficult to train. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Just ask Andrew Han and Jack Fahle, two experienced dog trainers, who rescued sibling Australian Shephard/Border Collie mixes, Nalu, and Ferris, respectively. Nalu and Ferris were rescued after being found in a barn in Minnesota. Nalu and Ferris came into Andrew’s and Jack’s lives in similar ways: someone they knew reached out to them about the litter. Andrew and Jack compete at the highest level in flying disc and have both won multiple world championship titles. They know what it takes to train a dog to become a champion. And now they are winning competitions with their rescue dogs. Their secret? Doing the research, not projecting your expectations on your dog, and finding the event that best fits the dog’s sensibilities.

Nalu and Ferris are great examples of rescue dogs reaching their maximum potential. When Andrew first got Nalu, he noticed she had raw talent but said Nalu was initially lazy and liked to lay around and cuddle a lot: not a bad thing! But more and more he noticed Nalu coming out of her shell. By paying close attention to Nalu’s behaviors, and understanding the proper ways to nurture her, Andrew uncovered a new side of Nalu that enjoyed training to compete in disc competitions.

And then there is Ferris, who recently won the Incredible Dog Challenge Flying Disc competition in 2022, a huge feat. Ferris is an extremely high energy dog, which can sometimes be a turn-off for new owners, and a reason some rescues are returned. But if that high energy is harnessed and nurtured properly, the dog can reach its maximum potential. Ferris’ owner, Jack, believes in a highly effective, measured approach to unearthing a dog’s potential. He stresses the importance that with rescues, it’s not about constantly playing with the high-energy dog, but more about maximizing the time you do spend with that animal, both physical and mental, with positive reinforcement.


Training at Purina Farms

As part of Purina Farms’ new shelter program, Partner Pets, we bring shelter dogs to Purina Farms, and start training them on basic behaviors to help them become more adoptable. And at this point, we see which dogs have the ability or desire to become competition dogs or are better suited to join a family. If they show potential or a knack for sports we progress down that road with them.

Our goal is to ensure that every rescue dog acclimates well to their new living environment in a healthy, safe, and sustainable way. Using the principles of attention, care, empathy, patience, and research when going into a new relationship with a rescue dog can make a world of difference, and create meaningful, lasting bonds that transcend the podium. And sometimes you just might find a championship-caliber competitor along the way like Ferris and Nalu.



Deb Mardin, Senior Dog Trainer & Leader of Purina Incredible Dog Team

Deb Mardin is the Senior Dog Trainer at Purina specializing in flying disc and trick training. She leads the dynamic Purina Incredible Dog Team that consists of more than thirty amazing canine athletes who excel at diving dog, flying disc and agility and she also oversees the Pet Training and Enrichment Center at Purina Farms outside of St. Louis. Her work helps provide pet owners with positive training tips and fun enrichment ideas.

Deb works actively with local shelters to provide training for staff and enrichment ideas for the canine residents. She also serves on the board of the National Icelandic Sheepdog Rescue Alliance and is a member of the Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America.

Originally from New Hampshire, she now lives outside of St. Louis, Missouri with her Icelandic Sheepdogs, Labrador Retriever and four mix breed dogs. When not working, she enjoys hiking, biking, and kayaking.

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