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‘My once-in-a-lifetime dog’: Saluki Valur sets breed standard in agility competitions

  • At her home in Sharon, Vt., Chris Klein lets her salukis Valur, Yama and Betty outside into their large fenced yard in March 2020. Klein competes with the dogs in agility trials across the country. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.Photographed on March 12, 2020, Chris Klein, of Sharon, Vt., competes with her Saluki dog Valur in agility events. She is planning to be a part of the National Agility Championships in Perry, Ga., on March 27-29, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Veterinarian Chris Klein, of Sharon, Vt., relaxes on the couch with two of her three her salukis, Valur and Yama, in March 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.Photographed on March 12, 2020, Chris Klein, of Sharon, Vt., competes with her Saluki dog Valur in agility events. She is planning to be a part of the National Agility Championships in Perry, Ga., on March 27-29, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valur moves through the agility course at the Westminster Dog Show in New York City in 2018. Valur competed again in 2020. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/23/2020 8:48:55 PM
Modified: 5/26/2020 8:53:37 PM

SHARON — This spring was supposed to be Valur’s retirement tour.

A nearly 11-year-old saluki, Valur and his handler, Chris Klein, have accomplished a lot, some of it unprecedented, in the world of dog agility trials. Not that it’s come easy; as a breed that reacts to sight more than anything, salukis aren’t terribly easy to train for obstacle courses and other things dog shows seek in an agility champion.

It’s gotten more difficult in the past six months. First Klein, 62, was diagnosed with stage IV gastric cancer last Thanksgiving. Then the coronavirus hit, not only making travel problematic for Klein but ultimately canceling the last event in which Valur was to compete, the American Kennel Club’s National Agility Championship in late March. 

On the other hand, you wouldn’t know how depressing such a one-two punch could be by talking to Klein, who hopes to return to competition down the road, her health problems notwithstanding.

“Basically, he’s my once-in-a-lifetime dog,” Klein explained in a phone interview last week while enjoying the sun outside her Sharon home. “I don’t expect another saluki to be like that. I’m OK with others being challenging, but he does everything I ask. I couldn’t love him more.”

Had everything gone to plan, Klein and Valur would have done the dog agility “triple crown” for the first time this season: Orlando, Fla., for the AKC Invitational last December, followed by February’s Westminster Dog Show in New York and the nationals in Perry, Ga., two months ago. The pair competed in the first two events.

A veterinarian at Plainfield’s Riverbend Veterinary Clinic, Klein has amassed plenty of friends through showing Valur. They’re admirers, too.

“She really is a team with her dog, and she really understands the breed,” said Noreen Bennett, of Belchertown, Mass., a longtime dog show competitor, judge and event organizer. “I can say that 95% of the people that show dogs in agility would never be able to show a saluki in agility. They don’t understand how the breed works. Either they would quit or the dog would quit or they both would quit. It’s unique to see somebody with that patience and the love of the breed to do what she’s done.”

Klein confesses to being “a collie person at heart.” She’s also a former long-distance runner who wanted to have a dog to accompany her on long-distance runs, but long-haired collies weren’t ideal for exercising in heat and humidity.

Questions she posed about salukis as an option only raised red flags. Even with her experiences to date, Klein describes the breed as “a cat in a dog suit.”

“I admired salukis, so I went to Westminster to talk to them,” Klein recalled. “And they said, ‘No, you don’t want them. They’re independent. Never let them off a leash. You don’t want one.’

“I took that to heart for a few years, then I dug in again. If I have to, I’ll keep one on a leash. They can run on a leash, and they don’t pant. I got hooked on the breed.”

Border collies, the dog Bennett favors for agility, do well because of their herding instincts. Salukis — which are similar to greyhounds, although smaller and longer-haired in the ears and tail — are so-called sight hounds that react visually, and they can be difficult to train because of that.

Millie was Klein’s first saluki, a super-independent female who could leave her handler occasionally debating her breed choice.

“I’d come home from trials crying,” Klein confessed. “One time, she got on top of a frame (of an obstacle course), jumped out of the ring and ran off by herself to the lunch stand. I’m calling, ‘Millie, come back!’ She came back and jumped back in the ring. The judge was laughing so hard, she couldn’t blow her whistle.”

Still, Klein was sold on the breed enough to eventually forgo saluki company along the road for saluki agility competition in the ring. Millie, who died in 2016 at the age of 12½, led to Valur, and Valur led to all levels of success and joy.

Valur is the first saluki anywhere to achieve a masters agility championship, or MACH. Dog and handler accumulate points at trials for beating a time standard and avoiding mistakes. Some teams show nearly every weekend; still, it can take a year of competitions to make the MACH standard. Valur has three MACH titles; only one other saluki in the country has as much as one, Klein said.

Valur has also reached the standard of masters agility championship preferred, or PACH, twice. Geared toward older dogs, it includes a slightly longer time maximum and slightly shorter obstacles. He’s made the Orlando invitational a breed-record seven times, winning four; he’s the only saluki to compete at Westchester’s agility trials, doing it twice and making the finals once; and he’s the only saluki to qualify for the AKC agility nationals, having done so three times. Georgia would have been his first visit.

“With statistics from the AKC,” Klein wrote in a Friday email, “he is far and away the most decorated saluki of all time.”

Klein uses Valur’s MACH success in describing her ongoing health battle in matter-of-fact terms. The diagnosis of her cancer — a very rare one, she said — first led to chemotherapy and significant time off from work. She’s since connected with another treatment she’s hoping at least will keep her cancer from advancing. She deadpans that June 1 is her “expiration date.”

Getting cancer is hard, but “it’s harder to get a MACH,” she joked.

If Klein can stay healthy, possible competition options await with her two other salukis. One, 6-year-old Yama (“named after our favorite restaurant”), hasn’t taken to training as well as Valur. Two-year-old Betty is another story altogether.

“I hope to get the puppy trained well enough for competition,” Klein said. “Females are tougher, a lot more independent. The boys want to please you, and the girls want to please themselves. It’s a well-known thought with the breed.”

It wouldn’t surprise Bennett to see her friend return to agility competitions. Betty is half the age Valur was when Klein first showed him, so it may take time.

“We all learn,” Bennett said, “from one dog to the next.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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