It may seem intuitive that some employees at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) could be uncannily perceptive about dogs. One employee in particular has attained a substantial reputation, and accumulated nationally recognized accomplishments, in canine behavior.
“I have her in my phone as MU Dog Whisperer,” says Professor of Veterinary Ophthalmology Elizabeth Giuliano, DVM, MS.
“She really helped me learn how to train this dog and bond with this dog, where I did not have those skills,” says Associate Teaching Professor of Theriogenology Dawna Voelkl, DVM, MS.
Vicki Miller is the fiscal officer and human resource manager in the CVM Dean’s Office. Miller earned a degree in statistics from MU. Beyond her rigorous vocational world of sampling distributions and correlation coefficients, it’s her avocation as a dog trainer and breeder of champion German shepherd dogs that is spreading her reputation far beyond the college.
After a busy year of training, travel and competitions, Miller and her dog Schatzi — German for “sweetheart” — have earned the nation’s number one position for the 2019 American Kennel Club (AKC) Agility Invitational meet, Dec. 13-15, in Orlando, Florida.
Agility is a discipline in which a dog and its handler negotiate an obstacle course while racing against the clock. Requiring coordination and teamwork between dog and handler, Agility can benefit the relationship between owner and dog, as well as aiding conditioning, concentration and training.
The activity enhances the animal’s athleticism and mental acuity. Dogs that are properly exercised and mentally challenged exhibit fewer behavioral problems. Beyond the physical aspects, Agility deepens the canine-human connection by building trust between handler and dog, as both learn new communication skills, a shared enjoyment and the opportunity to bond through travel experiences.
Growing From Owner to Trainer
Miller started working in the CVM Dean’s Office when she was still a student. After two years of part-time work, she gained full-time employment after graduation.
“After a couple years of duplex-apartment living, I got settled and bought a house,” Miller says. “I had always wanted a dog, so when I moved into the house, I went to a Columbia Parks and Recreation event where they featured Ann Gafke’s Teacher’s Pets. They were doing drill-team performances, in which people with their dogs would do a kind of coordinated teamwork set to music, sort of like a dance, and it looked like lots of fun. I was just fascinated by what this woman and her German shepherd could do. It was off-leash, doing everything with hand signals, and very attentive to the owner. Watching that, I fell in love with the breed.
“I contacted Ann Gafke and asked if I could get on the list for a puppy,” Miller recalls. “Part of the agreement, when you get a dog from her, was that you have to go to classes that are held in a building on her property. So, in 1996, I got this German shepherd female puppy named Tori, went to dog class and really liked it. I eventually joined the drill team and got to know all these people, especially some of those people I had seen at the Parks and Recreation demonstration. They were very welcoming, they just took me in and I had a great time; then, I just kind of went on from there, for 23 years now.”
After working with her dog, and traveling with the drill team to give exhibitions as far away as Chicago, Miller began to expand her repertoire. In addition to working with her dog and performing with the drill team, she pursued a new passion — dog training.
“Ann Gafke gave me the opportunity to train some dogs that were boarding with her,” Miller says. “I would just help socialize dogs and help with training. Then, I started teaching some of the classes at Ann’s. My first dog that I trained for somebody was a miniature dappled Dachshund, and I learned very quickly that it was hard to see when a little dog sits, so I did a lot of work on the floor. That was easier than having to lean down to see if it was sitting or not.”
From these elementary training fundamentals, known as foundations, Miller’s experience grew to include nearly all of the more advanced disciplines of canine training.
“I’ve done foundation, tracking, obedience, rally, schutzhund and team brace, where you have two dogs and you’re doing an obedience routine, and then agility,” Miller says. “It’s been a lot of learning and a lot of fun.”
From her early days of helping around Ann Gafke’s Teacher’s Pets, Miller showed a knack for communicating and training both dogs and their owners.
“I helped a lot of people with a lot of different breeds,” Miller says. “I like working with puppies and doing some beginners work, just to see the immediate results; within six weeks, you see a lot of improvements when somebody goes through foundations. Through schutzhund, and just listening to Ann Gafke and other people there, I got into something of a behavioral focus, and have been able to just offer some suggestions on how to change a dog’s behavior, how to make things better, or how to correct something that a dog has been doing that they should not be doing.
“I love agility, but schutzhund is probably where I learned the most about the behaviors and reactions of a dog, how to motivate a dog to work through a situation,” Miller says. “Schutzhund is the sport of police dog work. It’s a sport, not guard dog training. The dogs aren’t there to do protection work; it’s about courage, confidence and learning about dog training. It’s broken into three different areas in which you get tests in the trial. You have to pass each area to receive titles.
“Back when I had only one dog, I was friends with someone who was with the Mo-Kan Border Collie Rescue,” Miller says. “I worked with them quite a bit and took in a lot of foster dogs, older dogs as well as some puppies, and did a lot of behavior modifications on them, and just taught them how to be a house dog or whatever issues they were needing to overcome in order to turn them around to be really good dogs.”
Her reputation as a trainer began to advance around the Midwest, yet it took some time for word to travel across the CVM parking lot.
Dr. Giuliano and Raylene
“I needed a service dog for some health issues,” Giuliano says. “I got my first Doberman, and there were a lot of things I was doing wrong with her training, because I didn’t know any better. I started taking classes at the Columbia Canine Sports Center. A friend there said, ‘If you’re at the Vet School, for heaven’s sake, go see Vicki Miller.’ I said, ‘Vicki Miller in the Dean’s Office?’ She said, ‘Yes, she’s the best animal behaviorist we have, when it comes to dogs.’ I had worked across the parking lot from her for almost 20 years, but didn’t get to know Vicki till 2014.
“So, I walked over to her office with my little, reactive puppy and said, ‘Hi, you don’t really know me, but I have this Doberman and I’m not sure what to do,’” Giuliano says. “Vicki didn’t say much to me, just pushed away from her desk and walked over to a cabinet, which was filled with dog treats. She took the leash from me and just started working the dog, didn’t say a thing to me. Then, 10 minutes later, she gives me back the leash and says, ‘You got a really good one. My classes are at this time on Monday nights; next time, come see me.’ And, I did.
“Raylene is what’s known as my novice-A dog, meaning I haven’t done this sport before — I’m a novice handler — and Ray was a novice dog, also having never done agility before,” Giuliano says. “Vicki took us under her instruction and patiently guided us. Last summer, we made it to our first master agility championship (MACH) and then we qualified for AKC Nationals in Oklahoma. That was a big deal; it was my first really huge competition with a dog.
“We started doing agility competitively in 2016 so, really, in just over two years we went through all the levels: novice, open, excellent and master’s,” Giuliano says. “Raylene is currently in the AKC agility top 20 of the Doberman pinschers in America. We are both very new to this sport but I cannot adequately express how much fun we’ve had learning, competing, and playing.”
Dr. Voelkl and Gus
“Since I graduated college, I had dreamed of having a border collie that does agility,” Voelkl says. “I also wanted to herd with a border collie, but never had the right life circumstance until I moved here. This was just something I’d always wanted to do; it had nothing to do with veterinary medicine. My husband and I started a working sheep farm, so I went to a rescue and got this border collie, Gus, who was extremely hard headed.
“Within a month, I took him to obedience class and he did not do great there. There was too much stimulation, he was super distracted and we hadn’t really properly bonded,” Voelkl says. “Then, I worked with several different trainers for agility, but he began to plateau in terms of progress.
“I went to a trial in Lawrence, Kansas, and I was really struggling with my dog,” Voelkl remembers. “This amazing woman, Carol Easterly, who runs Weimaraners, was there watching me as Gus refused to do any of the obstacles correctly, and he would bark and, oh, it was just so frustrating and I really wanted to quit. Carol told me, ‘You should go talk to Vicki Miller. She’s local, you know her from work and just see if she’ll help you.’
“I saw Vicki in the parking lot one day, and I asked her if she would help me,” Voelkl says. “Vicki said, ‘Send me all of the dates you’re available in the next two weeks.’ So, I sent her all of these mornings when I could do it, and she said, ‘OK, we’re going to do it every morning.’ I was like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to abuse your time,’ but she said, ‘We’re going to do it every morning.’ She would meet me at 6:45 in the morning, and work with me and my border collie.
“She helped me in the first agility trial I went to after that, and the dog looked brilliant,” Voelkl says. “I was like, ‘This cannot be my dog!’ I ran up and hugged her, saying, ‘Oh, my god, you fixed my dog!’
“She’s incredibly giving of her time, and a very talented trainer,” Voelkl says. “I’ve been to a few trainers and to some seminars with very accomplished agility handlers and trainers. Some trainers know how to do it only one way. They want you to run your dog the way they run their dog, and if you can’t do it their way, they can’t help you. Vicki actually knows how to teach and how to train the dog and the person. If it doesn’t work for you this way, she has three other ways to help you learn how to do it.
“She’s very analytical,” Voelkl observes. “She can break something down into a million little pieces and figure out where you screw up. I’m often just not that coordinated, so you need to show me exactly where to put my arm and put my foot. She’s really good at doing that.
“She teaches a foundation class; she’s really good at getting you and your dog solid foundations, so you’re ready to go on to further classes,” Voelkl says. “I had never learned those, so she went back and helped me get a better understanding of the theory of what I was doing.
“She teaches classes, and she’ll do private lessons sometimes with people on an arranged basis,” Voelkl says. “She’s doing fewer private lessons now, because she’s spending more time training her own new dogs.”
The personal dogs Miller is training are some of the top German shepherds in the country, and Voelkl has played a role in producing them.
“My husband, who is also a reproductive specialist, and I have a different bond with Vicki than just the training,” Voelkl explains. “We actually bred Zara, her older German shepherd, and we produced Schatzi. We also produced her last two puppies, so we’ve been involved, not just with training, but also with breeding her dogs.”
The Miller Family of Champions
“Tori was the first of three shepherds that I had from Ann Gafke,” Miller says. “Then, Tori was bred, based on agreement with Ann, and had Theo. I fell in love with and kept Theo, and then fell in love with another one of her dogs named Copper. Theo and Copper were only six months apart and they were the two that competed in brace.
“Tori was better with smaller groups of people, and was not as outgoing as the boys were with kids and crowds and letting people come up and see her and pet her,” Miller says. “In trips back to KC to see my parents, Tori fell in love with my father, and decided he needed to be her person. My dad thought that shepherds were pretty neat, too, and that seemed like it was serving a need for him; so, I gave Tori to him.
“That left me with Theo and Copper,” Miller explains. “Theo was very well-trained and was my first agility dog. Copper did obedience; he was a therapy dog. We went to Rusk Rehabilitation and visited patients as a therapy dog. Theo was a little bit on the shy side, like his mom, but still was outgoing and loved to train; he just wasn’t as friendly as Copper. But, he was very good and loved to learn things. So, I had both of them till they were about 12, but had started looking for another shepherd when they were 8 or 9. I had decided I wanted a shepherd that was a little more energetic.
“I did some investigating and went to Oregon and got a working show-line shepherd,” Miller says. “That was Xander. He was the working line, a little bit different from the American line. With him, I got into schutzhund, did that training for several years and still did agility.
“So, that’s three generations,” Miller summarizes. “After Xander, then I wanted more of a working dog, which was a little bit different in terms of structure. So, a friend gave me a referral to a breeder in Atlanta who had Czech German shepherds; that was Zara. Then, Zara had Schatzi, who later had Aylin. Now, Zara is 10, Schatzi is 5 and Aylin is 1.
“Zara is retired now,” Miller says. “Zara has been in the top 20 in her breed specialty numerous times. She was close to being in the top five, but suffered some pulled ligaments in her toe in May. We were awfully close to getting her to invitationals, but that injury required crate rest. We didn’t run any more trials in June, which is the final month of competition, so she didn’t make the top five ranking after that. But, she was in the top 20 German shepherds multiple years.
“There are always breed specialties — German shepherds, Labradors, Dobermans all have their own breed specialty event throughout the year — and it varies where it is in the United States,” Miller explains. “With the breed specialties, they usually have a top 20. Zara won the Grand Victrix in 2014, meaning that she competed against all of the other German shepherds there for that year’s specialty. It was a two-day event, four runs — two each day — and, out of those events, she was the highest ranked shepherd.
“For the counting period that includes any trials that take place between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, Schatzi was the number one German shepherd in the nation’s AKC agility rankings,” Miller says. “I knew we’d probably finish in the top five, and be invited to the AKC Agility Invitational. Recently, we found out that we were able to hold on to that number one ranking.
“In AKC, agility is competition is categorized by breed and height,” Miller explains. “Jumping height is every 4 inches in height: 4-, 8-, 12-, 16- 20- and 24-inch height; height measurements are taken by a judge at the dog’s withers. Invitational meets include the top five regular dogs in their jumping height, and one preferred dog, which gets to jump one height lower. Schatzi is in the 24-inch class.
“Aylin has now started training,” Miller continues. “With her being 12 months old, this is when she absorbs everything. We start learning on equipment that’s half the height of standard equipment, but we can start doing some sequencing. She’s already learned to be somewhat obedient and know the equipment in pieces. Now, you start putting sequences together, doing three things in a row, then six, nine, 12, and then just do a little mini-course at a very low height.
“In AKC, a dog must be 15 months of age before you can officially show, but she’s getting started and we’ll see how fast things go,” Miller says. “I don’t usually show the shepherds until they’re around 2 years old, so we have at least another year of work to do. We’ll just take it one thing at a time and see when she’s ready, when her puppy brain becomes an adult brain and she’s able to contain herself, but she’s actually very good. She’s done very well so far.”
Between qualifying for the AKC Invitational with the nation’s number one German shepherd, and earning a trip to the Westminster Dog Show earlier this year at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, 2019 has been a very big year for Miller and her shepherds. And, Vicki Miller’s dog dynasty seems poised to continue.