Peter and his dogs making headlines
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF SPOKE TO KILCOOLE NATIVE PETER MCKENNA AT HIS ROUNDWOOD HOME WHERE HIS HIGHLY TRAINED GERMAN SHEPHERDS ARE WINNING A WORLDWIDE REPUTATION FOR THEIR ABILITY TO COMPETE WITH THE BEST
HOLLENTOR Kennels. The name Hollentor does not appear on any Ordnance Survey map. The kennels are modest canine accommodation in the back yard of an unpretentious house in a Roundwood estate.
Yet Hollentor Kennels are the headquarters of a sporting operation which has been making a significant mark in international competition.
It is a matter of some frustration to householder Peter McKenna that his exploits are not better known but his enthusiasm for training German Shepherd dogs is undimmed by the low profile.
So there was no ticker-tape parade, no opentopped bus when he returned from recent world championships having achieved a stellar top 20 finish.
The former Gaelic footballer realises that most members of the Irish public are blissfully unaware of the scale of the achievements of this one man and his dog. They are not familiar with the discipline required to excel in rigorous tests of skill and obedience.
Nevertheless, Peter remains dedicated to attempting, along with his prized dog Legend, to perform even better next time out.
Legend is a very impressive animal – 135 kilograms of well-honed muscle rippling beneath the rich brown fur typical of the breed.
The face under the long ears is intelligent and good-natured.
Boisterous and eager, he is clearly bursting with playful energy, even now that he is on a winter break away from contest.
He shares the yard with another high achieving specimen, the bitch Alpha, who also has a healthy sporting track record.
They are very different characters: the male is a happy-go-lucky individual when not engaged in the serious business of tracking or combat, while Alpha is more highly strung.
Peter McKenna is originally from Kilcoole and the 34-year-old grew up playing football with his local club, one of four children of Peter and Bridie McKenna.
His late father was the dog lover in the household as he had some for security work while others were kept at home.
He enjoyed canine company on walks along the coast from Kilcoole to Newcastle and back.
The son produces a cute photo of his younger self sitting in a pram with two German Shepherds on the ground beside it.
When Peter senior died in 2008, there was the question of who would look after the last of his line of pets.
The bitch – called Tara – ended up eventually at the house in Roundwood where her new owner had no intention of doing anything with her other than enjoying the mountain scenery.
She died of a tumour in 2011 and, almost without thinking about it, Peter found that he was in the market for a replacement.
He went to Ratoath and came back from County Meath with what he now calls his ‘starter’ dog, a three-year-old called Aztec which was already trained.
He liked the fact that his new acquisition was able to follow commands and decided to bring his interest on to a new level.
Aztec and owner attended a club at Donabate in North County Dublin where they learned to work more closely together.
With his best footballing days behind him after a cruciate knee ligament injury, Peter was
gradually discovering an alternative to the GAA.
He observed how seasoned handlers in Donabate set about the business of working with their charges.
The sport, which has evolved from police dog work, relies on the ability of the German Shepherds to follow a scent, to heed instructions and to confront an attacker.
Apparently the most difficult part is persuading the dog to let go once it has launched itself at the bad guy – who must be padded up to the nines for the exercise.
Though a most amenable character, Aztec was too old to learn many new tricks and Peter realised he wanted to start from scratch with another trainee. The business of selecting a likely candidate is not as straightforward as picking a new kettle from a mail order catalogue.
The German Shepherd or Alsatian pedigree is cursed by dodgy, debilitating hips and elbows, characteristics which breeders are attempting to winnow out of the bloodlines.
Pups must be X-rayed at 12 to 24 months and, where defects show up, they are banned from competition and neutered.
The campaign is supported by extensive DNA records and meticulously supervised micro-chipping.
Peter McKenna monitored the relevant EU working dog website for at least five months before he spotted a likely candidate with promising pedigree.
The pup, Legend, was in Belgium and he had to make a day trip to Antwerp in order to agree the deal in 2012. The bitch Alpha was found a little closer to home, his pick from a litter of pups bred by an enthusiast in Drogheda.
A longer journey was soon required as Peter’s work as a carpenter dried up and he hit the migrant trail to Canada, settling in the shadow of the Rockies in Edmonton.
Legend and Alpha went too, with a dog walker employed to give them exercise while their master spent weeks on duty in the Alberta oil fields.
‘We kept up the training, though it was so cold in winter that I haven’t a word for how cold it was.’ He recalls spending hours on end in the garage which came with his apartment.
He was also prepared to drive 18-plus hours across the border into the USA to Minnesota in order to receive coaching in how to get the best out of his charges.
Back in Ireland in 2015, he began to compete, working his way up through the grades before heading off back across the Atlantic once more.
The intention was to find employment again in the oil industry but a drop in the price of raw fuel meant that he spent most of his time instead in Minnesota.
This allowed him compete at the US national championships in the warmth of Missouri where Alpha finished in fifth spot.
‘Unbelievable!’ Peter’s reaction to this achievement is still a mix of pride and amazement – he was now well and truly hooked.
Returned once more to Ireland, both his dogs made the Irish team for the 2016 world championships in Germany where they earned places in the top half of the elite field.
They were then allowed a break from the intensity of training, swimming in the Roundwood reservoir or romping in the forests while their master contemplated the next campaign.
This year, Alpha was in pup and out of contention, but Legend earned another invitation to the annual world tests, coming second in the national qualifier at Chimney Corner in Belfast.
Peter commenced a strict regime of preparation in the countdown to the big event which was staged in the Netherlands at Tilburg.
Much of the work was carried out on local sports fields, so Roundwood AFC and the parish GAA club both played their part in what proved to be a great success. The pair also made a guest halftime appearance at a Bray Wanderers soccer fixture in the Carlisle Grounds, helping to ensure Legend would not be distracted by the presence of a crowd.
Shortly afterwards, the van pulled out of the drive and they set off from Roundwood overland to Holland – with a week acclimatising in Belgium along the way – with the aim of gaining a top 20 finish. The ambition was achieved, with Legend defying wind and rain to come in 16th – a feat that has his owner glowing with pride.
The sodden, windy weather made it difficult to pick up the scent on the tracking course which is the ultimate test of a dog’s nose.
But the Irish representative made up ground with scores of more than 90 per cent in the obedience and patrol sections.
Back home, the next major concern is the litter of pups which Alpha is carrying since she was flown to Minnesota for a stud rendezvous with the father of the current world champ, who resides in Germany.
German Shepard breeding and competition is, it appears, a truly international business, with at least 37 countries from Japan to Slovakia involved.
Peter is already contemplating next year’s campaign on the competition circuit with Legend.
He knows full well there is no guarantee of qualifying from the Irish trials at the Red Cow to reach the 2018 world championships in Denmark.
Travelling there would be a huge commitment, requiring two or three weeks off work, but he would dearly love the chance to bid for a slot in the top ten as five-year-old Legend hits his prime.
He would also love to establish a training club closer to home as he seeks to raise the profile of a fascinating sport.
WE KEPT UP THE TRAINING WHILE WE WERE IN CANADA THOUGH IT WAS SO COLD IN WINTER THAT I HAVEN’T A WORD FOR HOW COLD IT WAS
Peter and Legend take to the pitch during half-time at the Carlisle Grounds to help get Legend used to noise and lights.
Peter McKenna and his dog Legend, who came 16th at the World Championships for German Shepherds in Tilburg, Holland, last month.