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

Wicklow People - - INTERVIEW -

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.

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