Unlikely champion French bulldog reaches kids

| 31 Jan 2018 | 12:13

by Laurie Gordon
— Deb Stevenson, of Sparta, has combined two of her passions into a unique, well-received creation. She's married her love of writing with her love of competing with her dogs to creat Soaring Soren, a book that remembers her beloved French bulldog and teaches kids a valuable lesson.
“I have always loved to write,” Stevenson said. “As a child, I wrote stories and poetry. In college, since I was a Spanish Literature major, I spent a great deal of time writing papers, usually in Spanish. As an adult I worked for many years as a technical writer and instructional designer, developing user guides, help text and instructional manuals for software applications, and also did process documentation and optimization.”
She has written many dog-related magazine articles and for a time, Stevenson developed websites and content as a side business and hobby. For a number of years. while she had her dog Soren, she wrote a regular column for JustFrenchies Magazine, about competing in performance sports with French bulldogs.
“As you can imagine, it was often humorous,” she said.
“I became interested in writing a children’s book when my son was young,” she said. “Reading together was a favorite activity and treasured time we shared, and my son is still an avid reader today at almost 26 years old. I loved experiencing books through his eyes, as he learned about new things for the first time. And I loved the power books had to broaden his thinking and view of the world. I started thinking, way back then, that I would love to write stories for children, though it would be many years later before I acted upon that dream.”
Stevenson said she actually wanted to be a veterinarian and worked for a vet all through high school and college. But life took her down a different path.
After college, Stevenson worked briefly as a bill collector in Spanish, which was not, she said, a job she'd ever like to repeat. She then worked for years in the shipping industry as a supervisor, then manager and then trainer in Customer Service and in International Shipping. After that, she became a technical writing and instructional design consultant for about a decade, and finally landed at AT&T as a Product Marketing Manager, originally to support networking offers for the transportation industry. She is still a Product Marketing Manager at AT&T today, 21 years later, working on Virtual Private Network products for large, global enterprises. In her spare time, she enjoys writing children’s books and teaching some dog agility classes.
Her love of writing children's book and training dogs for agility competitions combined in her writing of the book: Soaring Soren: When French Bulldogs Fly.
A love of dogs
“Sadly, Soren passed away in January of 2016 and took a big piece of my heart with him,” Stevenson said. “He was just shy of 11 years old at the time. He had started collapsing and, after much testing, was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor on his heart. Soren was quite the agility dog, much to the surprise of many people. He was the first French Bulldog to earn a championship in the sport of agility, and also competed in obedience and rally. He earned well over 100 performance titles during his career.”
Soren's daughter, Audia, is part of the Stevenson home and though she did agility like her father, didn't have the same passion. She's now nine and retired from competition, but she did earn her agility championship and is the first French Bulldog to be a dual champion in agility and conformation.
“I am still competing with Remus (7) and Ferris (4), my two Rat Terriers. Remus is an agility champion in USDAA agility. Ferris is very close to completing his USDAA championship as well, and getting close to his MACH (Master Agility Championship) in AKC agility.”
Once upon a time, agility competition was more seasonal, but nowadays, you can compete year-round if you choose. Typically, Stevenson competes in the spring and fall with summer and winter being a bit more few and far between.
“We train primarily at the DogDome in Wantage,” she said. “It’s a great deal of work to prepare a dog for competition, but also a great deal of fun for both the human and canine members of the team. There are many complex behaviors the dog must learn, like contact equipment and weave poles. It’s a fast-paced sport and handler and dog need to communicate clearly on course at high speed. When a team is really in tune with each other, its a beautiful thing to watch—a touching example of the incredible bond that people and dogs can share. I think that’s why I love the sport so much.”
Stevenson added, “Each course you run is different and presents different challenges, and so we try to train for a myriad of situations. Remus is extremely fast and lives to run agility. The challenge with him is always those aspects of the sport that require self control (like staying or anything that involves stopping). For Ferris, the challenge is staying focused. He notices everything in his environment. Because they are a lot faster than I am, I train them to work at a distance from me, so they need to know how to perform the obstacles very independently, and to do from far away, through a series of body and verbal cues.”
Agility competitions take place all across the country, as well as locally, and around the world.
“I’ve not competed internationally, but Soren and I did travel to California twice and to Reno NV once to compete in large events … the AKC Agility Invitationals in California, and the AKC National Agility Championships in Reno. Soren also competed at National Agility Championships in PA and VA. We regularly compete in NJ, NY, CT and PA, and occasional wander farther, especially for some of the bigger, national or regional events.”
Stevenson added, “I’d say without a doubt, that one of my biggest achievements in agility was Soren’s AKC Master Agility Championship (MACH). To earn a MACH, a dog must be both accurate and fast enough to earn speed points. The latter is challenging for a dog like a Frenchie. Before Soren, no French Bulldog had ever come close to earning a championship in agility. Soren proved it was possible, and since then, a number of French Bulldogs have gone on to achieve that honor, including Soren’s daughter, Audra. Soren had several other impressive achievements, for any dog, let alone a little bulldog in an athletic sport like agility. In 2009, he was ranked in the Top 10 Non-Sporting Dogs in the country in agility. In 2011, he was ranked in the Top 20 Lifetime Agility dogs in the country, of all breeds, in the AKC Preferred division. He even appeared on the cover of Clean Run Magazine, the top magazine in the sport of agility.”
Introducing Soren
It was largely fate that brought Deborah Stevenson and Soren the dog together.
“Soren was truly a once-in-a-lifetime dog,” Stevenson said. “That our paths would cross seemed more destiny than chance. He was brought over from Denmark by Suzanne Orban-Stagle, who breeds and shows French Bulldogs. I met Suzanne through a mutual friend while competing in Rally and Obedience with my first Frenchie, Lulu. I had tried agility with Lulu, and while I loved the sport, it was clear that she was not ideally suited to it physically.”
“When Soren grew too big for the show ring, Suzanne offered him to me as my agility partner. I had never met Soren in person, but declined, repeatedly in fact, because like so many others, I was pretty sure a French Bulldog would not make an ideal agility dog. After about 6 months of polite declines (Soren was now about 1.5 years old), Suzanne called and asked if I would consider just meeting him. They were to be at a show not far from me. I agreed. When I arrived at their motor home, I was greeted by an enchanting, brindle bowling ball with big, intriguing, old-soul eyes. I sat on the floor to play with him, throwing a toy, that he exuberantly retrieved again and again, leaping on and off the sofa, and then he promptly threw up all over me.”
“Turned out the poor thing had a stomach virus that was going around. That wasn’t going to stop him from showing me what a great athlete he was. I agreed to take him home “just for the weekend” and by the first evening, I was definitely smitten with the oh-so-charming and personable Soren. The following day, I took him to the agility field where I trained and let him run with my other French Bulldog.”
To Stevenson's surprise, he just started doing agility. Soren ran over the dog walk, teeter, A Frame, jumps — it was effortless, she said, like he’d done it all his life, and he was fearless.
“ I will never forget when he finally came to a stop and looked up at me, and I said 'Okay, Soren—I guess you’re my new agility dog.' What I never expected was just how far our partnership would go. I remember joking with Suzanne at our first agility trial … “Maybe Soren will get a MACH.” And we laughed at that”
Soren did not think it was farfetched. He was one determined little bulldog, and it never occurred to him there was anything he could not do. He was right.
“Not only did he earn his MACH (which he did on my 50th birthday no less), but he went on to earn another, and a bunch more in the Preferred Division (slightly lower jump height). He was nationally ranked among the top dogs in the country in agility, and qualified for the AKC National Agility Championships six times in his career. He also was the Top French Bulldog in AKC agility for many years. I also did not expect, on that fated weekend we met, that he would end up capturing my heart so entirely, or changing my life in so many ways.”
“I often thought that Soren would make a fabulous children’s book character,” Stevenson said.” He had such an endearing personality, and his 'can-do' attitude was the canine embodiment of The Little Engine That Could. He was so inspirational to me, and to my fellow agility competitors, that I felt he would be an ideal role model for children, teaching them that we are not defined by our limitations, but by our will to rise above them. I started writing the book while Soren was still alive, but I wasn’t sure how to move it forward, so I put it aside.”
The book
When she lost Soren to a tumor on his heart, Stevenson was devastated but decided to honor this animal's extraordinary life by making the book about him a reality. She contacted Morgan Spicer, a very talented illustrator, who, coincidentally had done a portrait for her of Soren a year earlier. Stevenson found a wonderful editor in Krista Hill of L. Talbott Editorial and happened upon a publisher in the talented Sharon Wagner of Aperture Press.
“In those times when I struggled to find a path forward with the book, I drew my resolve from Soren, knowing that he would never give up until he found a way,” Stevenson said. “And so the book is both a tribute to his remarkable life, and also to all he taught me about living life with determination and purpose.”
The book was released in October of 2018, and since then, Stevenson has had the chance to visit children in their classrooms to talk about the book and Soren. It was the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards Winner for Best Children’s Non-Fiction and Finalist in Children’s Picture Books 6 Years & Up as well as Readers’ Favorite Silver Medal Winner in Children’s Animal Books.
“The book has helped keep Soren close, and in many ways, I feel he continues to lead me on an unexpected and wonderful journey. I also hoped, with 'Soaring Soren,' to teach children about the sport I love.”
Stevenson will be visiting the Mohawk Avenue School third graders on February 23, where she'll disciuss the process of creating a children's book. On March 2, she'll be visitng first and second graders at the Alpine School, in Sparta, Her son, Scott (now 25 and a software engineer for the New York Times) grew up and went to school in Sparta, so getting to visit the local schools is a special treat for her, she said.
To learn more about Stevenson or to order Soaring Soren: When French Bulldogs Fly, visit <URL destination="http://www.frogprincebooks.net/meet-deb/ ">www.frogprincebooks.net/meet-deb/