Irene Holt and her ten-year-old talented working sheepdog Jack hit all the right notes as they danced their way to success in the Heelwork to Music final at this year’s prestigious Crufts dog show.

‘When I first got Jack as a puppy I’d never even heard of Heelwork to Music,’ Irene says. ‘Up until then I had showed and bred Maine Coon cats and it was only when I took early retirement that I was able to fulfil my wish of owning a dog. Jack came to me at eight weeks and immediately settled with the cats who were happy to tolerate him, even letting him walk under their tummies when he was just a tiny pup which did look funny.

‘As Jack grew, we began training for Dog Agility but realised he wasn’t fast enough so when someone suggested Heelwork to Music, we gave it a go and were immediately hooked’.

Heelwork to Music is about the partnership between dog and handler and the expression of that partnership through training, music, and choreography. The Kennel Club holds a series of competitions throughout the year from starters upwards. All advanced level dogs and handlers can qualify for Crufts by entering one or more of a series of qualifying events.

Irene, who lives at Stalmine, explains: ‘We did a little training with Ann DeRizzio who runs Clever Canines in Lytham and now we regularly train with a group of friends from Goosnargh – we call ourselves the Pawtappers.

‘It’s as much about training the handler so that you can communicate effectively with your dog. Jack does know voice commands but works largely from body language. We practise every day, and it takes an awful lot of patience and commitment to build up a relationship where the dog will give you full attention, no matter what the distractions- and there are a lot of distractions at Crufts.

Great British Life: Irene and Jack in the final. Photo: Richard Moss FurtographyIrene and Jack in the final. Photo: Richard Moss Furtography

‘When training, I like to include lots of play to keep Jack motivated. He adores toys, especially his tuggy rope with a ball on the end and quivers with anticipation when he sees it. He's a very bright boy and responds well to stimulation and positive rewards whether it’s food, toys, or praise.’

Irene and Jack, who clearly share a strong bond, had to beat nine other finalists to win the competition. Irene had to devise a routine of up to four minutes, set to music, and perform it in the Resorts World Arena at the NEC Birmingham.

‘I married two Latino tracks together which showed Jack’s versatility as we transferred from a slow to a quicker pace. Jack always gives his best so I knew he wouldn’t let me down,’ she adds. ‘I’m so proud of my boy; he’s always calm and precise when competing and I was so pleased everyone saw what an amazing partnership we have.

‘Nothing really prepares you for walking out onto that green carpet and performing at Crufts, but everyone is very supportive and there is a nice atmosphere. Winning was a dream come true even though I was in shock and had to keep pinching myself afterwards I have dreamt of getting to Crufts since I discovered Heelwork to Music and to win was amazing.’

As Jack grows older and heads towards retirement, Irene has decided to try for one last competition at Crufts with him and then pass the baton on to Tate, her six-month-old puppy.

‘Like Jack he is a red and white border collie, but he is still exploring the exciting world around him while I work on relationship and recall under Ann Derizzio’s tutelage. Jack ignored him for three months when I first got him but he has obviously realised Tate is here to stay, and they play beautifully now.’

With ambitions for Tate, Irene realises that Jack will still need stimulation. ‘I’ll continue to work with Jack and take him to training shows. He is still raring to go and always pulls on his lead when we approach the ring which shows he just loves what he’s doing.’