Local canine makes run at ‘America’s Top Dog’ title

Aolanis Fonseca, of La Mesa, and her dog, Saint, competed on the 2021 Season 2 premiere of A&E's "America's Top Dog."
Aolanis Fonseca, of La Mesa, and her dog, Saint, competed on the 2021 Season 2 premiere of A&E’s “America’s Top Dog” show which aired June 29.
(Photo courtesy of A&E)

Three seconds kept La Mesa veterinary technician Aolanis Fonseca from winning $15,000 and the bragging rights of owning one of the country’s top dogs.

In a televised obstacle course competition, a canine version of “Wipeout,” her Czech shepherd, Saint, won his first heat in the “underdog” category reserved for canines owned by non-professional trainers.

He and his owner had been selected to compete in the Season 2 premiere of A&E’s “America’s Top Dog” competition, which airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m.

The course included high walls to jump, planks with 15-inch gaps to traverse, fire escape stairs to climb, 100-pound oversized dominoes to topple, a pool to swim across, a villain to attack, a forest of elastic strings to crawl through, buttons to push and a variety of levers and tugs.

Saint’s weakness was drugs — detecting them.

Fonseca had home-trained Saint using fake versions of various narcotics, but not the real stuff. One challenge involved finding two hidden drug caches in a furniture-filled room.

“He had been imprinted on a pseudo scent, so he was searching for something he had little or no knowledge of,” says his owner.

In the end, Saint still managed to out-perform five of six competitors (one was disqualified).

A trained police K9 dog won the $10,000 prize and an additional $5,000 earmarked for his owner’s favorite charity.

“It was such a complete honor to lose to a canine team doing these things every day ... and know my dog was right there with them,” says Fonseca.

“I was the youngest contestant with the least training experience,” she adds. Fonseca was 20 last September when the “America’s Top Dog” episode was filmed.

“Saint was the only one wagging his tail going down the zip line,” she laughs. One of the unexpected challenges, she concedes, was for her, not her dog. The obstacle course is run by owner and dog together. “I was completely winded,” she says.

Fonseca has been a fan of German shepherds and similar breeds ever since a family pet saved her life when she was a toddler on her family’s ranch in Oak Hills, northeast of San Bernardino.

Post holes had been dug for a new fence, and it had been raining. She wandered into the yard with the family’s shepherd, named Coyote, and stumbled into a hole, three-to-four-feet deep.

“I remember the hole being filled up to my waist with water,” she says. She looked up and saw her dog’s face looking down at her through the opening. “I grabbed his cheeks, and he grabbed my shirt and pulled me out,” she says.

Not long afterward her family moved to Jamul. In 2018 she graduated from Steele Canyon High School.

“I always longed for another shepherd of my own,” Fonseca says.

Fonseca was 16 when she bought Saint and has trained him herself. She got him from a breeder with a huge litter of pups.

“All of a sudden I saw this chubby potato trampling over all the other puppies. He came to the window and looked at me, and that was it.” At that point, she didn’t even know if the big, inquisitive puppy was male or female. The deal was sealed.

“The day I got him, I knew he was sent down from heaven for me and would be my protector and my guardian,” says Fonseca, who quickly named him Saint. “Ever since he was a puppy, he’s had a noble personality. He’s so calm everywhere he goes.”

Had she won the competition, she would have donated $5,000 to Project Canine Hero, a nonprofit that cares for retired or injured military dogs and police dogs.

She still works as a veterinary tech, but since the episode was filmed, Fonseca has started her own dog training business, Schäferhund Kennels. She inherited some land in Utah and plans to turn it into a dog boarding, training and rehabilitation facility.

The “Top Dog” competition changed her life, even though Saint finished second. “When the show aired (June 29), people started following me on social media,” she says. They asked her how she had trained Saint. This has led to private clients and a boost to her new second career.

“It’s gratifying that this is a passion of mine and, turns out, I’m somewhat good at it,” she says. Her goal is to train patrol, narcotics detection and tracking dogs as well as service dogs to work with people struggling with PTSD, and diabetic and migraine management. “That’s very rewarding,” she says.

Chopper, the biker dog, has given up riding motorcycles due to health setbacks, but he still is doing San Diego charity work.
Chopper, the biker dog, has given up riding motorcycles due to health setbacks, but he is still doing San Diego charity work.
(Courtesy of Mark Shaffer)

Another talented dog: Chopper,the black and white Boston terrier known for dressing in black, wearing goggles and riding a motorcycle at various charity events, has been battling numerous ailments since early 2019 when he was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease and anemia. About five months ago, the vet detected a tumor mass on his liver.

The motorcycle riding is now history, says Chopper’s owner, San Diego real estate agent Mark Shaffer. Chopper, who turns 12 on Aug. 3, now rests a lot but still makes occasional appearances. And he is still posting on his Chopper the Biker Dog Facebook page.

On Saturday Chopper attended the after-party for motorcyclists who rode 108 miles to raise funds for Alzheimer’s San Diego. On Sunday he visited an assisted living facility in Otay Ranch.

“Everything is spontaneous, depending upon how he is feeling that day,” notes Shaffer.

During the pandemic, Shaffer was sewing face masks, with some of the sales proceeds earmarked for Chopper’s medical bills. He also is peddling Chopper T-shirts on his pooch’s website:

“Chopper was able to spread some love and joy today,” Shaffer posted online Sunday. That’s good news.