Scott D. Pierce: Utahn and her dog surprise the competition on A&E’s ‘America’s Top Dog’

Theo helped his owner get over her fear of dogs after she was badly bitten. Now she’s a dog trainer.

Dayna Winter-Nolte loves to take her dog, Theo, to competitions — just for the surprise factor. The Utah woman isn’t the one who’s surprised, her fellow competitors and the spectators are.

“It’s so much fun because I do these competitions and you see those Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds and I walk out of the field and I get kind of a chuckle,” she said. “And then he blows everyone’s expectations out of the water.”

Theo is a 7½ year old border collie-poodle mix — a medium size dogs who’s cute and kind of fluffy. He does not look like a dog who’s going to zip through obstacles and blow people’s minds.

But he is. And Theo and Winter-Nolte compete on a really big stage on Tuesday in the second season premiere of A&E’s “America’s Top Dog” (7 p.m., Dish and DirecTV; 9 p.m, Comcast).

“He’s different than a lot of dogs that are on the show,” Winter-Nolte said. “I like to kind of come out with him and prove that just because dogs don’t look like the typical dog that does that kind work, that they can still really excel. Especially with that good relationship you can build with them.

“I’m really, really excited to have a lot of people see how we do on this show. It’s really just a laugh.”

“America’s Top Dog” (Tuesday, 8 p.m., A&E) features a huge obstacle course that tests the dogs’ speed, agility and how well they work with their trainers. In the first round of competition, pairs of dogs in three different categories — working dogs, police K9s and “underdogs” — compete to be the fastest. The winners advance to the finals, where they compete against each other.

The winner gets $10,000, and another $5,000 to donate to the animal charity of their choice. And the weekly winners return in the season finale, competing for an additional $25,000.

Sportscast Curt Menefee and comedian David Koechner are the hosts; sportscaster Rachel Bonnetta is the “sideline reporter.” They try hard, but they take a decided back seat to the dogs and their trainers.

(Photo courtesy of David Black/A&E 2021) Utahn Dayna Winter-Nolte and her dog, Theo, celebrate after their run in "America's Top Dog."

Winter-Nolte shares a bit of her background with viewers, and it’s enough to make them stop and take notice. When she was 18 years old, the South Salt Lake woman was “bitten really badly by a friend’s German shepherd.” Although it was “a pure accident,” she had to go to the hospital and get 30 stitches. “I never blamed the dog. Honestly, the dog in that situation was doing its job of protecting its property. It was managed poorly and he made a bad decision, unfortunately.

“I was OK. But mentally recovering from that was really, really difficult,” Winter-Nolte said.

Her family had a dog at the time, and she was fine with her. “But German shepherds and bigger dogs in general were really intimidating to me up until I started working with Theo.”

Theo, it turns out, is a handful. He’s the first dog she ever owned by herself.

Winter-Nolte was in grad school “and I thought, ‘I want a dog! And I got this cute little puppy. … The doodles were all the rage, and I thought I was getting this really easy, low-key, cute, fluffy dog just to be my buddy. And he just turned out to be a lot more intense than I had anticipated,” she said with a laugh. “He had a lot of energy that needed to be channeled in certain ways.”

So she found a trainer to work with Theo and with her — and the trainer had a German shepherd.

“I eventually started shadowing at the training company that I was working with and just getting to know more and more about these working type dogs. And I was able to kind of get over my fear through working with Theo.

“So now I own three German shepherds,” she said with a laugh. Three is a lot, but I make it work. They’re amazing. I do sports with all of them.”

But Theo is the dog she’s spent the most time training.

“The relationship I have with Theo is very different. He’s been around the longest. I’m not saying he’s my favorite, but we just have more of an in-depth relationship — kind of because of the struggles that I’ve had to go through with him. Having to troubleshoot, working issues out with him.”

And working with a trainer inspired Winter-Nolte to become a trainer herself. “It definitely wasn’t something that I was planning for,” she said with a laugh.

Having been severely bitten herself, she’s now working with aggressive dogs of all sizes — including “quite a few German shepherds.”

“Working as a trainer allows me to prevent people from having an experience like I did by helping people learn how to communicate with their dogs and set boundaries,” Winter-Nolte said.

“I remember teaching my childhood dog how to roll over in my bedroom and do tricks like that. It was a blast,” she said. And when the path emerged to turn dog training into a career, she said, “I kind of dove into it head first.”

Which is sort of the way Theo attacks the obstacle course: diving in head first and rampaging through.