HAYDEN â€”Â The dogs got as many, if not more, pep talks than the children showing them did at the 4-H Dog Show at the Routt County Fair.
“You be nice. You got this,” Alyvia Cox told her miniature Australian shepard, Fenway, ahead of the competition. Fenway has a reputation for being a bit feisty with other animals.
“No matter what your dog does in there, today is not about training,â€ť judge Terena Thomas told 4-Hâ€™ers before they entered the show ring in the showmanship competition.
She continued, telling the competitors that the day was an opportunity for them to show off what their dogs had learned.
The senior and intermediate competitors showed first. They trotted their dogs around the open arena, then answered the judge’s questions about care and breed information. They showed Thomas their dogsâ€™ different body parts, with novice competitors pointing out body parts like the dog’s muzzle while one advanced competitor showed Thomas the location of one of her dog’s anterior stopper pads, which is the small pad above a dog’s front paw.
While the more advanced competitors showed, the novice competitors stood with their dogs outside the arena. The children urgently whispered commands to the dogs, which were growing bored of sitting and staying on the sidelines.
“No biting,” Kylee Oldfather told her beagle, Pip.
Fellow competitor Tierney McDowell tried to pass her a spare treat to entice Pip to sit. It fell to the ground, and Pip beat her handler to the treat as she dove after it in the grass.
“Sit. Sit. Sit. No, sit,” Tierney commanded her American Bulldog mix Penny. She tried to move Penny away from Pip, as the two tried to play. “Come. Can you please come?”
Tierney got Penny when her family lived in the Dominican Republic, said Cathy Shyrock, one of the dog project leaders for Routt County 4-H Clubs. When Thomas asked her if Penny spoke Spanish, Tierney responded that the dog “mostly speaks English because we got her at three months.”
This year, all five canine competitors were under a year old. The puppies quickly lost focus in the ring, chomping on their leashes, trying to play with each other and sometimes rolling onto their sides. While in the ring, parents, project leaders and even Thomas handed doggie snacks over the orange plastic fence to help the children keep control of their pooches.
“It’s fun,” said Leona Thurston, who has been showing dogs in 4-H for three years. “You definitely get a better bond with them than you would if it was just your regular dog. You get to work with them every day, and they have a purpose for you, so whenever they get to do something with you, they get super excited because it has purpose to it. It’s exciting to go into the show ring because you get to show what you’ve been working on all year.”
Leona hopes to advance her dog Paisley’s training, so the Corgi can serve as a therapy dog. When groups from Horizons, a nonprofit serving people with intellectual disabilities, visit the lake where she works, Paisley “wants to hang out with them all day.”
“She just loves them,” Leona said.
The children have been training and learning about dogs since February in preparation of the fair, Shyrock said. The children take on all of the responsibilities of pet ownership. They’re responsible for feeding, bathing and cleaning up after their dogs from the time the project starts to the time they come to the fair. Training dogs for the show teaches 4-Hâ€™ers patience, she said.
“They learn to realize that dogs, like kids, have a very short learning span, and it grows as they get older, so they need to be patient, and they need to train in short, three-minute increments, five minutes, because they canâ€™t expect their dogs to stay focused for a long time,” she said.
For most kids, the competition is just for fun, she said, though some realize through their 4-H projects they want to work with dogs professionally.
Next year, the program will expand to include an agility competition in addition to obedience and showmanship. Shyrock believes this will help further the bond between animals and their handlers.