Any dog can have a champion day

Some dog shows judge only what a dog looks like. But many competitions are all about how a dog (or its owner) behaves.

Sit! Stay! If you can train your dog to obey simple commands, you're ready to explore the world of dog shows. From simply walking dogs around a ring to making them jump through hoops and crawl through tunnels, there are contests for kids with all kinds of dogs and all kinds of abilities. There's even a competition where the judges rate the handlers, not the dogs.

The first dog show in the United States was the First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs, held in New York City in 1877. More than 1,200 dogs competed. This event became the famous Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which is still held each year in February. This is a "conformation" show, which means that the dogs are judged on how well they conform to ideal standards for their breed.

Other dog competitions challenge a dog's athletic and intellectual abilities, and also the abilities of their trainers and handlers. One of the most exciting events for both dogs and spectators is the agility trial. Dogs must make their way through an obstacle course of jumps, tunnels, hoops, and seesaws.

At one point the dog may have to sit completely still for a brief period. At another point, it must weave its way quickly through a series of poles. The dog must complete the course within a certain period of time, so the trick is to go as quickly as possible without missing an obstacle.

The dog's handler guides the dog through the course while a judge watches to make sure each obstacle is completed correctly.

Agility is a great event to watch. There is a lot of action, and the dogs seem to have a lot of fun. Some bark happily and wag their tails all the way through the course. The handler runs around the course near them, directing the dog to each obstacle. "Here! Here!" one handler shouts as the dog rushes from jump to jump. Each handler has his or her own signals.

"Weave, weave, weave!" one calls as her dog weaves through a line of poles. Another directs the dog through the weaving with a loud "Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!" At the finish, the dog leaps joyfully over the final jump and the handler praises its efforts. Some smaller dogs leap into their handlers' arms for a kiss and a hug.

There are two goals in an agility trial. The team (dog and handler) that completes the course correctly in the shortest time wins a prize. But simply finishing the course the proper way also is rewarded.

Shanna Wilkinson started competing when she was 13, working with her Shetland sheepdog, Holly. "My mom had entered dogs for years in obedience competitions," she says. "And I thought the agility trials looked like fun." Like all competitors, kids and adults, Shanna began at the Novice level.

As a team collects points for successfully completing a course in competition, it moves up to the Open and finally to the Excellent categories. Shanna and Holly practice at home every day. Holly goes over, under, around, and through obstacles in different setups in their yard. Now 18, Shanna competes at the Excellent level.

When Shanna and Holly began, they worked only a few times a week. Sessions lasted only five to 15 minutes. For many dogs, that's as long as they can keep their attention on training at first. Gradually Shanna and Holly's sessions got longer as they moved up in the competitions.

The competition gets tougher as you progress. Dogs are allowed a few small mistakes in Novice competition. They might knock down a bar on a jump or hesitate before going through a tunnel. By the time they reach Excellent level, a single mistake can disqualify the team.

Beside agility and conformation, other competitions are open to kids and their dogs as well. In obedience competition, handler and dog work in a ring, with the dog obeying such commands as "heel," "sit," and "stay," as well as performing tasks.

At one point, for example, several objects are laid in the ring. The dog must use its sense of smell to find the object that has been held by its handler.

There are also herding, weight-pulling, and tracking competitions, as well as "rally." In a rally competition, dog and handler move from station to station over a long course. At each station the dog performs a command similar to those in the obedience competitions. Other competitions are designed to test the skills of specific breeds of dogs. While some contests are open only to purebred dogs, others are open to anyone who loves dogs and wants to show off the skills of his or her canine friend.

Many kids begin with Junior Handlers contests. Kids must show their dogs in a manner similar to that of the conformation events - but in this event, the handlers are the ones being judged, not the dogs. Mariah Lee of Ogden, Utah, is 10 years old and has just begun competing as a junior handler after three months of training.

Early this month Mariah won her first competition at a Junior Handler show in Salt Lake City. Mariah walked her Boston terrier, Percy, around the ring to show the judge how well Percy moved. This is called "gaiting."

Mariah then lifted Percy onto a table for the judge to examine. She carefully placed his legs in the proper position and lifted his head to show him in his best light. This is called "stacking." After the judge examined each dog and the way the handler had presented it, Mariah was awarded first prize.

"Junior Handler is a great way for kids to get started," says Kyle Hennefer. He teaches classes to help kids learn how to train and enter their pets in dog shows. "They learn the proper procedures and how to follow instructions, and become better competitors when they enter the other competitions," he says.

Mariah learned some of her skills from Mr. Hennefer. She practices at home with Percy, 10 or 15 minutes at a time.

Kai Noa of Orem, Utah, began in a Junior Handler competition when he was 9. It has led to what he hopes will be a lifetime hobby of working with animals. Now 17, Kai has collected many prizes and awards and now is paid by other dog owners to show their dogs in conformation and obedience competitions. Kai also teaches obedience classes and helps run an organization that rescues stray animals and finds homes for them.

While Kai plans on a career as an attorney, dog shows and other activities play an important role in his life. During a recent show in Salt Lake City, he was busy all day showing different dogs and caring for them between competitions. Some of his dogs won prizes and some didn't, but it was a day filled with rewards for Kai - and for all the kids and dogs who joined in the show.

How you and your pet can get started

Would you like to become involved in dog shows and competitions? Here are some tips:

Take your dog to obedience classes. Teach your dog to obey simple commands, like "sit" and "stay." Good training techniques use praise and reward, not scolding, to train dogs. Let your dog get used to being around other dogs without barking or challenging them.

Go to local dog shows. Leave your own dog at home at first, until you're sure your pet will stay calm around a lot of other dogs. Watch the different competitions. Which do you like best? Which are the best fit for your dog? People at the show will be happy to talk to you about your dog's abilities and where to train for each competition. Classes are often available to help you and your dog get started.

Start with short training sessions a few times each week. After 10 or 15 minutes, your dog will probably lose interest and want to play or rest. That's OK. Your dog will soon get used to training longer. You may never need to train more than half an hour a few times a week - unless you get into some serious competition.

Have fun. It's important to enjoy working with your dog. Praise your pet often. Competition and training should be fun for both of you.

You can get information about dog shows in your area from these websites:

American Kennel Club: www.akc.org/events

United States Dog Agility Association: www.usdaa.com

United Kennel Club: www.ukcdogs.com/dogevents

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