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Best in shows

February 23, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

kristinw@herald-mail.com

Alyssia Black feels lucky to have a team member who is energetic and eager to please. As a dog show junior handler, it also helps that her partner has four legs and a wagging tail.

Alyssia, 16, has been working with her golden retriever, Rio, for four years, training her with obedience and agility skills. The duo now compete in the junior showmanship division in dog shows throughout the Tri-State area.

"In order to succeed or to win (in dog show competitions), you definitely have to have a really strong relationship with your dog," says Alyssia, of Warfordsburg, Pa. "They have to be willing to work for you, and you have to be willing to work for them."

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Rio wasn't always a pleasure to work with, Alyssia says. When she was a puppy "she was out of control and needed to learn some stuff," Alyssia says. Golden retrievers can be rather hard-headed, she adds, and it took much patience and dedication to form a partnership with her retriever.

Like most pet owners who train dogs, Alyssia's first experience showed her that training a canine can be difficult but full of rewards, especially in the world of dog shows.

The dog show season is just about to swing into full gear, say members of the Washington County-based Mason & Dixon Kennel Club. While dog shows pop up throughout the year, "you can go to a show every weekend, from about the end of March until after Thanksgiving" within a 300-mile radius of Washington County, says dog show enthusiast Cynthia Baker.

Young pups and new tricks

Dog show participants run the gamut from novice dog owners looking to work with their pet on obedience to devoted dog breeders hoping to find the next champion canine.

Regardless of what a participant hopes to get out of showing a dog, the experience teaches patience, hard work and devotion to both the dog and the dog's trainer, show participants say.

"I have just learned so much from these dogs," says Baker, who has been working with Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs for almost eight years.

Baker, who lives northwest of Sharpsburg, entered the realm of dog shows after her husband died from cancer almost 10 years ago.

"I needed to change tracks," she says. "I needed to go different places and get new challenges."

She started attending dog shows and observed different breeds for several years before deciding on the Ridgeback, a hound dog that originated in South Africa.

Working with dogs and training them "is like having a child and you get to see that personality and that talent flower," Baker says. "For me it's fun to find that special talent that is unique in each dog just like it is unique in each person."

One of Baker's Ridgebacks was too small for showing, but she found that the dog is good at herding - an uncommon trait for hound dogs. She now works with the dog to develop his herding abilities.

Alyssia competes in the junior showmanship division, which focuses on the performance of the junior handler, rather than the quality of the dog, she says.

Alyssia has learned much about her pet as she works with Rio to prepare for agility and Rally-O competitions. She's also discovered a possible career path. She hopes to work with, train and show dogs in her future as a professional handler.

Learning about the dogs

Nancy Plunkett, a Lhasa apso breeder, has continued for more than 30 years her childhood passion for showing dogs.

Working with dogs to prepare for competition "teaches you how the canine mind thinks," says Plunkett, of Greencastle, Pa. "Knowing how (the dogs) think and how they respond makes you a better owner," she adds.

Dog shows are more than just fun and games, however, Baker says.

"The purpose of dog shows, per se, is to select the best dogs for reproduction," she says. Working to preserve the integrity of a dog breed is the reason Plunkett enjoys working with the Lhasa apsos.

"A dog can look good, but, genetically, they could be full of all kinds of problems," she says. "I want to make sure that my dogs not only look good but they are bred well and in a healthy way. It's kind of like a Rubik's Cube. It's a constant challenge to find the right combination with the breeding."

This weekend the Mason & Dixon Kennel Club will hold an American Kennel Club Sanctioned B Conformation All Breed Match at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center. Unlike a dog show, dogs and handlers compete for practice, rather than points, in a dog match, explains Ron Webb, show chairman for the kennel club.

"What you're going to see is a lot of young puppies learning the ropes," Plunkett says.

If you go ...

WHAT: American Kennel Club Sanctioned B Conformation All Breed Match hosted by the Mason & Dixon Kennel Club

WHEN: Registration starts at 10 a.m.; judging starts at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 25

WHERE: Washington County Agricultural Education Center, 7313 Sharpsburg Pike

COST: $7 entry fee per dog for the match, free for spectators

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