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Junior dog handlers are looking for ‘Best in Show’

LAKEVILLE — Amelia Smith, 11, and Eliza Lindsay, 10, have their eyes on a prize. This Saturday, Dec. 17, they will be in Orlando, Fla., competing in the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship. They are both junior dog handlers and along with their terriers they will be parading around the ring trying to impress the judges with their grasp of the art of showing dogs. To hear the girls speak on the subject, it seems they are well on their way.Both girls have spent their childhoods in the dog show world. Eliza’s mom owns a champion English springer spaniel and her grandparents bred and showed Dobermans. Amelia’s parents weren’t dog handlers but they too have been on the show circuit. The family currently has two championship Rhodesian ridgebacks.How does somebody learn how to show dogs? And what’s involved? Like so many things, making the exercise look effortless is half the battle. Growing up immersed in the dog show world has helped, but the girls have also taken classes and been mentored by professional handlers and breeders. And they’ve both done their research.Amelia, who lives on a farm in Millerton with her parents, started showing dogs 18 months ago, debuting with a pug and a smooth-coated collie. But she wanted a small dog of her own. “With our big dogs I couldn’t have a toy, so I looked at dog books and spoke with people and chose the Norwich terrier. They have a great temperament and he doesn’t dig. He’s just perfect,” she said of her dog, Diesel, who is 19 months old.Eliza, who lives in Lakeville and attends Salisbury Central School, co-owns Meili, a 3-year-old border terrier with two other people. Meili lives in North Canaan with one of the other co-owners, Tim Acker. Eliza regularly borrows him so they can attend training classes in Torrington.According to the girls, the secret to success in the show ring is for the dog to be happy and for the handler to have fun. “You have to keep the dog busy and happy,” Amelia explained. “If they shut down, you have a dead dog on the end of the leash. I’ve taught Diesel all kinds of little tricks like, bow, snap, paws.” The judge is looking at the dogs for “temperment, structure and expression.”The girls use squeaky toys and bait, such as liver treats, to keep their dogs interested.It is, they acknowledged, a lot to handle at times. The way they hold a leash, the extension of the arm, the position of the elbow, these are all things they have to be concerned with. To show the dogs to their advantage, they have to walk at the natural pace of the dog. When the dog is on the table being examined by the judge, the handler may have to hold the dog’s chin up and hold the tail out in extension, so that it’s conformation is at it’s best. The girls also keep a comb or brush handy to keep all stray hairs in place — something they were doing even as they were being interviewed for this story.Both Eliza and Amelia, who met on the show circuit, have dozens and dozens of shows behind them, but the championship in Orlando will be the farthest either girl has traveled. To qualify, they had to earn five first-place wins in open class with competition. In addition, according the American Kennel Club website, the junior handlers must have a grade-point average of at least 3.0 (and this must be verified by a school transcript). No slacking off for these girls.The championship is for dog handling, so it is actually the girls who are being judged, not their dogs. The junior handling class is for youngsters between the ages of 9 and 18; most of their competition in Florida this week will be older and more experienced, and Eliza and Amelia seem to have a good perspective.Asked what their goals for the upcoming event were, Amelia said, “It would be great to get to the finals of the competition, but mostly, I want to learn more, have fun and do the best I can.” Eliza agreed. “You always want to have fun, it’s the main thing in juniors and it’ll be great to just have the experience.”

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