Children learn responsibility through training their pets

Kids, dogs compete in fair test of agility


A Bluetick Coonhound named Sunshine was eager to follow 8-year-old Rebecca Tobin at the Howard County Fair yesterday -- even though it meant jumping hurdles, jogging across a see-saw, climbing up and down wooden ramps and charging through a plastic tunnel.

More than a loyal pet, Sunshine has been training for agility contests for several months. Even more important, Rebecca said, "Since he loves treats, I have them in my hand. His nose is like, `Gimme, gimme, gimme!'"

Treats and vigorous petting seemed to be all the reward necessary for the 17 dogs that competed in the 4-H dog agility contest yesterday.

For several hours, amid intermittent rain showers, the handlers persuaded the canines to make their way through a variety of obstacle courses.

All of the human contestants are participating in 4-H dog projects. Many are members of Happy Hounds 4-H club, which holds training sessions to help young people teach their dogs obedience, prepare for dog shows and participate in dog-agility tests.

Elaine Geiser, who is one of Happy Hounds' leaders, said the club includes some young people who have dogs alongside livestock and other traditional 4-H animal projects.

Others -- often those living in suburban and urban areas -- have chosen dogs as their main animal activity.

Within the club, dog agility has been growing in popularity, Geiser said, because it is fun for the animals and the owners.

"When it comes time to do agility, you can almost see happiness in the dogs," Geiser said. "The kids see that and feel it, so they like to do it."

The 4-H club accepts any kind of dog into its classes. Geiser said some breeds, including those traditionally used for herding, tend to excel.

But, she said, "if your dog likes what he's doing out there, then you can use any kind of dog."

Before it was her turn to compete, Rebecca, of Lisbon, said, "I think its real exciting, but I'm a little scared. I'm scared my dog will run away."

Rebecca's mother, Cari, agreed that the hound is a breed suited to tracking and can easily be distracted by smells when it should be paying attention to the handler.

And, she said, "he has a very strong personality, and Rebecca has a very soft way. We are helping her be assertive. It's good for her and for him."

Geiser said the children who train dogs also "learn a ton about responsibility. The biggest thing that determines their success is if they take responsibility for the dog."

Dogs that get most of their care from the family's parents do not do well, Geiser said, but "if the kid is in control of that dog and does most of the caregiving for that dog, then the dog is going to work" for the child.

First-year competitors like Rebecca can have their dogs on a lead and bring treats into the ring.

More experienced handlers in the novice, open and elite categories rely on vocal commands, hand-claps and pointing as they run alongside the dogs.

Emily Geiser, 12, said that when she started training her standard poodle, Zeus, it was difficult to get him to listen to her commands.

"When I got him, he was just a young puppy and he was really crazy" said Emily, who lives in Columbia. "It was fun to train him, but challenging because he likes to look at everything and he is easily distracted."

Emily said: "I'm really proud of him today. He's never done this well in a show before. ... It was really exciting and a relief because he didn't embarrass me for once."

Kyle Stull's Jack Russell Terrier, Little Bud, was not so well-behaved, which Stull attributed to the fact that the family has several dogs staying at their home for a few weeks.

Spectators laughed at the sight of Little Bud asserting his independence -- including making a break for an opening in the fence, and climbing on top of an A-shaped obstacle. Kyle, 13, of Mount Airy, took it in stride.

"He's a little hyper," Kyle said. But, he added, "I think he'll grow into [a good competitor.] He's a really fun dog to have. He's very energetic and lovable."

Kyle also said he was glad to have the agility contest at the fair for the second year.

"I think it's a good recruiting thing to get people into the 4-H club and see what kinds of things we do with our dogs," he said.

The fair continues through tomorrow with entertainment, animal shows, demonstrations, rides and family activities.

Members of the 4-H program will take part in a sheep show today and hold their annual livestock sale tonight.

4-H rocketry, livestock judging, bicycle, sheep lead and showmanship contests are scheduled for tomorrow, as is a 4-H worm race.

Fair information: www.howard or 410-442-1022.

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