Alex Van Meter knelt down on the Grange fairgrounds grass to explain how he presents O’Brian, an English setter.
Van Meter, 16, positioned O’Brian’s legs to show off the dog’s strengths, primarily his powerful shoulders. He then brushed his hand above the dog’s front left shoulder blade to expose the surrounding muscle tone. O’Brian remained still, allowing Van Meter to methodically present him from head to tail. Only when a treat emerged from Van Meter’s front suit pocket did O’Brian break his statuesque pose and tilt his head up to be rewarded.
Van Meter’s presentation skills combined with O’Brian’s obedience determine their success in junior dog showing competitions, the most recent at the Happy Valley Cluster, which had 2,535 dogs compete in four days.
“You have to be really polished in junior dog showing, because the judges are judging your presentation more than the dog,” Van Meter said.
Van Meter and his sister, Abigail, 12, have handled show dogs for three years, a hobby that turned into a weekly adventure for them and their parents, as they compete in 40 shows a year.
“This is the furthest we’ve gone,” said Bob, their father. “A lot of shows are within a two-hour radius of our home, which is nice, but we’re separated a lot of the time. My wife or I will go take one of the kids to a dog show for agility and obedience, and the other will go to a different show.”
The Van Meters, of Burlington County, N.J., drove more than 200 miles for Alex and Abigail to show O’Brian, Juniper and Hailee, all English setters.
The siblings got their start when Alex joined a 4-H club and trained their cocker spaniel, Freckles, to be a show dog. Abigail began to show the family’s second dog, an English springer spaniel named Miles Standish, afterward.
“His breeder wanted me to show him, because he’s a really nice looking dog,” Abigail said. “His hocks are a little too long for his breed, but to me he’s perfect.”
While Alex and Abigail focus on their presentation skills, professional handlers like Greg Strong house, groom and train show dogs for owners until the dogs retire from competition.
Strong, who was named by his peers the 2013 AKC Handler of the Year, has two full-time assistants and and a team of junior handlers to help him with more than 20 dogs on a daily basis to prepare for more than 140 shows a year.
“A lot of people don’t have the time or the training to present their show dogs, so I’ve been doing this for over 30 years because I enjoy it and it makes people happy,” Strong, of Easton, Md., said.
Strong showed 12 dogs at the Happy Valley Cluster, including Fawny, a fawn-colored bearded collie owned by Dot Matthews, Victoria Null and Michele Marini, a member of the Nita-Nee Kennel Club, the local dog showing club that coordinated the last two days of the dog show.
Fawny, the top-ranked bearded collie in the country, was named the Reserve Best in Show on Friday and Saturday, but it took Strong four years to raise and train her before he showed her.
“Compared to some other breeds, it takes a while for bearded collies to mature,” Marini, of Port Matilda, said.
Strong began to handle Marini’s bearded collies 30 years ago. She and other club members, like Donna Stoey, who chaired the event, go to more than 25 dog shows a year.
“You get really into it and plan your life around your dogs, you plan your time around dog shows and you plan your money around dog shows,” Stoey, of DuBois, said. “I have more show clothes in my closet than anything else, because it’s a great experience.”