'Children with four legs' [+slideshow]

Canine competition a clutch of animal lovers, familiar handlers

The high school was inundated. They came from the East Coast, the West Coast, the middle of the country, Alaska and some from the Kenai Peninsula. And they brought their puppies — almost 600 dogs.


Down in the lower-field encampment, people scampered around inside an orange mesh coral.

“I’m worried about him running out of the ring,” said a woman wearing a raincoat, her forehead wrinkled.

Another dog handler jogged up to a yellow tunnel. It was ribbed and plastic, and it bent at a right angle. She held out a straight arm and a pointed finger as she jogged, as if leading an imaginary dog.

“She’s going to shoot like a bat out of hell,” said Laura Johnson, after the handlers had cleared the course. She looked at the tunnel from the other side of the fence. Would she be able to keep her dog’s speed down when it tore out of the tunnel?

She was nervous.

“I could probably puke,” Johnson said.

Saturday, about 800 people gathered in rain coats and collapsible chairs, by RVs and Ford F-350s, and under popup tents for the Kenai Kennel Club’s Annual All-Breed dog show, obedience rally and agility trial at Skyview High School. The event started Thursday and will end this afternoon.

Judges registered 448 dogs in the conformation and obedience categories and 142 in the agility category. And each dog had a handler, and most handlers a family member.

Johnson, who goes to three or four event a year, said she often recognizes as many as 90 people at an event. They’re a big family, she said.

“See that woman carrying the bar,” she said. A woman strode through the course with her dog. She carried a black and white bar and a gold and blue ribbon. The ribbon hung at her knees. “She just got her MACH.”

MACH stands for Master Agility Champion. The award, she said, is a big deal. She doesn’t have one herself, but she works to improve each time.

“Oh, I got to go,” she said. She and Gretta, her German Shorthaired Pointer, were slotted fourth, and the judges were lining up the athletes outside the course.

Earlier, American Kennel Club Judge Janet Budzynski was sitting in a white A-frame tent overlooking the edge of the course. Three collapsible tables sat in the tent, and on one was a printer, a laptop, a Sterilite plastic file bin, two stacks of printer paper and plastic folders containing paperwork. She said the tent was the dog agility head quarters.

“We’re obsessed. We’re nuts,” Budzynski said. “We don’t apologize for it either.”

She’s from Pennsylvania, but she’s judged in California, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Minnesota, to name a few. She’s been doing it for almost 10 years, she said.

At the table down from her sat Marty Charlop, an older man from upstate New York. He’d come for the company and to pick up his partner’s dog poop, he said.

“It’s like people who have children,” Charlop said. “These are just children with four legs.”

He always feels like he’s watching a high school sporting event, seeing the dogs weave through the poles, dart over the hurdles and the handler running alongside. They’re like high school students kicking a ball. And each player has a family, and most families recognize each other, he said.

“There’s no animosity,” he said. “In competition you find a lot of emotional—”

He paused. Outside the tent, down the hill, a dog and its handler finished an agility course.

“Hear that clapping? Everybody’s clapping for that dog,” he said.

Then another dog and handler began, and soon after the crowd said, “Ohh.”

“Hear that?” Budzynski said. “They’re all in agony over the dog that did something silly over there.”

It’s a bond, and not just between the dog and handler, but between everyone there. What they share is their love for animals, Charlop said.

“Not to be philosophical, but the relationship that you have with an animal is just so earthy that they ask for nothing except to be loved and fed,” he said. “They’re not conniving. They’re not political. … Once you have dealt with a lot of people and you learn what all of your fellow man are like, you’re more comfortable with animals than you are people.

“But, as I say, that’s just my opinion.”

An hour later, Johnson and Gretta trotted out of the course and stood under a popup tent. It began raining.

“We blew it,” she said.

Gretta had jumped off the end of the dog walk. A rubber yellow mat covers the first several feet of the two ramps that lead to the suspended platform. Dogs must hit them on their way up, and down. Gretta hadn’t.

Tent tops began to pop under the rain.

Despite not qualifying, Johnson was happy with her and Gretta’s run. The course was tight, and Gretta was a large, fast dog. Johnson had expected they’d have a difficult time controlling their speed, she said.

But it was practice, and there is next time.

“(We’re) a little neurotic,” she said. “Dog people just are, aren’t they?”

Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.

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