The dogs were shiny and polished, and their handlers well dressed. An occasional bark or whimper could be heard in the Fred Field Western Heritage Center at the Gunnison County Fairgrounds Monday, but overall each canine — ranging in size, breed and color — was on his or her best behavior.
Their owners — 4-H participants — have put in countless hours of work with their dogs, not only teaching them commands, but forming lifelong bonds.
Each year during Cattlemen's Days, the multi-purpose room at the fairgrounds is transformed to something resembling the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Madison Square Garden, as 4-H members display their best friends in obedience, showmanship and a class called “rally,” which demonstrates the teamwork between dog and human.
The 4-H Dog Program has nearly doubled in participants in the last several years, growing to about 20 members. Gunnison County Extension Agent Eric McPhail gives a lot of credit for that growth to 4-H leader Sue Runge.
“She’s been great — and she’s got a great group of volunteers,” said McPhail. “She has really taken it to the next level.”
Runge shows canines herself, owning German shepherd dogs. She said she used to come to the 4-H dog show just to watch and support the local children. One year, 4-H leaders asked her to help, so she did. Then both former leaders moved out of state.
“They said, ‘You’re it,’” Runge laughed.
She said she can’t take credit entirely for the program’s growth — looking back over 25 years of records there has been a fluctuation in membership. What she has done is make changes to bring Gunnison County’s show in line with what other clubs are doing throughout the state.
“When we went to State Fair, I saw we were behind the times,” Runge said. “I have made changes to revamp it and put us on the level of other counties. That has been my goal.”
But beyond the program’s expansion is the growth each member sees individually. Tyler Laudick has been involved with the dog program for six years. Twice, his dog, a Lab named Charlie Girl, has been named Grand Champion at the local show. They’ve competed at the Colorado State Fair and were named Reserve Champion in the rally class.
“When I started there were only 10 of us,” Laudick said. “Now there are so many kids and it’s so fun to see.”
Laudick’s favorite class with Charlie Girl, naturally, is rally, where he has demonstrated the most success.
“It’s the class you can talk to your dog most in,” Laudick said. “She loves when I talk to her. … When I’m just telling her everything she needs to do, she does it really well. She’s crazy and I love her.”
This is Laudick’s last year in 4-H. It’s not yet known if his sister will pick up next year where he left off with Charlie Girl.
Achieving maturity and developing patience are two aspects Tyler’s mom Christina — who also is a 4-H leader — has observed in the last several years. She said the kids learn life lessons about hard work and the fact that anything can happen in the ring.
“No matter how much time you practice with them, it could fall all apart on show day,” Christina Laudick said. “It’s realizing that you walk out of the ring, and they’ll tell the dog, ‘Good job. Thank you,’ and you still love on them as much as if they had done well that day.”
Embry Phipps spent this past year training his dog Nimbus. The small dog is a curly blonde terrier that looks like a ball of fun. Embry put the pooch through his paces in the novice classes on Monday. Embry’s dad Wyatt said he’s seen a lot of growth in his son, including developing the skill to follow through with a task.
“It’s a challenge trying to stay focused on being engaged,” Wyatt Phipps said. “Keeping a record book is a challenge and staying motivated to stay on task with training every evening.”
Yet, Runge emphasized the importance of the record books — the tracking of dog expenses, health records, vaccinations and training goals helps 4-H members realize that their canine friends need more than just love to survive.
“It’s not just training dogs — it’s the responsibility of dog ownership and everything involved,” she said. “It’s true for all 4-H animal programs.”
Contestants received ribbons, and top performers garnered the titles of Grand Champion and Best of Show by the end of the day. Still, the program does more than teach dogs to sit, stay and lay down — and teaches owners more than the cost of vaccinations. While ribbons last for a day, the knowledge gained lasts a lifetime and builds from year to year.
“It’s really fun to watch the next year,” Runge said of beginning members. “There’s a big difference from year one to year two.”