Sit. Heel. Win

Training Rover to be a star

Obedience training, breeding standards, and dual champions may have seemed a bit off the wall in the Christopher Guest satire Best in Show, but they are serious business to Maggie Rice. As a child, Rice, owner of Road Runner Denver, a two-employee towing and service company, raised golden retrievers with her father. But "it was love at first sight" when she laid eyes on a borzoi, or Russian wolfhound, a few decades ago.

Rice, 60, bought her first purebred borzoi in 1986 and has been breeding and training them ever since. "The companionship of the animals and the competition are very appealing," says Rice, who competed with one of her four dogs in the American Kennel Club's AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Long Beach, Calif., in December. "And it's always fun to win."

Rice and her pets have plenty of competition. In 2006, the American Kennel Club hosted 20,000 dog shows, with more than three million entrants, up 100,000 from 2005. But just because you've taught your dog to run a pattern doesn't mean you're ready for a national championship. Whether you can compete depends in part on what kind of dog you own: It is purebreds only at AKC events. The AKC's Web site, akc.org, is a good place to find information on the 157 different breeds, as well as on their nearly 5,000 local affiliate clubs. Other organizations, such as the U.S. Dog Agility Assn., usdaa.com, and the North American Dog Agility Council, nadac.com, allow mixed-breed dogs to compete in skills from agility to canine dancing.

Get going by attending a dog show. Those hosted by the AKC include specialty shows, which are open only to a specific breed, and events where different breeds compete in specific tasks, such as scent tracking or herding. "Walk around to the different events at a show and see what interests you," says Lisa Peterson, an AKC spokesperson. "If a competitor catches your eye, go up and talk to them. As a beginner, you're looking for a mentor. People are more than happy to help get you started."

Next, you'll have to learn to handle your pet. Most local clubs will offer weekly training classes, with an experienced trainer walking you and your dog through basic performance skills. The classes run $5 to $10 each. Private lessons are more expensive. Professional handlers—find them at a show or through a local club—may offer lessons, and breeders can also offer valuable training and advice. They have insight into what tasks judges like to see your breed perform in competitions, or how the dogs are expected to walk. Rates range from $50 to $100 a session.

QUALITY TIME

Be prepared to spend time practicing what you learn. Rice spends at least one hour a day working with her borzois, for both exercise and obedience training, in addition to attending weekly classes at her AKC affiliate club in Denver.

As you compete in the AKC, your dog will accrue points, with the goal of attaining "champion" status. This is called finishing a dog and typically takes about a year of regular competing. Once a dog earns 15 points, it can compete in Best of Breed championships. Some dogs eventually go on to compete in Best in Show.

The animals' competition schedule represents a financial investment as well as one of time. Entry fees usually range from $20 to $30 per show, in addition to travel costs and hotels. On average, says Rice, a show costs about $500. She usually competes twice a month.

But Rice, who raises "dual champions"—dogs that compete both as purebred models and in skills—insists that while winning championships is fun, the real reward is spending more time with your dog. "It's pretty wonderful to have dual champions, but you can get any dog you love. Just do something with them. You get a better bond with the animal, and there is nothing more beautiful than that sort of communication."

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