Believing her mother’s vow that they’d never own a dog, Josie Scoonover-Nelson nonetheless once persuaded her family to spend their vacation at an animal sanctuary in Utah, where one feature was having a dog sleep alongside you in bed.
“She just wanted a dog in bed with her,” said Josie’s mom, Belle, who began to suspect that her daughter was finding some wiggle room in “never.”
Today, Josie, 13, shares her bed with Fannie, a 45-pound Australian shepherd. Together, they snooze in a brightly painted room shingled with 495 ribbons that Josie has earned at various dog shows over the past 3½ years.
This weekend, she and Fannie will be among more than 50 duos trotting around the ring in the junior showmanship competition, part of the Minneapolis Kennel Club Dog Show at Canterbury Park.
While the audiences’ eyes likely will follow Fannie’s lively gait, the judges will be concentrating solely on Josie. In this category, the humans are the ones being judged.
“You’re judged on how you show the dog — how you handle them and present them,” she said. “You have to be confident and pleasant.”
“Well, they don’t want you just standing in the ring, looking bored,” said Josie, who’s almost preternaturally poised. Her mother provided some context: “They want you to be receptive, but not schmoozing the judges,” she said. “It’s a balance.”
What many people know of dog shows comes from watching the famed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on TV, or catching the satirical movie comedy “Best in Show.” (That vibration you just felt was every dog handler wincing at the inevitable reference.)
The reality is somewhere in between. Josie and Fannie will run a quick there-and-back, then circle the ring with Fannie’s thick coat — a lush russet with coppery highlights, all set off by a white ruff — rippling under the lights. Handlers have no dress code, per se, although “everyone seems to wear black,” Josie said. She favors a skirt and jacket, conservative and crisp.
The rest of the competition is more subtle, such as showing a dog’s teeth. Of particular note is how well Josie stacks Fannie. “Stacking” is arranging dogs so that they show to their best, with each foot in the proper position. Sometimes, handlers arrange their dogs by hand. Best, though, is when a handler and a dog — Josie and Fannie, for instance — are in such sync that the dog assumes the right stance with only a quiet signal from the handler, a skill known as free stacking.
“The judges are really looking to see if you have a relationship with your dog,” Josie said.
Born loving dogs
Australian shepherds are also known as “wigglebutts,” for reasons that become apparent as Josie slips her hand into the treat bag around her waist, doling out a treat of dried liver and Cheerios to a shimmying Fannie.
“Are you cute? Because you are cute,” Josie manages to say between Fannie’s licks to her face.
Josie loves all breeds of dogs, reads books about dogs, writes school papers about dogs. “She was born loving dogs,” said her mom, who remembers bringing Josie over to neighbors’ homes as a toddler to pet their dogs.
Josie was, of course, allergic, she added, laughing.
A casual offer from a handler to let Josie show a dog about three years ago became a first step with no looking back. Josie, who outgrew the allergy, said she enjoys the ritual of training “because I didn’t do sports at all.” She’s home-schooled, which provides her with a bit more flexibility in her day.
Junior handlers such as Josie are regarded as the future of dog shows, which are nowhere as cutthroat as some would have you think, she said. “I have so many friends.” Her mom also is impressed by the generosity of the older handlers when it comes to mentoring youngsters. “It’s the most welcoming environment for an activity we’ve ever seen,” she said.
This weekend’s show marks the 80th year of the Minneapolis Kennel Club. More than 1,100 dogs are entered on Saturday, and again on Sunday, representing more than 125 breeds. If you’re interested in seeing a particular breed, the judging schedule is posted at the club’s website, www.minneapoliskc.org.
Fannie is an old hand at 2½ years old. Her partner in all things canine is Zane, a nine-month-old who already is as big as Fannie and is far — oh, my goodness, far — more rambunctious. His day in the show ring will come. In the meantime, the pair act as if they were born loving Josie.
“When she leaves, they lie in the front hall and wait for her until she comes back,” her mom said.