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4-H Dog School Attracts Youngsters from Across New Mexico

LOS LUNAS - Though it's usually associated with livestock, 4-H has also gone to the dogs, with dozens of youngsters and pooches attending this year's statewide 4-H Dog School in Los Lunas.

Moriarty 4-H member Breanna Riley, 12, teaches her German Shepard, Dokota, to jump through a hoop at 4-H Dog School in Los Lunas April 25-27. Agility lessons included jumping, climbing through tunnels and walking across bridges and teeter-totters. (05/22/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson-Avila)

The three-day event attracted participants from around New Mexico, such as Farmington native Sandra Aagesen, 16. She spent most of the time coaxing her dachshund, Pepper, to jump over poles, climb through tunnels, cross catwalks, sit quietly, come when called and act friendly to strangers.

"I've shown poultry and rabbits before, but this is the first time I'm learning to show my dog," said Aagesen, who won third place in senior division showmanship at the event and fourth place in overall showmanship for all divisions. "The dog school is great preparation for us, because I want to show Pepper at the county and state fairs. Pepper's learning to be more obedient, and I'm learning to be more patient with her."

Aagesen is one of 17 Farmington youngsters who traveled to dog school April 25-27 in a caravan of pickups and vans that included 17 dogs and 16 parents and chaperones. The school, now in its fourth year, attracted 63 4-H members from eight counties.

"Participation doubled from last year, and kids are now coming from all over the state," said Yvonne Riley, 4-H project leader in Valencia County who co-directs the school. "We've got all kinds of dogs, including pedigreeds and mutts, big ones and little ones. It's a lot of fun."

The school was held outside New Mexico State University's Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service office. Extension runs the 4-H youth program, which provides fun, educational activities for youth 5 to 19 years old. About 50,000 New Mexico youngsters currently participate in 4-H.

At dog school, participants attended workshops on obedience, showmanship, agility, flyball, grooming and more, Riley said. "There were so many activities this year the kids couldn't do it all, so they had to pick and choose," she said.

Obedience trainers helped youngsters teach their pets to heel, sit quietly, stand at attention and allow judges to examine them. Students practiced grooming and they learned showmanship techniques such as running patterns with their pets. They watched as professional hunting dogs flushed birds out of fields and sheepdogs herded flocks. Many youngsters competed in oral presentations on topics that included characteristics of specific dog species and pet treats that help reinforce obedience.

Participants particularly enjoyed the agility lessons, which included an elaborate obstacle course of jumps and catwalks. But most pets needed lots of encouragement.

"Agility is really fun, but for big dogs like mine, it's hard to get them to climb across those small bridges," said 11-year-old Kellie Lundmark of Belen, who participated with her rottweiler, Arco. "The dogs freeze up on the teeter-totter because they don't expect the other end to come down when they cross over."

Riley and Katy Lenté, another Valencia County project leader, founded 4-H Dog School in 2000 when they realized such events had only existed for horses, sheep and other farm animals. "There's lots of dog projects at 4-H clubs around the state, but this is the first opportunity for 4-H dog lovers to come together in a special, annual event to share experiences and ideas and meet new friends with similar interests," Lenté said.

The school has helped strengthen local dog projects, like the one in Farmington, which has grown from 21 to 50 members since the beginning of this year, said Cathy Jacobs, project leader in San Juan County who organized the caravan of Farmington youngsters and parents to Los Lunas.

"One of the dog school founders, Katy Lenté, helped us start our dog project in Farmington, and it's really grown," said Jacobs, whose club members won 12 awards at dog school this year. "Our project is so popular it's brought many Farmington kids into 4-H for the first time."

Like most 4-H activities, dog school helps teach youngsters positive life skills. "The dogs are just a tool for kids to learn leadership skills, cooperation, goal setting, and especially a sense of responsibility in taking care of their pets," Lenté said.

Parents agreed. "It's not what the dog is learning, it's what my son is learning," said Sandra Gallegos of Las Vegas, who brought her 8-year-old son Carlos and his Shetland sheepdog, Chip, to school. "He's meeting other kids and learning to be social and community oriented. It's great for him."

Dog-loving youngsters reveled in spending time with their pets. "The real thing is to have fun with the dogs," Lundmark said. "It gives both dogs and owners a lot of exercise. The dogs are having as much fun as we are."

For more information about 4-H, contact your county Extension office.