By Leona Hellesvig

It is said that junior handlers are the future of agility, and indeed it is so. Many clubs want to encourage participation by juniors, and many make a good effort. Some clubs have been discouraged in their efforts to offer junior handler classes, when the entry is not immediately large. But a great junior handler program takes effort. It isn’t going to happen if the only thing the club does is to offer junior handler classes at their USDAA, NADAC, or CPE trials, or recognize juniors for qualifying scores in regular classes at AKC trials. It is going to take more effort to see results.

In Minnesota, we have had a fairly long history of strong junior handler entries, but what is behind it all? The junior entry numbers (typically 15 to 30 or more at a local USDAA trial, and over 500 at our state 4-H dog show) are the result of a much greater behind-the-scenes effort most casual observers are unaware of.

Perhaps the whole thing began with a vision from agility pioneer, Ruth Van Keuren, from Wisconsin. Ruth thought this new dog sport (agility) would make a great addition to the county 4-H program she led. She wrote to USDAA President Ken Tatsch about that possibility, and USDAA formed a committee to develop the rules. The first USDAA junior handler agility event was held at Minnesota Agility Club in June 1993 at Lake Elmo, Minnesota. NADAC followed suit and offered a junior handler program as well. AKC recognizes junior handlers with special awards. CPE now also has a junior handler program.

There were many reasons Ruth pursued the junior handler program. One reason was a desire to bring juniors from an introductory level in agility to the level of the Starters/Novice classes in a way that was doable for 4-H members who only received about eight training classes per year. Ruth also wanted to provide positive experiences for the juniors with the dogs, to encourage positive training methods, to provide steps of accomplishment with the recognition and reward of titles earned, and to keep the 4-H members involved in their local 4-H club for the long term (many would drop out after a year or two). Ruth wasn’t just thinking of the 4-H members though. The USDAA junior handler program also is a great way for youth who are taking classes at a dog club to be introduced to trialing.

What caused agility to become and to continue to be viable among Minnesota junior handlers, while it hasn’t always been so successful in other areas of the country? It is all of the work going on between the trials, in combination with the support of the junior program by the local clubs in offering enough trials with junior handler competition that earning the titles and moving up through the levels became plausible.

Though the effort really began with the vision of one person, it takes the involvement of many to keep the dream alive. Efforts center on offering educational opportunities and sufficient trials that junior handler titles are achievable.

In the beginning stages, demonstrations and seminars were offered through 4-H channels. In Minnesota, we are fortunate to have a statewide board of directors for the dog project. Our early efforts could be channeled through that statewide, organized system, rather than doing things on a county by county basis. Through the state level 4-H program, demonstrations of agility were held at the State Fair, and regional and state 4-H dog shows to spur some initial interest. We are grateful to many of the Minnesota Agility Club members who made those demonstrations possible by their participation. It was a win/win situation. For the MAC members, they had a “fun match” opportunity before their fall agility trial. The 4-H participants saw agility on an Advanced level course, and a picture in their mind of what agility should look like. At these early demonstrations, 4-H members could, with the help of experienced agility trainers, attempt some of the Beginner/Elementary obstacles (A-frame at low height, collapsed tunnel, pipe tunnel, jumps, and table). The 4-H members left with some hand-outs on training and obstacle construction plans. It was a meager beginning, but it was a beginning.

The State 4-H board agreed to make agility a competition event in 4-H and formed a committee to create rules. That committee was made up of both 4-H and agility club people.
Seminars were held for 4-H leaders on how to safely train classes in agility. Initially, Ruth held these classes at her home for both Minnesota and Wisconsin 4-H leaders, and later they were sponsored by the state 4-H program. In Minnesota, most 4-H leader-trainers have not previously trained a dog before (the leaders are parents of the members) but are charged with teaching the 4-H members in their county nonetheless. In the beginning, full weekend seminars were held on how to start a program, how to build equipment, where to find finances to build the equipment, how to safely teach each obstacle, and more. There is a “basic level” track for people just starting out, and a track with more advanced topics as well. The seminars were offered about twice a year at first, in training spaces donated for the purpose by local dog clubs or rented to 4-H at a reduced rental fee.

The leader seminars evolved into a two-day dog camp we call Supersession. Supersession is now held for the 4-H members, and separate leader training events are now held on a frequent basis in several different locations around the state. More than 15 years later, we still find that only 7-8 counties out of 88 county divisions in the state have a trainer who has trained or shown a dog in agility; yet we have about 2000 kids participating in agility in 4-H in Minnesota. The seminars for both leaders and 4-H members remain an essential priority. If it weren’t for a dedicated core of experienced volunteers, these seminars wouldn’t happen. Yes, it does take effort and dedication to offer these classes, but they are always well-attended with at least 50 participants per seminar. Our Supersessions are open to 4-H members of any age, as well as parents, leaders, and judges. The “Train the Trainer” events are limited to volunteer leaders, and high school teens who assist with classes at their county level. We also hold seminars to train 4-H judges, many of whom have never seen a non-4-H agility trial.

Providing enough trial opportunities for the juniors is another key to success. If three legs are required for a title but there are only one or two trialing opportunities each year, participants may become discouraged because titles will be unattainable, and the program likely will die. In Minnesota, we have a core of people dedicated to making the junior handler events happen. Minnesota agility clubs have been very supportive of the juniors. Our core of dedicated volunteers is a meld of members from these clubs and the 4-H programs. There is a central core of about five to six people who do most of the organizing functions, and another 20-25 individuals who are always nearby to help make things happen at trials (volunteer their time as ring crew and other support roles). There are four to six USDAA trials each year that offer the junior handler classes, as well as numerous NADAC and CPE trials, and a host of AKC trials.

What happens behind the scenes to get a good entry at a non-4-H agility trial? First, the word must get out to the intended audience. If they don’t know about the trial, they aren’t going to come. An email with the premium list attached is sent to every 4-H leader we can find (sending it to the county 4-H office will not guarantee that it will get into the hands of the dog project leader, parents, or children) and to all the local agility training clubs. In addition, much encouragement is needed, because 4-H members tend to be shy about stepping out of the “safety” of their 4-H program. Many are afraid to try what they view as a “professional” dog show. Education about the particular venue of agility is essential, since most of your audience will be unfamiliar with rules, and the typical routine of an agility trial. They won’t understand many of the items we take for granted as seasoned agility participants: jump heights, how to fill out an entry form, what to bring with them, the need to get their dogs measured, keeping their height card in a safe place and bringing it along to the trial, entry deadlines, and more. There needs to be someone they can turn to for information. USDAA rules require a Junior Handler Rep, to “shepherd” the juniors at the trial, handle the required Beginner written test, and a briefing. I have not seen a dedicated Junior Handler Rep at most NADAC, AKC, and CPE trials, though the juniors who enter those venues tend to have more connections to training schools and other experienced exhibitors than do the juniors who enter the Junior Handler classes at USDAA trials.

Above and beyond the basics noted above, we are fortunate to have much additional support in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin. We are grateful to many clubs and individuals who support our junior handlers! All the local clubs keep the junior entry fee to $5 per class. Minnesota Agility Club has a Ruth Van Keuren scholarship fund (Ruth passed away in 2003) for any child to attend a National agility event in any venue. That fund is supported by many individual and club donations, and a big fundraiser each year at St. Paul Dog Training Club’s AKC trial. Bloomington Obedience Training Club (otherwise an AKC club) hosts a USDAA-sanctioned agility league for junior handlers each winter. Canine Agility of Central Minnesota has a special outreach program to at-risk children in their county social services program, where club members allow these special kids to use their dogs, and show in USDAA’s Junior Handler Program at trials. Entry fees for these kids are paid by Minnesota Agility Club. Several of the kids have continued the relationship after graduating from the program, showing the dogs to higher titles, and participating in the BOTC league. Minnesota Mixed Breed Club still donates the Ruth Van Keuren sportsmanship award, which is given annually at NADAC Nationals in their junior handler classes. Many (perhaps most) of the local training clubs offer discounted rates for junior handlers taking classes. Several local agility exhibitors serve as mentors.

The maintenance and support of these programs cannot happen with just one individual. I am so blessed to see the local teamwork of many individuals and clubs in making this happen. No one person could do it. It takes a team of committed individuals.

Leona Hellesvig is a County 4-H leader (with a county dog project membership of 200), State 4-H Dog Project board member, and chair of the Minnesota State 4-H Agility Committee. She is the league secretary for BOTC’s USDAA junior handler agility league, and has served as the Junior Handler Rep at local agility trials, as well as in the role of judge at both 4-H and USDAA trials. Contact her via hellesvig@yahoo.com.