A tale of two judges - serving as a mentor in 4-H

By Jonni Joyce

This reporter served as the judge for the dog show at the Bennett County Fair.

I’m not exactly sure the reason I was in Mary Kay Sell’s office at the courthouse but some how the discussion turned to dogs, my background in training dogs, and an invitation by Mary Kay to judge the 4-H Dog Show at the Bennett County Fair. I readily accepted the invitation and then had to go inform my boss that I had accepted the invitation and I hoped that I could get the time off.

I had trained and certified hundreds of police and search and rescue dogs across the United States but I had never judged a 4-H event. Armed with a rule book, grade sheets, and many YouTube instructional videos, I learned the ins and outs of judging the various parts of the dog show. I had one dog and handler for the event - a very dedicated handler that was on her second dog.

In evaluating police dogs and search and rescue dogs, the testing is heavily weighed on dog performance and lightly weighed on the handler. It is expected that the dog is fully trained, a good number by a professional trainer, and will meet the requirements. The testing is rigid, unforgiving, high pressure, and final.  Agencies pay in the tens of thousands of dollars for the dog and training by professional dog trainers.

4-H is about education, mentorship, and giving an opportunity for our young people to grow. If it’s fun, kids learn and want to participate. If it’s a chore, well, no one likes chores. Especially the dogs. They want it to be fun too. Even testing should be fun.

Having trained dogs and handlers in forty five states and two foreign countries, I have formed an opinion that the most important part of the post evaluation procedure is the handler debrief where the judge or evaluator scores the participant and compliments the handler on their strengths and informs them of what weaknesses caused deduction in points to where the handler can fix those issues before competing again and grow as a trainer. 

In my terminology, it’s called the debrief. It’s an exchange of information where the handlers can ask questions after receiving feedback and make future plans to progress.

Because the dog show was the first event, I didn’t have a chance to watch experienced judges until Thursday.

Mikayla O’Bryan judged the Rabbit show on Thursday, having shown rabbits herself as a young person. Both of us have worked in education. Rabbits are a little like dogs. Sometimes they don’t want to do what the handler wants them to do. Several rabbits didn’t care to be turned on their backs. I watched intently to a pro in action so I could learn and become better. O’Bryan knew exactly when to step in, demonstrate to the handler how to turn the rabbit and if necessary, hold the rabbit so the young person could continue in showing.

“They have to explain all the parts of their rabbit,” said O’Bryan. “I don’t want them to freeze up or get frustrated. I want them to continue.”

According to O’Bryan, the most important part of participation in 4-H is the young people learning the ability to accomplish a project and learn public speaking skills. I concur.

“I used what I learned in 4-H Showmanship in my college speech class,” said O’Bryan, explaining that she showed her rabbit during a speech for class.

O’Bryan has built the rabbit program by offering clinics during the summer.

“I want to get the kids interested in rabbits and build quality rabbits in the program,” said O’Bryan.

At the end of the rabbit showing, O’Bryan addressed the participants and the audience and explained what she was looking for in a good showmanship performance and what changes the handlers should make to show at the state level.

“It’s important for them to learn to be comfortable in themselves,” said O’Bryan.

O’Bryan intends on conducting clinics and instruction for all the 4-H’ers on rabbits in January. She is carrying on her grandpa’s legacy. After completing the dog show and debriefing the handler, I was hooked on serving in 4-H. I hope to begin dog training sessions for 4H’ers in October before winter weather sets in. On the agenda: lots of fun, lots of learning, and lots of confidence building.

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