The Road to Crufts

by Lauren Hull

“FIRST GOES TO THE IRISH SETTER!”

I could not believe it when I heard the words….I had won Best Junior Handler at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship.  We all work hard to get there…we all hope to win…and then when it happens, it is just unbelievable.  And, if you had known me years ago, it might have been even harder to believe.

I have always loved animals.  But, we did not even have a dog until I was 6 years old.  We got a rescue Australian Shepherd named Jake.  He was 6 when we got him in the Spring of 2004.  No registration…certainly not an AKC show prospect.  But, my brother started training him for 4-H, and my parents started thinking about getting a dog for me.

Sabrina was my first ever show dog. We did everything from Conformation and obedience, to agility. The only problem was that Sabrina did not like being a show dog. I had been very interested in getting involved in this sport, so we bought our Black Tri Australian Shepherd, Hailey, from a local breeder who also happened to be an old sorority sister of my mom’s. Linda offered for me to use her aussie, Ceili, in Juniors while my puppy grew up so I wouldn’t be stuck without a dog. We also got Hailey’s brother, Tango, whom I used for Juniors.

Hailey ended up becoming my Agility dog and Tango was my Juniors dog. Since Tango was still a puppy going through different stages, I often had problems with him in Juniors, so on my tenth birthday, Beth Durand offered for me to use her Golden Retriever, Parker. Parker was the first dog that I won Best Junior Handler with at an AKC Dog Show, when I won at a specialty in 2009. As I started to do well in the Open Junior class, receiving a few class wins and many placements, I set my sights for the horizon, Westminster. It became my goal to show at Westminster, but I wouldn’t be able to do that with Parker. I could understand that his co-owner wasn’t comfortable in sending him with me to the big apple. So many things could go wrong. So I was left without a dog to take to the garden if I should qualify.

I went to seek the help of my trainer and a long time Irish Setter breeder, Patricia Nagel, whose classes I had been attending every Tuesday and Thursday evening. She said, “Oh I may have just the dog for you. He is a retired American Canadian Champion who needs a job.” So I came to have my first Irish Setter, Grant. Grant was stubborn and bird crazy. He had multiple hunt titles and was retired because he absolutely hated showing for more than one day at a time. I learned this the hard way on the second day of a show when he decided to drag me around the ring. I worked through his stubbornness and with his help, I won my first all-breed AKC Best Junior against 65 other juniors in 2009, and qualified for Westminster 2010. I would finally be able to achieve my goal and show at Madison Square Garden. Together we also qualified for Westminster 2011. Grant and I also competed at the AKC/Eukanuba National dog show in 2009, when it took place in California. Our first trip to California was definitely stressful, though, as the airline put Grant on the wrong plane to California. It all worked out in the end, and we had an experience of a lifetime. The second trip to California the following year was made without Grant, because of the previous experience. Luckily there was a kind woman who had been willing to make me a Co-Owner on her dog so I could compete in the Juniors Competition in 2010.

While showing Grant, I would also show my brother’s beagle, Gretchen. She could be the best show dog, or your worst nightmare when it came to showing. At one show, Gretchen and I won Best Junior over a sizable Juniors entry. At another show, the Judge told me that I had to go to dog classes and learn how to show a dog. This was after I had been showing dogs for about three years and attending classes. Some dogs just do not have a good day at a show.

Grant was always my main show dog for juniors in the beginning, even when I showed Gretchen. I attended my first breed nationals, the Irish Setter Club of America National Specialty, in 2009 with Grant.  We won our class, and it was such a big thrill for me.  But Grant was getting old and he could not show like he used to. One day at a show, Mrs. Nagel approached my mom with an offer. She wanted me to have, as a gift, a puppy from her litter of fifteen puppies. She told me that I had worked very hard with Grant, actually getting him to enjoy showing and winning multiple class wins and Best Juniors with him. She wanted me to be able to continue my Juniors Career with a dog that I would have to train myself. And, that is where Kent comes in.

Kent has been one of the best things that has happened to me in dog showing. I could not ask for a better dog. He was so willing to learn, and loved to show. He is not like any other Irish Setter I know. I got Kent when he was only twelve weeks old, though, so he was much too young to show. With Grant starting to have problems with his joints, and my beagle not wanting to show, I did not really have a dog to show while my new puppy grew up. I had also stopped showing my Australian Shepherds in conformation, competing instead in agility. At the time, my brother owned a Great Pyrenees, Maxwell Smart. By this time, my brother was starting to get interested in his own hobbies, so he was not showing as often as me. He decided that I could show his Pyrenees, as long as he could show Kent in Juniors when he was old enough. I agreed, and started my adventures with the Great Pyrenees.

Throughout the years, I have handled many different Great Pyrenees, two of which I showed while competing in The Junior Handling competition at Westminster, and once while competing at The AKC Eukanuba Championships. I showed Maxwell in Juniors at the 2010 Great Pyrenees Nationals, and I won my class, but not Best Junior. In the years to follow, I won Best Junior Handler at three different Great Pyrenees Nationals (2011 – 2013). This had never been done in the history of the breed. So, I was the first Great Pyrenees Junior to win Best Junior Handler at three Nationals. I was also the #1 Great Pyrenees Junior Handler in the country for two years in a row, missing by one point for a third year. I was also the first Junior to show a Great Pyrenees in Junior Handling for the Westminster Kennel Club, which was a huge honor for me.

After my brother decided to stop showing in Juniors, I began alternating between showing my Great Pyrenees and my Irish Setter, Kent, in Juniors.

I never dreamed of being able to show at The Crufts Dog Show. I really didn’t know what Crufts was before my first AKC/Eukanuba Dog Show experience in 2009. It wasn’t until the plane ride back to New York that I learned about the world Dog Show. Once I knew what Crufts was, though, I knew I had to show there. The thought of showing a dog that didn’t belong to me, a dog that was a total stranger, intrigued me. I wanted to experience that type of challenge. I also wanted to be able to show in Europe. I made it a goal, and a dream to get to Crufts. All I had to do was win Best Junior Handler at the AKC/Eukanuba National Dog Show! And, with only one junior out of thousands winning each year, that seemed almost impossible!!!

I never believed that I would be able to actually win the title of Best Junior Handler at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship. Every year I competed against other junior handlers who had worked just as hard, or even harder, than myself just to make it to the show, let alone win. I had competed at this show for five years, never making it to the finals. I did not think 2014 would be any different. I would go and enjoy the show, doing what I love.

When I was picked for the final twelve, I was surprised at how relieved I felt. Now I could say that I made it to the big ring and from there on out, the outcome did not really matter to me. I was so proud of my dog, Kent and I was proud of the team the two of us had become. We would go out there and just have fun.

“FIRST GOES TO THE IRISH SETTER!”

When I heard those words and saw the Judge point at me, I didn’t really comprehend what had just happened. I got up to get my ribbon and plate, smiling and a little dazed. It wasn’t until I actually looked at the ribbon in hand, and realized, “You did it! You did it!”

After getting an interview and pictures (still in a complete daze) I sat with my friend Elizabeth to wait for my mom, and while we sat she said to me, “So you realize this means you get to go to Crufts, right?” I had actually forgotten that this win made me eligible for Crufts, even though my mom and I had been talking about the possibility, earlier that day, that I could actually achieve my goal and dream when I competed in the finals.

And we, Kent and I, did it. I had been given a chance when I entered the big ring and won. The chance of a lifetime.

So, it has been a long journey, to finally come to the point where I am now less than a two weeks from heading to England for Crufts.  I am so excited, and so grateful to those who have helped me get there.  My mentors have been many….Linda Howell, Beth Durand, Patty Nagel, Valerie and Amanda Barabas, Michelle Hoechle, Lissa Tiffany, and many others (including SO many Great Pyr people, that I would miss as many as I would name…thank you, thank you).  A special thanks to Carol Gefel, who I worked with this summer.  She was really tough on me, but it paid off.  Also, so many have helped me financially to allow for this trip to happen...so many individuals that I cannot even name…plus The Irish Setter Club of America, The Great Pyrenees Club of America, The Garden State Great Pyrenees Club, and Pyrenean Fanciers of the Northeast (my home club), along with several local kennel clubs.  I would not be able to have realized my dream without all of them.  It took a village (or maybe country) to get me here….now I hope I can make all of you proud!!!!