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Susan Johnson works her dog, Lizzie, in the Foundations of Basic Obedience class at the Wenatchee Kennel Club Training Center. Required social distancing and masks made classes less intimate and harder for meaningful social interaction between student and teachers.

It began as a dream about two decades ago and now the Wenatchee Kennel Club’s sparkling new training facility has become Dog Central for the Washington state community of 70,000, which includes several neighboring towns.

Make no mistake about it, the 7,880-square-foot building on a 2½-acre site in East Wenatchee is becoming the conduit for everything dog in the area.

How to Grow a Dog Club

“When I joined the club 21 years ago, we had 35 members,” says Chuck St. John. “Today there are 160 and we’re growing. A couple decades ago the training was done in an old fruit warehouse that had deer trophy heads anchored to all of the walls, so we’ve come a long way.”

St. John, a club president for eight years (current past president), board member for 20 years, and show chairman for 13 years, has been the point guy for just about every club project the past two decades.

Add to all of those credentials, he’s a show superintendent for BaRay Event Services, which means he interacts with countless dog fanciers nationwide, gleaning ideas for what works and doesn’t within club circles.

“Most of our members don’t fully comprehend how unusual our club is,” he says. “With the diverse interests, activities, and viewpoints, we all get along. We have our disagreements, but overall we’re there for each other. We’re very supportive of club events and activities that aren’t our own area of interest.

“My travels have reinforced the need for cooperation within the club’s framework in order to reach a bigger goal and appreciate what we have going in Wenatchee. People are curious how we make things happen. Generally, it boils down to one key ingredient – attitude. If a club has a can-do attitude, then anything is possible.
“Yes, we have accomplished a lot the past two decades, but we truly believe our best days are yet to come!”

“When I joined the club 21 years ago, we had 35 members. Today there are 160 and we’re growing.”

Chuck St. John, a 20-year member of the Wenatchee Kennel Club and past president, enjoys some quality time with one of his Tibetan Spaniels, Ellly, who turns 14 in September.

A Dream Facility

The “dream” training facility is utilized for Show Handling, Agility, Rally, Barn Hunt, Scent and Tracking instruction, plus instruction aimed at the non-competitive general public like puppy classes and basic home obedience, which are usually full. With the positioning of dividers, it has room to offer two or three classes simultaneously. Prior to COVID craziness in March, 30-35 classes (160 dogs) were conducted weekly. Presently, the club holds 25 classes with a limit of five students per session in order to maintain 6-foot distancing. Its next session, starting in September, offers 31 classes with similar limits on attendance.

Future plans call for outdoor agility, obedience, and show-handling rings. “This will broaden the training experience for owners and their dogs, no matter what their level. It’s different to train on grass and see birds flying by and cars driving up and down the street. It’s real life up close and personal,” adds St. John.

Linda Haglund, Wenatchee Downtown Association executive director, is a huge WKC fan. “Prior to them building their facility, we had a crazy idea for engagement and connection with the Town Toyota Center downtown and called it ‘Dog Days of Summer.’ It was an opportunity for people to bring their dogs to the center for a variety of activities, plus there were vendors on hand. The WKC was all in.

“They didn’t have to participate to the degree they did, but they saw the opportunity to connect with those who were not familiar with what they do and how they do it. They brought a bunch of volunteers and their presence and commitment to that event made all the difference in its success.

“Small things the club does within the community don’t go unnoticed.”

The required landscaping along the street of the new WKC Training Center is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. The planting beds include a large variety of flowers, trees, and grasses. Here hydrangeas are in bloom flanked by lavenders and daylilies. The club’s 2.5-acre site will have a park-like feel when the outside grass training areas and final landscaping are completed.

Staying Flexible During The Pandemic

Haglund notes that COVID-19 “is wearing on everyone” as many businesses and organizations are struggling. “Remaining relevant, flexible, and willing to pivot is critical for survival right now. What the WKC is doing is so important to our overall community health here. They offer a bit of ‘normal’ for those wanting to not only support their organization but have an opportunity for their dogs. They have transitioned to the rules and guidelines within the crazy COVID world and created a way for people who want to engage with their organization.

“Good on them for taking the risk of the construction project and seeing it through. Good on them for finding a way through this COVID storm and pushing to the other side of it. They will continue to do what they have always done in their almost 60 years in operation and I don’t see that changing. Thank goodness!”

Another WKC booster is Allen Larsen, owner of Firehouse Pet Shop & Grooming in downtown Wenatchee. “The club’s reputation for being approachable to all knowledge levels of pet parents is amazing. Some of our best customers are club members who are compassionate about health and well-being of animals in the valley.”

Larsen’s firm has hosted club meetings and helped sponsor numerous WKC shows, donating prizes and awards.

That same nimble WKC teamwork has also been reflected by a popular booth at the annual (except this year with COVID) Washington State Apple Blossom Festival Kids Day in the Park. Club members bring a wide array of breeds for the public to meet up close and personal (a mini version of Meet the Breeds) and become acquainted with the club’s year-round classes and activities.

Yet another means of community involvement has several club members active in therapy and/or hospice visits to hospitals and nursing homes.

Club member Jan Flatten runs Aspen through an agility course as instructor Betsy Metcalf looks on. Communicating is more challenging with face masks or face shields and social distancing, especially in classes like Agility that use a large training area.

The Challenge of Keeping Dog Sports Fresh

WKC was incorporated in 1961 with its initial event an AKC Conformation and Obedience trial. Today’s expanded offerings include a Tracking Test, Agility Trial, Hunt Test, and Scent Work Trial. Club members also compete in a variety of other events like Lure Coursing, Weight Pull, and Freestyle.

Broadening the competition horizon and connecting to the community have been the cornerstone draws of the training center but equally important increasing club membership says St. John.

Like many all-breed clubs, WKC was once faced with the challenge of declining and aging membership. “We were keeping our collective heads above water but barely,” St. John added. In other words, WKC needed a lifeline . . . and quickly!

For an all-breed club to play a role in the community, it must be dynamic rather than static. That means shedding the “dog-show” only image and embracing dog owners in general.

In 2002, the WKC board of directors held a critical strategic planning retreat to plot the course of the organization. At that point, the club didn’t have a home (meetings were held in members’ homes or the back room of a veterinary hospital), was without a phone number or an identity in the community. “In short, we felt we needed a place to call home,” St. John recalls.

That’s when the training-center dream was hatched. But first things first: An old warehouse was found in East Wenatchee with all the space needed to offer classes. But plenty of updates were required before the first classes were conducted in 2003. In tandem, membership jumped from 35-40 in 2002 to 120 in 2005.

New blood with a solid commitment led to the eventual training center groundbreaking in October 2018 and the July 2019 opening.

Kids loving on dogs is the main focus of the WKC booth during the Kids Day at the Park during Wenatchee’s annual Apple Blossom Festival each spring.

A Dynamic Approach to Community

“We have a two-pronged priority for the building,” St. John continues. “A place for members to train and practice to improve their competition skills; secondly, a site where we can offer dog-training classes to the public.”

For an all-breed club to play a role in the community, it must be dynamic rather than static, he emphasizes. That means shedding the “dog-show” only image and embracing dog owners in general. With the training center, this has led to a wide array of classes and better-behaved dogs. An added perk has been an increased interest in AKC performance sports.

For example, when a club member who participated in a Pointing Breed Hunt Test came to the board and said, “What do you think about us having a hunting test?” the board encouraged her to ascertain what was needed to make it happen – from the standpoint of logistics, costs, etc. Consequently, the club became only the second all-breed club in the U.S. to hold a Pointing Breed Hunt Tests. The other ironically sports the WKC label, too (Westminster).

“Bottom line,” St. John concludes, “We want people to think first about the Wenatchee Kennel Club as THE go-to source for everything dogs. That requires a respectful commitment to doing things well and responding to needs voiced by the community.”

Related article: The Art of Finding and Keeping Club Members
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