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Getting started in dog sports as a Junior Handler is one thing, but being as accomplished and involved as 13-year-old Delana Eschenbach is another. From Hamilton, Ohio, Delana is actively involved in 4-H and multiple dog sports, and has qualified to compete at the 2023 AKC Rally National Championship this summer. She currently handles her two All-American Dogs “Mary Lou” and “Maverick Goose,” with whom she’ll be competing.

Three Years In and Lots to Show For It

Delana first got started in dog sports through her local 4-H when she was 10 years old. She originally signed up to focus on art, but when her family got a dog in April of 2020, she took an interest in the dog programs that the 4-H offered. “I decided I really wanted to compete with her,” she says, and soon began training Mary Lou and learning about various dog sports.

Through the 4-H, she learned of a Conformation show happening near her, and decided to sign up with her Mary Lou, something made possible for Junior Handlers with All-American dogs through the Junior Showmanship Pilot Program. “I went and competed, and that was what really made me realize just how much I loved everything to do with the the sport of showing dogs,” Delana explains.

Amy Eschenbach

That year, her dogs also earned their CGC (Canine Good Citizen) and began earning Trick Dog titles. When one of the 4-H instructors told Delana that she thought Mary Lou would be a good candidate for AKC Rally, she decided to enter. “We did really good,” Delana says, and this promising start motivated her to continue getting more involved with AKC Rally.

Exploring the World of Dog Sports

Since getting a feel for dog sports through 4-H three years ago, Delana and her dogs have branched out quite a bit. They now compete in Diving, AKC Rally, Fast CAT, CAT, and Agility. She and her dogs have also begun training in Obedience, but haven’t yet trialed in that sport. In the future, Delana wants to try AKC Scent Work and Barn Hunt with her dogs.

Aside from competing with her All-American dogs in Conformation events through the Junior Showmanship Pilot Program, Delana has been able to participate and compete in Junior Showmanship and in the breed ring with other people’s purebred dogs. Her favorite sports to do? Either Conformation or Agility. “Both of those sports allow you to have a really strong bond as a team,” she says. Delana especially loves the opportunity to spend time with her dogs. “I also love when they do something really well and the feeling of pride I get.”

Getting More Involved Through the AKC Pilot Program

Delana is able to compete in Junior Showmanship events with her two All-American dogs because of the AKC’s 18-month Junior Showmanship Pilot Program, which she says has made a big impact on her life. The pilot program was developed to make Junior Showmanship more accessible to more kids and teens by allowing them to train and enter any breed or an All-American dog in Junior Showmanship the same way Juniors can with performance sports.

“[The pilot program] has opened many doors for me and also allowed me to see into the Conformation world and the world of preservation breeders who dedicate their lives to preserving and protecting the dogs that they have such a passion and fondness for,” she says.

Amy Eschenbach

The program has been helpful for Delana, but she says it’s especially great for her dogs. “I feel it’s allowed me to give my dogs a more enriched life due to everything we get to participate in,” she says. Delana also explains that being able to participate in the AKC’s pilot program has benefitted her self-esteem and helped her to feel more connected to the dog world. “I feel [like the pilot program] has given me self-confidence that I didn’t have before through showing and interacting with people at shows and people I train with.”

Getting Over the Hurdle of Starting Something New

One of the big challenges Delana has had to overcome when showing her dogs is working through pre-competition nerves. “The first time we ever showed in Juniors I was super nervous because I was used to a training collar and lead, and then we go and put on a show lead, and I was worried my dog was going to pull it right out of my hands,” Delana remembers.

Similarly, she was worried before the first time she competed in Coursing Ability Test (CAT). “I thought [Mary Lou] was going to run off, but she didn’t. She stayed on course the whole time.” Delana feels that one of the joys and challenges of dog sports is that it’s true teamwork between dog and handler. Thinking back over the experiences Delana has had over the past couple of years when showing dogs, she explains that dog shows have taught her to dream big. “Some things aren’t gonna come easy. Sometimes your dog just won’t like something and won’t have the same passion you have, and just be okay with that.”

On the Road to AKC Rally

In June, Delana will be competing at the 2023 AKC Rally National Championship (RNC) in Wilmington, Ohio. RNC brings together the best AKC Rally dog-and-handler teams in the country together to compete. To qualify for nationals, the dog and handler team must have earned qualifying scores of 93 (out of 100) at least three times during the previous year’s qualifying period, so it’s no small feat to be invited, especially as a Junior Handler.

Delana describes having qualified for nationals as her most gratifying moment with her dog so far. “It was a huge, super proud moment for me because I felt like everything I had done, all the training and hours of time spent with them had paid off. It proved to me that if I put my mind to it and spent the time training them that I could do anything.” Delana is looking forward to the opportunity to compete. “[I’m] really excited about just getting more experience and meeting new people who are equally enthusiastic [about] dogs and dog showing.”

Amy Eschenbach

Rally is all about teamwork and the connection between the dog and their handler, as they use their obedience skills to navigate courses. “I really enjoy the bond I feel with my dogs that has been strengthened through doing Rally and how excited I see my dogs get when we train and compete,” Delana notes.

Another highlight for Delana in addition to qualifying for Rally Nationals was when she and Mary Lou earned a perfect score, meaning no faults, in an AKC Rally competition. The perfect score was made even more special and impressive because it was her Mary Lou’s first time in the ring. “That was huge for me because I was just hoping we wouldn’t NQ [Not Qualify] and then we go and get a 100, with the fastest time, and place first,” remembers Delana.

Encouraging Other Junior Handlers

For kids and teens thinking that dog shows and dog sports look like a lot of fun, Delana encourages you to “go for it!” If you’re on the fence about dog shows, she says that not only is it a lot of fun, the experience of training and showing your dog can have significant positive influences in your life. “It’s an amazing experience and opportunity, and it really doesn’t matter how old you are because everyone is on an equal playing field.”

“It will really help you with confidence and communication skills. It’s also super rewarding getting to see your dog do something amazing and thinking ‘wow I taught my dog how to do that’,” Delana explains. For adults, Delana hopes they will always encourage Junior Handlers, and support them getting involved in dog sports.

Always Learning More

While she tries her hand at many events, she also tries to maintain a healthy balance of participating in dog events, and encourages other Junior Handlers and mentors to do so as well. “Always look for different things [you or] your kid can do. But also remember that we’re still kids so sometimes we might want to do stuff with our friends instead of a dog event. If you push us too hard, we can get burnt out.”

Aside from her exciting participation in the upcoming AKC Rally National Championship, Delana hopes to earn Diving and Agility titles with her dogs this summer. She also wants to get involved in AKC Scent Work, to train her dogs in the discipline as well as start competing. At her young age, Delana is already very accomplished across many sports, and has learned many lessons along the way, only growing more experienced the more she does.

“You can’t always be first and to be okay with that, because whether you come in 1st or dead last, every experience is one to learn and grow from,” she says. “It has also shown me that as long as I put in the time and effort and am passionate about something I can achieve it.”
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Canine Good Citizen (CGC)

This program is recognized as the gold standard for dog behavior. In CGC, dogs who pass the 10 step CGC test can earn a certificate and/or the official AKC CGC title.
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