When Leah Graham, 9 years old, commented on the AKC’s TikTok asking them to find her showing her Chihuahua in a bright lime green outfit during the 2021 AKC National Championship, she never imagined it would actually happen. Or that the video of her showing would be seen by more than 250,000 people on the platform and who would be cheering her on with comments like “Go little rockstar” and “So professional!! I thought she was just a small grownup with the way she handles!!”
“I felt seen and supported by everyone,” she says. “It was a huge step for me in dog sports and to help people know what I can do.”
By posting and sharing her journey as a junior handler competing in Agility, Conformation, Obedience, Rally, Fast CAT, and Barn Hunt with Borzois, Chihuahuas, and her Australian Shepherd mix, Leah has grown in confidence. “I find people in the same community my age and know I’m not the only one,” she says.
Getting Started in Dog Sports
When she was 5 years old, Leah’s mom, Jane, began taking Agility classes with their Australian Shepherd mix, Leo (now 5) to help with behavioral issues at Williamsport Dog Training Club with AKC Judge Mark Upshaw. Unable to get a babysitter, Leah tagged along and immediately got involved.
While her mom was training Leo, little Leah tried her hand at Agility with trained Belgian Tervurens at the facility—and was able to keep up with the powerful breed. The rest is history.
“He always said to me if you want to get titles you keep Leo, if you want her to get good, give her Leo,” Jane said. “That was two years ago and I have not touched him since.”
Leah initially began with the Pee Wee Special Attraction, and when was of-age to compete reached out to a woman named Deb West on Facebook to train and co-own Austin, 4, a Borzoi. Now, she also competes with long-haired and short-haired Chihuahuas, Eden, 3, Dilly, 2, and Etta, 9 months.
“My favorite part is that it’s really fun,” Leah says. “I just want to stand there all day and do Conformation or run all day and do Agility or train all day for Rally and Obedience.”
Competing With Large and Small Dogs
Working with two very different-sized breeds has helped Leah learn to be a more versatile handler.
“I started training with Chihuahua because they’re small,” she says. “They are some trouble sometimes but Chihuahuas are pretty and they can be very obedient. People sometimes think they’re very mean but they aren’t when you get to know them.”
While working with Borzois, Leah knows to take bigger strides—or, ballerina feet, as she calls it—and to keep them entertained in the Conformation ring, otherwise “they start squealing, they get tired, and almost start laying down.” Chihuahuas, on the other hand, require only a courtesy but need to be shown on the table and therefore lifted.
Keeping It Up
Last December was Leah’s first time competing at the AKC National Championship, earning her first title with her Chihuahua Eden in Novice A Rally.
“We live in Pennsylvania and there are such small shows, but here you look up and the ceilings go for miles and miles and miles,” Leah says. “It’s so big, it can be overwhelming for [the dogs]. It has been very exciting for me with my first time.”
Aside from dog sports, Leah also dabbles in horseback riding, basketball, and Girls on the Run—which she says helps her keep up with Agility.
“My biggest hope is that we get to come here (AKC National Championship) again next year and the year after and get to show people,” she says. “Also, to get to Westminster with my Borzoi or Chihuahua.”
Her advice to other kids looking to get into junior handling is to “just to start training your dogs.” She adds that while things like the weave pole in Agility or keeping the pace during Conformation might be tricky at first, it’s worth it to practice and keep getting better. Also, to “make sure you’re confident and happy because if you aren’t your dog will be sad or nervous like you.”
Getting Started in AKC Juniors
Teens and children under 18 have the chance to learn about good sportsmanship, dogs, and dog shows, and develop their handling skills with the AKC Juniors Program.
Juniors are eligible to compete in Showmanship, Obedience, Agility, Rally, Tracking, Hunt Tests, Herding, Field Trials, Earthdog, Lure Coursing, Coursing Ability, Coonhound Events, and more. There is no minimum age requirement for sports other than Showmanship (where you must be nine).
If your child is interested in becoming a junior, they should first watch a dog show and sign up for a class. Juniors under 18 years old can sign up for a Junior Handler number here. This number will let them both take classes and compete.
Junior participation in AKC sports will be recognized through the AKC Junior Recognition Program and at the end of the year, AKC will award the Junior Versatility Awards and Scholarships. You can go to this link to learn more about the AKC Junior Recognition Program.