Olivia Merrill from Portland, Oregon, has already been in the dog world for almost a decade – and she’s only 10 years old. She began showing dogs when she was 2 years old, and now, a Junior Handler at age 10, she is an active competitor in dog sports, along with her family. Merrill is especially passionate about helping other Junior Handlers to get involved in dog sports.
Getting Involved as Soon as Possible
“My family has had dogs since before I was born,” Merrill explains. “My older brother Don showed our Great Danes before I was born. Both my mom and my brother encouraged me to show, and watching my brother show made me want to try.”
Merrill first stepped into the ring as a Pee Wee, the category for young handlers aged between five and nine. Now, she’s involved in Junior Showmanship, Trick Dog, Obedience, AKC Rally, and Weight-Pull with Elvira, a Chinese Shar-Pei, and Declan, a Bullmastiff.
“Both Declan and Elvira challenge me all the time to be a better handler and owner,” she says. Training her dogs, especially Elvira in Obedience, has taught her patience. To date, Merrill has many proud moments in the ring, including her first Best in Show Junior Award. Elvira also earned the Elite Performer title in Trick Dog, which is one of Merrill’s favorite sports.
Merrill thrives on working with different dogs. “They are amazing creatures, each one unique and full of personality, which is why I love showing as many new breeds as I am allowed,” she says. To date, she’s had the opportunity to show 75 different breeds. Dog shows also provide her with opportunities to travel and meet new people. “Because of dogs, I have new friends and new goals to look forward to all year long,” she adds.
Dog Sports as a Lifeline After a Devastating House Fire
In August 2021, the Merrill family experienced a devastating house fire, which claimed the lives of many of their pets. After they had lost most of their belongings and a place to call home, they were met with a great deal of support from the dog show community, who proved instrumental in helping them rebuild their lives.
“They helped us so much,” Merrill recalls. “From new clothes and bedroom items to gift cards and games, they helped us get back to our ‘new normal.'” They lost two dogs, two cats and their fish in the fire, along with their home. As of July 2023, the family is still looking for a home and dealing with the aftermath of the fire.
“After the house fire and living at the hotel, then finding a rental home and all the changes that happened, the dog shows and the dog show community felt like the one part of my life that stood strong and remained the same.” Merrill was able to find comfort in the world that she knows and loves, and continued to train and show her dogs.
Encouragement That Goes Both Ways
Merrill’s support system comes from all corners of the dog show community, but she credits her mom, Jen, as her biggest supporter. “She has introduced me to the dog show community, and I have an amazing support group of friends in and out of the dog world because of her,” Merrill explains. She’s also received a lot of support from Declan’s breeder, Kay Pedisich. Merrill and Pedisich train together in Obedience and AKC Rally.
Jen says her daughter is always encouraging fellow competitors. “The day her brother beat her in the ring, she was the loudest person out there cheering. She ran over to him and hugged him so tight. She told me that she felt like crying, seeing the smile on his face!”
Merrill has also encouraged her mom to start showing more. “I have been helping her to be more confident,” Merrill says, “helping show her how I train at home. Just because you’re a kid doesn’t mean you can’t help anyone at any age. My mom says I help her every day in so many ways.”
Merrill has also become a mentor herself, especially to Pee Wees. “They are so cute. They get excited trying something new and I love helping them to feel not scared or worried.”
Aiding Juniors for Juniors Through Her Small Business
Also a talented artist, Merrill decided to start her own business making show leads. Lani Foster, the owner of Talisman Show Leads, mentors Merrill in her business. Any profits she makes from her show leads are put to good use – Merrill puts them towards her Juniors for Juniors program. At her first Juniors for Juniors program, she bought large rosettes for all of the participants, and crafted blankets, complete with embroidery donated by a local business, for the Best in Show Junior and Reserve Best in Show Junior winners. She also made braided dog toys to give out to Junior entrants.
“One of my goals with my business is to use profits from [my business] to lower prices of Junior entries and help purchase larger ribbons and prizes for the Juniors and the clubs,” she explains. Merrill’s donations have enabled her local club to reduce Junior Handler entry fees to $5 per show.
Merrill is always thinking about how to make shows more welcoming and accessible. She recently collected show outfits that she has outgrown to build a clothing closet for newcomers to the sport. “It makes my heart happy to see the younger kids and Juniors try something new. It’s special to me that I can be a part of their first time being in Juniors. I want those firsts to be special.”
Supporting the Next Generation of Juniors
For kids interested in getting involved in dog shows, Merrill encourages them to try Junior Showmanship and performance sports. “What you are doing with your dog can make that love between you even more special. Showing dogs is fun, and it’s more than just Juniors, because I have many friends because of it.”
Merrill encourages parents to cheer on every young competitor. “Help your kids to be friends with the other Juniors, too. If we all help each other and support each other, we all win.” Merrill also encourages adults to ask their local clubs if they need help with setting up in Junior Showmanship competitions and making sure there are prizes for the Juniors.
Looking to the future with her own dogs, Merrill is excited to continue to show Elvira and Declan in Junior Showmanship and in Conformation. She’s looking forward to competing more with Elvira in AKC Rally and Obedience, and she wants to get involved in Agility. Merrill also has plans to start competing in AKC Rally with Declan and will work towards earning Trick Dog titles with him.