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In the memory of a lifetime, 14-year-old Laura Bussard and Jasper, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, take Manhattan prior to the 2019 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Picture this. A couple is sitting at a Seattle sidewalk café with their young daughter and a pair walks by with a “distinctive” dog neither of the parents recognized.

Whoa! What ensued was an introduction to the Rhodesian Ridgeback and it wasn’t long before this “Dogless in Seattle” family was hooked.

Annie Wickham recalls that poignant moment in 2006 when she and her husband, Ryan Bussard, recent New York City transplants, visited with the dog’s walkers and learned that their breeder was not far away.

“I went home, found the breeders’ website and bookmarked it,” says Wickham. “We researched the breed and felt it was perfect for us. It was important we find a dog that would be good with children (they had two girls). We were also drawn to the athleticism, intelligence, and beauty of the Ridgeback.”

Finding A Rhodesian Ridgeback Puppy

Seven years later, they bought their first home in Seattle and months after that began focusing on a dog again. They reached out to Isabela and Eric Mailman (Sweet Creek Rhodesian Ridgebacks) in Fall City, about 30 miles east of Seattle.

“Coming from an equestrian background, I was intrigued when Isabela asked if we would be interested in a show-quality puppy. The Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show was coming up and we decided to attend and learn more about Ridgebacks and dog shows,” says Wickham.

About 1½ years later, they welcomed their first dog – a show-quality male Ridgeback named Jasper to their home. “We were all madly in love with him, but little did we know the crazy journey on which we would embark,” Wickham adds. One of their daughters, Laura, was 9.

Laura shows her love for puppy Jasper (7 months old) on a family hike in Seattle’s Discovery Park in January 2014.

But give this family credit – it did its homework and followed a first-rate pathway on that venture. Recognizing the breed is muscular and challenging, Wickham enrolled the 10-week-old dynamo into a puppy manners class at Family Dog Training Center in Kent, a Seattle suburb.

“Depending on traffic, the drive would take us anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, but the training was priceless. It turns out we had a lot of dog in our dog,” laughs the owner.

What this family was confronting was puppy typical — a fast-growing newcomer that embraced each opportunity to meet and greet every dog and human in his midst but who readily ignored owner commands.

Kathy Lang, Family Dog Training Center owner, quickly and emphasized the need for the family to establish firm authority and offered an assortment of training tools to make that happen in the years ahead.

“Their approach to dog ownership and maintaining control was a trainer’s delight,” reflects Lang. “It was rewarding to see Laura and Annie learn to become calm, consistent leaders, necessary skills with Rhodesian Ridgebacks.

“Through the years, their obedience training complemented their conformation training. Gaiting without pulling and standing still for the judge’s exam were two of their biggest challenges. Laura deserves tremendous credit for always remaining calm and patient while working Jasper. She has a bright future.”

Successful Beginnings

With Wickham at the helm, 8-month-old Jasper earned a five-point major in his first show in Albany, Oregon, in 2014. “We were not committed to showing Jasper, but we wanted to give it a try,” adds Wickham. “After that five-point major we were hooked. As we drove home to Seattle, I remember texting Isabela, his breeder, trying to figure out what just happened.”

Laura and Jasper show off their winnings after taking Best Junior Handler at a Longview/Kelso, Washington, show last September. They also won Best of Breed and took a Hound Group 4.

Wickham continued showing Jasper and eventually put a championship on him at age two. In the meantime, Laura, 10, was beginning to express interest in Junior Showmanship in 2014. Isabela’s sister, Cristina, had a “sweet, older Ridgeback, Lottie, that she was willing to allow Laura to give handling a try.
Well, voila!

It was back to Family Dog Training Center – this time with the focus on Laura and Lottie, also age 10, who was happy to be back in the show ring again. Their maiden venture was the big Seattle Kennel Club Dog Show, where they won their class. This only whetted Laura’s appetite for more.

Competing in Juniors

In 2016, Laura segued into Juniors competition with Jasper while nervous Mom positioned herself ringside, hoping the 87-pound Rhodesian would not pull her over. But Jasper, after a couple of years in the brittle breed landscape, knew his job. “He was still super silly for the judge’s inspection,” recalls Wickham, “but together they performed well.” Through the year, with Jasper as their partner, Mom and daughter pursued points in the Breed and Juniors rings, respectively, with plenty of successes.

The following year, Laura maintained her fast-track progress, earning the Rhodesian Ridgeback Junior Showmanship title and finishing as the No. 5 Junior in the Hound Group. Jasper and Wickham went on to win Best of Breed and earned a Group 3 placement in the Owner-Handler competition at the AKC National Championship in Orlando, Fla.

On their way home from Orlando, Wickham, recognizing Laura’s managerial progress and tight bonding with Jasper told her daughter she wanted to turn over the reins with Jasper to her in the Breed ring.

Laura certainly didn’t disappoint with her rich toolbox of acumen. She finished 2018 with 10 Best of Breeds and No. 1 ranking for Rhodesian Ridgeback Junior Showmanship handler, No. 1 Hound Group Junior handler and No. 15 Junior handler all-breed. This qualified her for a return trip to Orlando and an invitation to the 2019 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.

“Showing a Rhodesian Ridgeback you face many challenges,” Laura explains. “Jasper loves other dogs and if one catches his eye he will want to play with it. Consequently, I always need to be highly aware of him and the surroundings. In Juniors, I sometimes face the challenge of not having a flashy dog or one that requires a fair amount of grooming. But I can only show Jasper according to his breed standard.”

At the 2016 Sunshine State Rhodesian Ridgeback Club specialty in Orlando, Florida, Laura was awarded Best Junior Handler (with Jasper).

Westminster and Beyond

A first Westminster leaves most handlers in awe. It was the same for 14-year-old Laura.

“Once we finished setting up in the benching area Sunday night at the Piers, we walked over to check out the rings and where I would be showing. It was practically empty. I looked around at the pictures of Best in Show dogs on the wall, the rings with their purple ropes, the seating, the lights, the cameras, and all the décor and it hit me, I am at Westminster! The excitement kept building up inside me. When I arrived the next morning the crowds were enormous. Jasper loves an audience and saying hi to everyone. And every time we walked by all the people outside the ring, he would smile at them.”

Westminster was a dream experience for the Seattle teen. While she walked away without a win, she made the Junior cut from 26 to a final eight. “I will never forget the moment when the judge put me into the cut. I took time in the ring with Jasper to have fun and perform to the best of my ability. It was magical and fulfilling at the same time.”

Her proud Mom adds, “It has been a delight to see Laura excel as a handler, competitor, and as a person. That is reflected by her self-confidence, poise, and good sportsmanship. Her accomplishments have been beyond our expectations, and just when I think she has peaked, she continues to improve her skills. Dogs take an instant liking to her and their confidence is reflected through their performance together.”

Their breeder Isabela Mailman has remained a constant source of support over the years as well. “I am so happy for this amazing team,” Mailman says. “They are a beautiful pair to watch and they turn handling into a beautiful dance.”

When asked if professional handlers have been supportive of Laura’s efforts, Wickham immediately cites Tiffanie Coe, of Black Diamond, Washington, for her assistance with handling skills and connecting Laura with owners who require help with their dogs. Recently Coe added Laura’s name to one of her Leonberger puppies, and the teen wasted no time earning a five-point major with it at the Rose City Classic in Portland, Oregon, in January. She intends to have Laura handle the puppy to its championship.

Want to Get Involved?

If your child is interested in becoming a junior handler like Laura, the first step is to watch a show and sign up for a class.  Juniors under 18 years old can sign up for a Junior Handler number here. This number will allow them to both take classes and compete. In all sports other than Junior Showmanship, your child will exhibit in the regular classes and in the field along with all other exhibitors at the trials and tests. They obtain the same titles and awards as adult handlers if they qualify.