It’s fair to say that for Marion Crain, Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis, passion for her dogs and their mutual desire to compete has shaped every step of her successful career. On the run-up to taking three of her qualifying dogs to the 2023 AKC National Obedience Championship, Crain explains how she balances her career with canine commitments.
From Humble Beginnings to National Championships
At the age of 13, Crain trained her unruly family dog through her 4-H youth program. After winning a ribbon in Obedience with the local affiliated dog training club, she was officially hooked. From there, her passion continued to grow. The first dog Crain owned herself was a Shetland Sheepdog. “A woman involved with the 4-H program and local dog training club bred Shelties,” she explains. Between the ages of 13 and 16, before she was old enough to have a full-time job, Crain worked in her kennel and eventually saved up enough money to buy a dog.
Considering her love of animals, Crain’s original plan was to become a veterinarian. However, after starting the pre-veterinary program at Cornell University, she quickly realized she would struggle with emotionally distancing herself from her animal patients. And so her journey in law began, her dogs constantly by her side. “I moved around the country following my career, and the dogs went with me. I showed throughout high school, college, law school while practicing, and once I started teaching law.”
Crain currently has seven dogs. Her two retired Keeshonden, “Spree” and “Jolt,” are both multiple Obedience Trial Champions and Breed Champions. She also has a younger Keeshond, “Rain,” who just completed her Companion Dog title.
Competing on a Big Stage
Four of Crain’s dogs have qualified for AKC NOC. However, her Keeshond “Fling,” an eight-time Obedience Trial Champion and Grand Champion in Conformation, is sidelined while recovering from ACL surgery. But two of her Border Collies and one Keeshond are all competing. Versatile six-year-old Border Collie “Zoe” was bred to compete in Obedience, Herding, and Agility. “She acquired her Obedience Trial Championship early and easily,” Crain says. A herding champion, Zoe now has six titles and will compete in AKC NOC for the second time.
Crain’s second Border Collie, “Cord,” was bred for Herding. But he also has an incredible aptitude for obedience and has become a two-time champion in the discipline. The 2023 competition will be Cord’s first time at the NOC, and Crain is looking forward to competing with him.
Last but not least is Keeshond “Fresca,” who has a Utility Dog (UD) title and an AKC Rally title. “She is just working on her first Obedience Trial Championship,” Crain says. “She has 60 points out of the required 100, so hopefully, she’ll get there.”
A small, hobby-level breeder of both Keeshonds and Border Collies, Crain recognizes how challenging breeding canine athletes can be. “I’m so grateful to the breeders of the dogs I have and the predecessors of the dogs I have bred. I realize more every year how much I’m standing on their shoulders. We could not do this without those responsible breeders.”
A Passion For Teaching Dogs and People
Competing with multiple dogs at this level takes time, patience, and dedication. So how does Crain fit this in alongside her career? “I started practicing law and loved it—I’m kind of a workaholic,” Crain says. “The dog hobby has helped me curb that workaholism somewhat because it gave me another passion I was excited about going home to at the end of the day to work on.
“But the first time I had to cancel a dog show weekend because I had obligations to defend against litigation through practice, I decided I needed to make a change. So I moved towards teaching in a university setting because of the flexibility it affords.” Teaching law also appealed because of the enjoyment Crain gets from training dogs and figuring out how animals learn. For her, it’s the same with people.
Crain first met her supportive partner, Tom, while they were in college. They went their separate ways after that, reconnecting about 14 years ago. “One of the things that hooked me most on him the second time around was that when we split up, he got a dog almost immediately—a Keeshond.”
The two live on a 30-acre property in Missouri, complete with a dog-training barn and sheep. “At some point, we’ve had as many as 30 sheep and bred them to generate lambs to keep it interesting for the dogs,” she says. Currently, they have eight sheep, purely for herding purposes.
Crain and her dogs love Herding, which is by far the hardest sport she has taken up with them. “It’s because it involves the sheep, not just you controlling the dog. It’s a whole series of events you can’t anticipate.” While the learning curve is steep, Crain believes Herding affords a rewarding and exciting partnership with the dogs different from the one they have in the Obedience ring.
Plans for the Future
Crain makes goals year by year for titles. “But the real goal is to deepen the bond between me and the dog,” she says. “That’s what keeps me coming back. It’s the intellectual challenge of figuring out how they learn and how to communicate with them. But it’s also that bond you feel when you’re training the dog and showing it in the ring.”
As she moves closer to retirement, Crain also hopes to organize more competition obedience seminars. “So I can not only share with people what’s taken me a long time to learn, and maybe help them skip some of those difficult steps, but also to learn from them and their dogs and see different parts of the country while I’m doing it.”