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Mastering hurdles and more at fourth annual Dog Expo

Whatever their strongest talents, every dog – big or small, long-haired or short – got its chance to perform. Marie Nitke/FOCUS

Dog Club members have a ball with their pets. No bones about it, these kids really love their dogs.

As the flurry of petting hands and wagging tails proved, the people and animals competing at this year’s Dog Expo were a happy bunch, ready to show off what they’ve learned together and strut their stuff in front of the judges.

Some dogs jumped daintily through small hoops, others bounded over tall hurdles. Some crawled through narrow tunnels, others played dead.

Whatever their strongest talents, every dog – big or small, long-haired or short – got its chance to perform. 

Held at the East Otter Tail County Fairgrounds last Thursday, it was the fourth annual expo organized by the Waggin’ Canine Tails 4-H Dog Club. The event is a fundraiser for the club, and a chance for club members to raise public awareness about all the great things dogs are capable of. 

“Dogs are magical animals,” said Jane Christianson, the Key Leader of Waggin’ Canine Tails. “Look at all the things a dog can do – they can tell you if there’s cancer, they can tell you if there’s drugs, they can calm autistic children…”

Christianson, a resident of Vergas, owns a kennel and raises and trains therapy dogs on the side. She enjoys her role with the dog club, and has a special appreciation for its educational value, both to the public and the club members themselves.

“The kids learn to take care of their dogs,” she said, adding that they also learn how to run meetings, work as a team, interact with each other and adults, fundraise, and speak in public at events like the expo. 

The club currently has eight young members, who work with their dogs all year long on obedience, agility and showmanship. They start with basic commands like “sit” and “stay,” then move on to tricks like “roll over” and “play dead,” and then run the dogs through an obstacle course of hurdles, tunnels and ramps.

Through this process, the kids learn how to be assertive, how to be patient, and how to be leaders.

They also build strong bonds with their animals – and with each other.

“It’s super fun,” 15-year-old Savannah Olson of Ottertail said of being in the club. Giving her little dog Sophie a big snuggle at the expo, she added, “I just love being with her.”

Olson joined the dog club three years ago, and in that time has taught four-year-old Sophie nearly everything she knows. And even though the pup has been a fast learner – Olson boasted that “she’s learned all her tricks on the second try”– the young trainer admitted that her patience has still been tested many times.

Patience was the key word brought up by all the club members who were asked about what they’ve learned.

“It takes a lot of patience,” laughed 18-year-old Ellen Dauphinais as she struggled to hold onto the leashes of her two self-described “really hyper” dogs while being interviewed at the expo. “It also takes time, consistence and good leadership.” 

Dauphinais and 14-year-old Summer Dobratz are the club’s two longest-standing members, having both been in it when it first started in 2009. Over the years, they’ve seen the improvement in their dogs, and have become aware of some changes in themselves.

When Dobratz first started, her dog, a Siberian Husky named Polar, was bigger than she was. With her small frame and soft little voice, she said, he didn’t listen to her at all. In fact, the whole reason she joined the club was to learn how to handle him. Today, Polar can still present a challenge sometimes, but Dobratz said she’s learned “how to be a better leader.”

Dauphinais has also learned a thing or two from her time in the club. She’s having an easier time training her new dog, Mia, she said, “because I’ve learned so much from going through this with my other dog,” Adeline.

Club members get together at the fairgrounds once a month for several months out of the year, and also attend special events and fundraisers together. Many of them go on to compete at the state fair. Last year, Dauphinais won Outstanding Youth of the Year there. 

“We started the club because we needed equipment,” said Christianson. “With the economy the way it was, the (University of Minnesota) Extension office just couldn’t do it. So we formed our own club within 4-H. Then we could raise money for our club.”

Since then, club members have collected enough donations to purchase all their own obstacle course equipment, as well as a large enclosed trailer to transport it all. They sell ads for the side of the trailer, sell cookbooks of their own recipes, and, of course, hold the expo, which is sponsored by NutriSource.

In addition to the Waggin’ Canine Tails 4-H Dog Club, there is also an annual 4-H Dog Project, an eight-week dog training program open to anyone of any age. For more information about either, contact Jane Christianson at or 218-342-2411.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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