A Jessamine County teenage dog-handler has gained a national spotlight this year, and the way she handles herself is a big reason for it.
Kristin Lawless, 16, was one of eight finalists in the junior-showmanship category at the 2012 Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York with her 4-year-old Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, Cruiser.
“It’s basically like the Super Bowl of dog shows, so getting anything there is exciting, but making the finals was amazing,” Kristin said.
The home-schooler has always loved dogs but got into handling when she was 6 and watching her older brother train his dog in 4-H.
“She was too young to be in 4-H, but she would sit on the sidelines and watch with her little sheltie, and before you knew it, she was working circles around her brother on the sidelines,” said her mother, Judy. “So the 4-H leader said, ‘Kristin, you can come in and train with us, and you can be a Cloverbud.’”
Kristin’s first dog, Buddy, is now 11 years old.
“All the other 4-H moms had to beg their kids to work their dogs; I had to beg Kristin to give Buddy a break, because she was just so focused; she wanted to work with him all the time,” Judy said.
Sally Arias, Kristin’s leader in 4-H, said it was the way the Lawless girl carried herself that stood out — always cheering others on and congratulating her competitors even when she was on the losing end.
“What goes around comes around,” Arias said. “If you’re good and you care and you’re nice to other people, you will get the reward back — you don’t ask for them; you just get them. And Kristin has just carried herself absolutely beautifully.”
Kristin was doing shows with the American Kennel Club by the time she was 10. She said preparation and grooming is key in the competitions.
“A lot of it is before you go in the ring — you have to train them, groom them and get their coat conditioned and trimmed,” she said. “It’s a lot of work beforehand.”
Once you get in the ring, it’s all about creating the best pose and having a good relationship with the animal.
“Basically, you’re trying to make your dog look as good as they can to their breed standard — each breed has a standard. So you’ll stack them and place their feet to make the best they can look,” she said. “You have to have a good relationship with your dog, and you have to be focused when you’re in the ring.”
Kristin was featured on national television in February after she made the junior-showmanship finals of AKC’s Eukanuba National Championship in Florida in December. She had been to the Westminster show before but had not made the finals until this year’s show in February.
Home-schooling helps Kristin be able to travel with Cruiser, as many weekend shows last up to five days and events can be as far as California; the Lawlesses have counted 39 states they’ve traveled through on show trips.
Judy said her daughter’s skill with dogs is a “gifting” and that she sets an example not just for other teen competitors but for adults.
“She’s an incredible sport; she’s probably one of the best sports I’ve ever seen in my life,” Judy said. “All our dog-show friends say they want to be like Kristin when they grow up, because she loves her dog, and she just wants her dog to get out there and do well and have fun. She’s always the first to go congratulate the winner; she really sets an example. People have told me a lot that she sets an example for a lot of adults.”
Kristin said that while she has plans to study business and dog-handling won’t be a career for her, she will always do shows “on the side.”
“This is her passion,” Arias said, “and it’s really focused her whole personality on being something good in whatever she does, and dogs will always be a part of that.”
The Lawless household has six members, Judy said — three humans, one sheltie and two duck-tolling retrievers.
“They’re members of the family,” Judy said. “When Kristin comes in, they’re over the moon, just so excited to see her ... she loves her dogs.”