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County 4-H'ers offered a unique pespective into the nature of man's best friend

Dog behavior consultant Cassia Drake of Minneapolis noted that a small, dark-haired Sheltie seemed stressed.

As she looked at the little dog who wasn't interested in a treat reward from his handler, she pointed out how his ears were laid back, and he was licking his lips. "He's just saying, 'This is a little worrisome.'"

It was one of the first of many lessons Drake taught Saturday at the 4-H Dog Project Supersession in Willmar.

About 85 people and their dogs attended the Supersession, held Saturday and Sunday at the Kandiyohi County fairgrounds. It was the first time Kandiyohi County has hosted the annual event.

The group was mostly 4-H members from ages 9 to 19, and they were joined by a smattering of parents, coordinators and other dog lovers.

People from Minnesota and other states attended workshops on obedience training, showmanship, agility and grooming. There was even a class on dog CPR. The workshops included some serious work but left room for a little fun.

Drake worked with a group of young people who wanted to address problems they were having in training their dogs.

Drake started by having everyone grab a handful of dog food morsels from a freshly-opened bag she'd brought along. She prefers training dogs with rewards instead of with the traditional chain-collar corrections, she said.

She taught the 4-Hers to use the rewards to encourage their dogs to pay attention to them, to lie down and to stay.

If a dog won't do an exercise, like a stay that lasts for a minute or longer, "go back and start over" with the training, she said.

"Corrections are never appropriate unless you are absolutely sure the dog knows what the exercise is," she added.

Drake advised that dogs have off days, and it's sometimes better to put off training to another time. "There are days I don't feel like doing things, either," she said.

Between sessions, Drake said she conducts many workshops like those she did on Saturday to show people how to use positive reinforcement in training. She enjoys the 4-H events, she said.

"I find kids to be quicker learners," she said. "They don't come in with as many preconceived ideas about what they should be doing. ... There's also a special relationships between kids and dogs, and the dogs respond to them."

Drake sometimes offered special advice to 14-year-old Shannon Salisbury of Spicer, handling her 8-month-old boxer Isabel.

Isabel, a white dog with startling ice-blue eyes, is deaf. Drake explained that Shannon would need to find a hand signal for "watch me."

Shannon said between classes that she is in her first year of dog-training in 4-H. She was nervous at first, and her dog picked up on that, she said. Now that Shannon is less nervous, Isabel's training has gone better, and she already knows hand signals for sit, stay and down.

Coordinator Anita Geske said Isabel's training has been more successful than some of the more experienced handlers had expected.

Training a deaf dog is challenging, Shannon said. "They get sidetracked a lot, and their eyes roam because they can't hear." Shannon found out Isabel was deaf when the puppy was 6 months old, but it didn't affect how she felt about her dog. "She just filled my heart with love."

Geske and coordinator Deb Carlson said the Kandiyohi County dog project has 35 young people involved, the second largest 4-H program in the county. About half were at the Supersession, many wearing T-shirts that read "Dogs leave pawprints on our hearts."

The dog program is popular statewide. The annual 4-H dog show in September usually has 500 human participants and more dogs. A 4-H member may show as many as two dogs. There are four activities available -- obedience, rally obedience, showmanship and agility.

The dogs don't have to be purebreds. The dog population at the fairgrounds was a mixture of purebreds and mixed breeds. Many of the dogs at the fairgrounds on Saturday had come from the humane society, Carlson said.