Best of show
Ashley Coffman takes pride in her papillon pups
It may not be all that unusual for a child to have a special attachment to a pet, but Ashley Coffman has no ordinary case of puppy love. For the past three years the Eudora Middle School eighth-grader has been showing her papillons, Chris and Ben, but her first experiences from the sport came years earlier.
"I would go to shows with my mom and her friend," Coffman said. "I'd usually have a lot of fun getting to help and learn."
Her mother, Lori, picked up the sport from her mother, Marilyn Wilson of De Soto, who although retired from showing dogs, has made the activity a three-generation sport.
Coffman, however, fell in love with a breed neither her mother nor grandmother had shown before -- papillons.
"The first one I saw that I really liked was at a show in Joplin, Mo.," she said. "I saw one in the ring that was really cute."
At 5 years old, Ben is retired from the show circuit, and Chris has already made champion. Looking for a new challenge, Coffman will soon get a female papillon pup from a litter Ben sired.
Throughout the leash training and grooming necessary to show the dogs, Lori said Ashley and the dogs became a team.
"They really bonded," she said. "These guys, they kind of steal your hearts."
Despite the attention that goes into show dogs, Coffman said probably the most spoiled thing she did for the dogs was offer forbidden table scraps or feeding the dogs by hand which can be necessary before a competition, in which the dogs' weights and coat conditions matter.
Lori recalled a time she prepared chicken with garlic and her husband, Terry, commented on how good dinner smelled.
"And I said, 'It's for the dog,'" she said.
Grooming the dogs, which are known for and named after their butterfly-like ears, requires brushing and cleaning their coats, and seeing that the fur on their legs and feet is trimmed to standard. Although getting a dog to walk on a leash wasn't that difficult, Coffman said in the ring it was another story, especially for Chris, who gets excited when he sees other papillons.
Ashley also said it was harder to have the judges inspect small dogs like hers because they have to stand on a table and they tended to lift their paws when they weren't supposed to.
But papillons were a small enough dog for a 10-year-old to control, unlike Lori's 60-plus pound Belgian Malinois, even though Chris and Ben play well with the bigger dogs.
"He just goes crazy," Ashley said.
Coffman would like to take a cue from her mom's dogs, which are trained for search and rescue, and have her papillons train for water rescue, which could come in handy if a smaller dog was needed. Yet Coffman has found herself the subject of search and rescue exercises.
"I'm the 'victim' they train on sometimes," she said.
The shows Coffman competes in are juniors, which mean the dog isn't just judged but the child handlers are evaluated on their showmanship skills, too. It's the nature of the sport to win some and lose some.
"Every judge has their way," Coffman said.
But her mother said that's what made showing dogs a good way for kids to learn the sportsmanship of winning and losing. Ashley said the sport had given her the chance to make friends with adults as well as people her own age. It was a big compliment, Coffman said, when adults asked her to handle one of their dogs in a show.
"When I was growing up, I loved that," Lori said of having adults care about what a kid thought. "It's a confidence-builder."
But Coffman isn't unfamiliar to flattery from her peers, either. The young participants in dog shows will cheer each other on, something that doesn't always happen with the older crowd.
"This girl I'm growing close to, we're in different groups," Coffman said. "When I'm in the ring she yells for me, and I do the same for her. It's pretty cool."
Coffman said she foresaw herself showing dogs long into the future, even after she graduates high school and moves away.
"I'm going to get a place where I can keep pets," she said.