The 4-H Dog Show at the Indiana State Fair, scheduled on the last weekend of the fair, may seem like an afterthought, but for those that compete, it is something they look forward to all year. The dog show is the last major 4-H event of the fair, and it takes place in the West Pavilion, aka the cow barn (after the cows have vacated, of course).
The building is filled to the brim with people and their four-legged companions, sounds of camaraderie, dog barking and last minute routine run-throughs. Near the back of the building, on the outside wall, the Daviess County Underdogs Dog Club have set up camp where the students and their dogs wait for their turn to impress the judges.
Preparing for competition
Caleb Belcher, 15, has been training his dog Copper, a red Border Collie, for the last two years for this 4-H experience.
“I had dogs before him, but none of them were smart enough or had the ability to do this,” Caleb said. “I wanted to for a long time, but I didn’t have a dog that we could do it.”
According to Caleb, sometimes it can take only minutes for Copper to pick up a new trick, such as his “Bang” trick. Pointing at Copper and saying “bang” triggers him to play dead. Belcher said the dog learned the trick after one attempt.
The Underdogs’ camp was ringed in folding chairs and dog cages, everybody facing each other and allowing plenty of room in the middle for running through the exercises.
“Basic obedience is the foundation for anything you want to do with a dog. Caleb came to me for obedience classes and I was like, ‘your dog is great!’” said Andrea Bauer, leader of the Underdogs. “You’ve got to first teach them heel, sit down, stay, coming when called. What happens in that process is you learn how to communicate with your dog in a way your dog understands.”
Copper made sure that nobody in the group forgot he was there. Everyone standing near him pet him. On Sunday morning, he was very energetic and enthusiastic. His constant pawing for attention and ample willingness to climb onto people lead to a fair amount of cage time.
“A lot of people look at their dogs like they’re little people in fur coats, and they’re not. You can’t train your dog the same way you’d teach a young child. It’s never gonna work,” Bauer said. “Genetically they have the same genetic makeup as a wolf. The only thing that sets a dog apart from a wolf is that they’re domesticated. They’re receptive to the human touch.”
Nailing the performance
Caleb tries one more practice run of Copper’s sore spot, staying seated until called. He nails it, sitting still, focusing on Caleb until he hears his name. Then he goes running.
“That’s a sharp looking dog, and they work so well together,” said Rebecca Moeller, the mother of a fellow Underdog.
Caleb and Copper were scheduled to do their run-through at 12:45 p.m., but a backed-up schedule caused a 25-minute delay.
“His signature thing, only on show day, when he goes to lay, he’ll just flop on his side instead of laying down,” Caleb said. “I wanna see if he does it again this year. He does it every show.”
Copper stayed upright when it came time to lie down and he performed as he was instructed, not missing a beat—except for one small pause when he sniffed the floor. That may have cost the duo.
“She said that was the best figure 8 she’d seen all day,” Caleb said. “That was a good run!”
Waiting for results
Then it was time to relax until the award announcements at 4:30 p.m. Copper headed to his cage for a break, and Caleb left with other Underdog members to explore the state fair.
Caleb and Copper’s first judge, Judy Schroeder, was responsible for judging the 68 dogs that made up section 2A.
“I only judge one section of the obedience tests. We look for the communication between the owner and their dog as well as the dog’s attentiveness to its owner,” Schroeder said. “I’ve been judging dogs for seven years and I’ve worked with the 4-H for four of them.”
More obedience, agility tests and synchronized performances went on until the time came to announce the winners for obedience.
An hour-and-a-half late, the award ceremony for the first day of the dog show finally began. Starting with senior dogs and working toward the newbies, it took a while to get to Caleb and young Copper.
As section 2A lined up and moved closer to the front, nerves in the Underdog group began tensing up. The top 25 of 68 competitors in section 2A received awards. Once the announcer got to the top five, the Daviess county group could hardly contain their excitement and nervousness.
“And in the first place position, from Daviess County, competitor number 2050A, Caleb Belcher and Copper,” the announcer said over a loudspeaker.
Caleb and Copper made their way to the front to accept their award under the cover of applause and yelling.
Normally individual scores are mailed to the competitors a few days later so they don’t know their score, but someone let Caleb know on his way back from the stage that he and Copper scored a 199.5 out of 200. A nearly perfect run.
Celebrating the win
They hurried to the winner’s banner for a quick solo photo op, and then the Daviess County Underdog surrounded the pair for a huge group photo.
After snapping a few pictures, it was time to pack up and head to the hotel for a celebration—both for the winners in the group and a few birthday celebrations. Caleb just turned 15, and Copper gave him a great present.
Caleb plans to continue showing Copper through his 4-H years and eventually into American Kennel Club Shows. He would also like to take Copper to hospitals and retirement homes as a therapy dog.
“It’s really fun to do with a dog. He just strives to please and it’s fun to watch and do with him,” Caleb said.
Joe Grove is a writer for Ball State University Journalism at the Fair, a group of 30 students telling Indiana’s stories from a trailer somewhere between the cheese sculpture and the state’s biggest sow. This BSU immersive-learning project works for dog hugs.