By Mary Jane Skala
WOOD RIVER — Without a little border collie she raised overnight, Amy Harsch might not be competing at the Grand Island Kennel Club Dog Show this weekend.
But over the past 20 years, Harsch has found “incredible joy” in training and breeding dogs and participating in dog shows. His first Best in Show ribbon came from the Platte Valley Kennel Club in Fremont in 2018.
Harsch is an AKC Bronze Merit Breeder, which means she has bred at least 10 dogs that are either champions or title holders.
“It’s an important placement, but to get it you have to travel a lot and spend time there,” she said. She spends between 25 and 30 weekends a year showing her dogs in California, New York and Florida and almost everywhere in between.
Next week, she will be going to a dog show in Garden City, Kansas, for three days, then heading to San Antonio for another show. She’ll be home for one weekend, then go to a show in Seward the following weekend.
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Harsch has also competed in the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club show in 2018 and 2019 as well as International All-Breed Canine Association events.
“It’s the only sport in America where professionals and amateurs compete against each other,” she said. “Every weekend there are several shows all over the country. Every weekend is different,” she said.
Harsch, who grew up in Blue Hill, showed cattle and horses as a child, but when she headed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she sadly sold her horse. “But my love for animals and competition never went away.”
After graduating from UNL, she helped a friend herd sheep and fell in love with the friend’s border collie. She became involved with the Nebraska Border Collie Rescue and fostered an American Kennel Club purebred border collie that was being transported across the country. “She stayed with me for a few days on this trip and never left,” Harsch said.
Harsch began enrolling the dog in what she calls “competitive rally and obedience sports.” From there, she watched conformation shows and began competing for Best of Breed and Best of Show, “like I did with horses and cattle.”
In Grand Island, she will show her border collie, her Russian Toy Terrier and a Samoyed.
At all dog shows, dogs are first judged by breed. This is followed by a competition of seven groups of dogs, in classifications such as sheepdogs, terriers, sports dogs. The top dog in each group then competes for best in show and reserves best (second best) in show.
Owners show dogs they believe to be the best representation of a written standard compiled and approved by the authorities of the breed’s parent club, Harsch said.
Over the years, she’s seen many of the same dogs in various shows, but “every show is a new challenge. I don’t know who else is registered. Someone else with a high profile show dog might be driving through town and decide to enter. This is the opinion of a single judge at that time. Your idea of the perfect pet may be different from the judge’s. You just hope and say prayers,” she said.
“Finely tuned athletes”
Harsch calls his show dogs “finely tuned athletes.” She feeds them commercial pet food and adds supplements for their coat, skin, teeth and more, “like what an athlete would eat when competing.”
Each dog has its own training regiment. “Puppies can manage a few minutes a day, but they’re restless and wavy and fun-loving, and I don’t want to ruin that personality of ambition,” she said. As they get older, the workouts expand to 20 or 30 minutes a day to improve their skills in the ring.
“No two dogs are the same. What works for one may or may not work for the other,” she said. One of her dogs, Peeps, whom Harsch bred and bred, won the best one-year-old contest Peeps’ mom was “fiercely independent. She was pretty much a do-it-my-way kind of dog, so training her was a challenge,” Harsch said.
“But his daughter was easier. She wanted to please. She wanted to be a part of what I do,” Harsch added, then laughed. “Now his ideas of a stressful day are ‘Which couch should I lie on? “”
For Harsch, the best part of the shows isn’t just the dogs, but the humans. “I consider some of the friends I made at dog shows my dearest friends, like the family you see periodically,” she said. “Yes, we’re all in competition, but it’s also about camaraderie.”
Sometimes Harsch will serve as an “extra set of hands” for friends who show dogs. “People bring a lot of dogs into the ring, even ones that aren’t their own. Some dogs do better with a stranger, while others are more attached to their human ‘parent’. It’s like children,” she said.
This is also what she feels for her dogs. Ultimately, they aren’t just show dogs; they are beloved pets.
“They live in our house and sleep in our beds. Just because they’re fancy dogs in the ring doesn’t mean they’re fancy dogs at home,” said Harsch, also executive director of the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance.
She only raises one or two litters a year so she can dedicate time to them.
“When the puppies leave my home for adoption, they are healthy and well adjusted,” she said. “That’s my thing. My husband Kevin is okay with that.