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Shayla Lamonica, an 11-year-old Oak Park Middle School student, is a junior national champion dog handler. With her is Alexander, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
Shayla Lamonica, an 11-year-old Oak Park Middle School student, is a junior national champion dog handler. With her is Alexander, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

A GIRL AND HER DOG: CHAMPIONSHIP STYLE
11-year-old Decatur girl is national dog-show champ

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

You can imagine the pride on Dana Lamonica's face when her 11-year-old daughter took first place in her first national dog show.

Well, actually, even Lamonica must imagine it, because she wasn't there to see it.

She hasn't seen her young phenomenon compete once since the girl delved into the highly competitive world of handling show dogs last spring.

But it's not because she doesn't want to be there. It's because she is a single mother of two with a modest income. She can't afford to leave work and bring Shayla's brother, too.

"Yeah, it's hard," she said. "But honestly it's more about her and what she's doing to excel. I can handle working a couple of extra days, but it's real hard missing so much of it."

Lamonica falls into that growing group of parents whose children are involved in competitive club sports. Unlike many, she is not away weekend after weekend, living in hotels, piling up the miles in the mini-van so her child can excel at the sport, perhaps even become good enough for a college scholarship or turn pro.

Lamonica has the same dreams for her daughter, but instead of traveling with her daughter, she, like most parents of youth dog handlers, must leave her under the care of dog handling mentors.

It has only been a spring break and several weekends so far, so Shayla is a novice. If she continues her early success and commitment, she could spend half her weekends out of a year on the road.

To advance from an amateur to a professional show dog handler, a person usually needs a pro mentor, said Barbara Plaiss, chairwoman of the annual four-day Cotton Cluster dog show in Priceville.

It's especially true for anyone involved locally. She could only list seven dog shows within a 21/2- to 3-hour drive. Handlers need to attend perhaps two shows a month to earn points and advance in the ranks.

"It's very competitive," Plaiss said.

Pro handlers have so many dogs to train and show they need junior assistants and apprentices to help feed, walk, bathe and care for their kennels.

Shayla found her mentors, Lu Dunham and Helen Jesse, when she found Alexander, a 3-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, at O'Skots Kennel in Newnan, Ga., last December.

Dunham was impressed the moment she saw Shayla.

"Some kids just tend to have a knack," she said. "You see it from the beginning in how they relate to the dogs and how the dogs relate to them. The dog knows this is someone they can trust and will be someone they can perform for.

"Alexander and she bonded within the first 10 minutes. It was amazing. It was like he had been waiting for her," Dunham said.

She has often seen dogs scramble out of the room, sensing danger from an overzealous child.

Shayla won first place in the junior (ages 9 to 12) novice class at the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel national competition in Pennsylvania last spring. She has won at smaller shows, too, and placed in every show entered. She has bested adult handlers along the way.

"I think I just got placed with the right dog," Shayla said. "I actually don't have to give him commands. He knows what he's supposed to do in the ring."

But it's more than the dog.

Denham explained that in junior competitions, judges score the handler, not the dog. They want the handler to display an ability to show the dog at its best and see that the dog responds lovingly and loyally to its owner.

The key to a champion dog handler is the ability to communicate with the dog and earn its trust, she said.

"Some kids can be taught how to handle dogs and win ribbons, but Shayla had it naturally," Denham said. "It's a personality, a chemistry. I don't know how to describe it, but Shayla definitely has it."

3.0 average required

Lamonica said she knows Shayla, who started sixth grade at Oak Park Middle School this year, would quit school and become Denham's apprentice, but the American Kennel Club requires juniors to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average to show.

"She really wants to excel," Lamonica said, "so she knows she has to complete her school work and get good grades."

And to pay for her show entry fees, Shayla is earning money by doing extra chores around the house, helping her mother groom pets at her job, and walking, feeding and bathing Denham's show dogs.

Shayla said she wasn't nervous about leaving Mom to stay with her mentors because Denham and Jesse are friends of her mother's boss.

"And I've been away from her longer," she said. "I went to camp for three days, and I couldn't call her."

Lamonica hasn't determined how many shows Shayla will attend this year. The goal is to attend enough so she can earn points to move from the novice division to the open class.

Maybe this year she'll get her chance to see Shayla in the ring.

Twice Lamonica has driven to one of Shayla's out-of-town dog shows but missed out because she either got held up in traffic or the show schedule changed.

"It's hard (missing the shows) because I'm so proud of her," she said. "Mainly I'm proud because a lot of times I think when a child gets something they've wanted for so long, they lose interest.

"Once the new toy wears off, they're like 'whatever' and put the dog in the backyard. Shayla has not been like that whatsoever," Lamonica said. "Rather than losing interest, it's become overwhelming."

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