As the Olympic Games get underway in Sochi, two Alaska teens are in New York preparing to compete in the Games' equivalent -- for the world of dogs.
The 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, one of the longest-running sporting events in America, kicks off Monday for a two-day marathon of dogs vying for the coveted Best in Show title.
Since 1934, Westminster has also offered a competition for young dog handlers. As opposed to the main competition, the Junior Showmanship competition judges youths 9 to 18 on their handling skills, independent of the traits of the dog.
Of the 91 competing in the 2014 Junior Showmanship category, two hail from Alaska.
"It's the dog Olympics for us," said Emmylea Herring, 18, a senior at Dimond High School.
To be invited to Westminster, a junior handler had to place as Best Junior Handler at seven or more American Kennel Club licensed or member shows from November 2012 to October 2013.
An Alaskan has never won the Junior Showmanship category (the most junior winners have hailed from, in order, New York, California and Pennsylvania) but Herring and her fellow state delegate, 16-year-old Kaitlyn Benedict of Wasilla, have plenty of experience under their belts.
Herring also competed in the Westminster show last year. She characterized her path to handling as a "snowball" -- her family bought its first dog, a mixed breed named Chance, when she was in fourth grade.
She started running dog agility with Chance on obstacle courses. Then someone else offered to let her run their Shetland sheepdog and, after that, to show it.
She first showed the Sheltie when she was 12, and won a Best Junior title.
"I was just hooked," Herring said. Since then, she estimated, she's shown hundreds of individual dogs in shows. She hopes to make it into the final round at Westminster this year.
For this show, Herring will be handling an Afghan hound named Abbs, with whom she won national and regional junior titles in 2013. Abbs is named after the coroner character in the CBS show "NCIS" but her registered name is actually CH Keymah Gitzit Moon Talker, after the fishing lures.
That was an invention of the dog's breeder, Mimi Yeager, who lives in Anchorage and works as a teacher at the Cook Inlet Pretrial facility. Yeager bought her first Afghan hound in 1975 in Oklahoma -- she remembers when she was a little girl and her mother took her to the beauty shop, making her chop off her hair. She also remembers flipping through the pages of the World Book Encyclopedia and looking at the images in the dog section.
"I kept going to this one dog that was big, and had hair," Yeager said with a laugh -- that would be the Afghan hound. She decided to get an Afghan after college, and "that's all I've ever had."
Herring began training with Abbs, Yeager's Afghan, about two years ago, and said she has trained every Friday for the last five years. Handling requires learning how to be classy, professional and a good sport, Herring said. And how to network.
Because there are so few Alaska shows, usually only one junior qualifies per qualifying period, Herring said.
But this year, two are traveling to the Big Apple -- Benedict of Wasilla also made the cut.
Benedict, 16, said she grew interested in handling when she was 8. Her mom, Kelly Benedict, took her to a dog show in Kenai, and Kaitlyn wound up participating in a junior seminar.
As she learned about the different types of dog shows, she set her sights on the big one, New York's Westminster -- a dream now realized, eight years later.
"It's a huge accomplishment," said Benedict, a junior at Wasilla High School. Like Herring, Benedict spends her summers working with professional handlers and learning the ropes.
Benedict's parents are longtime Newfoundland breeders, and their Wasilla kennel is called BeringStrait Newfoundlands. From a litter of puppies born about four years ago, Kaitlyn picked out the dog she's showing at Westminster, a black-and-white Newfoundland named Ziggy Marley.
As a parent, Kaitlyn's mom, Kelly, said she sees life lessons in the dog show experience, like good sportsmanship and learning how to smile when you lose. The Junior Showmanship category, meanwhile, is about tradition.
"These juniors are the future of our dog shows," Kelly Benedict said, adding that her daughter would like to pursue handling as a career after college.
Herring said she doesn't plan to make a career of handling -- it's demanding, travel-intensive work and doesn't offer insurance benefits. She's planning to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage in the fall, and hopes to enter a clinical profession in a field like psychology.
She said she does plan to do some professional handling before she starts college, to help save money.
The preliminary Junior Showmanship rounds take place Monday and Tuesday, and eight junior finalists head to Madison Square Garden Tuesday night for the finals. Scholarships are awarded to the finalists with the top finisher winning a $6,000 award. .
Reach Devin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4314.
A live stream will be available online. To watch live (or see archived shows), visit http://characterchatter.usanetwork.com/wkc/show.php.
• Emmylea Herring: Monday, 9:30 a.m. AST
• Kaitlyn Benedict: Tuesday, 4:30 a.m. AST and 9:30 a.m. AST
By DEVIN KELLY