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Dog days are here

Even Meghan Tierney's friends at school know little about her hobby with dogs.

"I don't talk about it with them that much," she said. "They might think it's weird. Some have said, 'Oh, so you walk a dog around the ring, huh?' Like that's all there is."

But Meghan's mom, Kim Peterson, knows: "Most people don't realize the training and the commitment it takes to be a dog handler, especially to be successful like Meghan."

Mom has good reason for bragging rights. Last year her high school freshman daughter was named top junior dog handler for cocker spaniels in the United States.

Meghan also won a key competition last fall in Lake Elmo, Minn., where she beat more than 70 young dog handlers among all breeds.

She and her black cocker spaniel, Tiara, have won numerous regional contests. They've even competed and beaten "professional handlers" and their dogs.

While not able to attend last year, Meghan and Tiara were invited to compete in the two most prestigious dog shows, including the nationally televised Westminster Dog Show in New York's Madison Square Garden.

Meghan is just turning 15 and shown dogs for less than three years.

"She seems to have a natural, unforced ability for showing," Peterson said. "There's a precision and a grace to how she works with the dog."

Growing up in Alaska, Kim also learned how to handle and show dogs. She still does with the family dog Izzy, also a black cocker spaniel, but admits that her daughter is more adept.

"She is far surpassed in the show ring," Kim said. "I can't make it happen like she can. Meghan makes it seem like it isn't even work. She and the dog have some kind of connection when they're out there in the ring."

Meghan's remarkable success as a handler has bumped her to a higher level of competition called "conformation."

That is where the focus turns solely on how well the dog moves, stands and looks, according to breeding standards set by the American Kennel Club (AKC). At the junior level, judges grade the abilities of the young handlers -- not the dogs.

At conformation, Meghan and Tiara are often matched with handlers who are hired to show as many as 20 dogs. Competition is fierce. Judges, even with the AKC standards to follow, are human and make subjective decisions on winners.

That's one reason Meghan doesn't aspire to a dog-handling career. She's comfortable with the close, one-on-one relationship she has with Tiara, just like any girl would have with her pet dog.

But there are differences. Tiara belongs to Valerie Jennings, a noted professional handler and breeder in St. Paul. Jennings has been a "selfless" mentor for both Meghan and Kim.

That means Tiara trains, travels and performs with Meghan, but doesn't stay home with her.

On the other hand, Kim's show dog, Izzy, belongs to the family and lives at home.

Both dogs require continuous, meticulous grooming, especially as show time nears. This involves shampooing, blow drying, clipping and brushing, a process that can take hours and is often done twice a week.

Kim and Meghan and the rest of the family moved from Eau Claire to River Falls four years ago. They're well-traveled.

Meghan was born in Boston and has lived in Atlanta and Flint, Mich. She lives with two sisters, a brother, her mother and step-father.

For years because of circumstances related to a divorce and apartment living, Kim said Meghan and her siblings -- despite their pleas -- couldn't even have a pet.

Now things are different, and the dog handling has further changed their lives.

Because Kim also shows her dog, mother and daughter often hit the road for weekend contests held in the Midwest.

"It's been fun getting away with Meghan and having the time to do this together," Kim said. She credits her understanding husband, Mike Peterson, for staying behind during those trips and taking good care of the rest of the family.

Meghan said certain traits are needed to be a first-rate dog handler.

"You need to stay calm, have smooth movements, and really blend in the background. You want the judges to notice your dog, not you," she said.

While it's time consuming and costly to compete, Meghan said dog handling remains just a hobby.

"You want to have fun doing it. Otherwise, if you're not enjoying it, why bother?" says Meghan.

Kim said cocker spaniels are ideal dogs to be around and train.

"They have such wonderful, loving personalities," she said. "The standard for the breed is the 'merry attitude.' As a pet, they quickly become part of the family."

Kim said that obviously she's proud of her daughter -- and not just for the dog handling.

"Meghan is very dedicated in whatever she does. She has a lot of heart and passion. She's a straight-A student and gives 110%, no matter what she's doing."

And Meghan finds time for other interests: Playing on the freshman basketball team and the school softball team in spring; playing flute in band; and snowboarding.

She puts it this way: "Dogs definitely don't run my life."