The New England 4-H Dog Program recently made its largest showing in years at the 2023 Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, MA.

Kara Hickey, co-chair of the dog program, was on hand at the fair’s dog agility competition, and spoke about what the program entails.

“The program is open to all youth members from eight to 18 years of age,” Hickey said, “although the participants must be at least 12 years old to compete at the Big E. And as for the dogs in the program – purebred and mixed breeds, spayed or neutered, big and small, old and young, all dogs are welcome!”

While in the program, members participate in a number of categories:

General Knowledge – Members learn about breeds, illnesses, vaccination, grooming, first aid, anatomy and training techniques as well as careers where this knowledge is essential.

According to Hickey, “the general knowledge portion of the competition culminates with a written test on all things dog.”

Fitting & Showmanship – The handlers are taught to show the dogs in a style similar to the Westminster Kennel Club show. Members are taught basic conformation so that they can show off their dog’s best features while minimizing the lesser parts.

“Condition is judged,” Hickey explained, “so we emphasize making sure the dog is clean, well brushed and has well-trimmed nails.”

Obedience – This portion of the program is designed to test a dog’s ability to respond to and perform specific commands. All exercises are based on the basic obedience commands such as sit, down, stay and heel.

Rally Obedience (Rally-O) – This is generally less formal than the standard obedience section of the program. Hickey described the basics: “Rally-O has the handler and dog follow a set path to numbered stations. Each station has a sign showing a different maneuver that the dog and handler must perform, all while working as a team.” Handlers may talk to and encourage dogs throughout their tasks.

Agility – This is a fast-paced event where dogs navigate a series of obstacles in a set course under the direction of their handler. “Levels are based on a dog’s ability. Height of the jumps are based on the dog’s height and age,” Hickey said.

The most common obstacles in the agility portion of the competition are the A-frame, dog walk, seesaw, tunnels, weave poles and pause box.

The bestest boys and girls at the Big E

Dogs navigate a series of obstacles in a set course under the direction of their handler in the Agility Competition. Photos by Enrico Villamaino

Hickey said that this year the program had 32 participants in the competition, varying in age from 12 to 18. Those competitors handled 35 dogs, ranging from 11 months to 10 years old.

Lauren Gardner of Loudon, NH, and Sarah Lapoint of Pembroke, NH, are two 4-H dog program members participating in their sixth and final competition at the Big E.

Gardner is a freshman studying wildlife management at SUNY Cobleskill. She plans on working as either a game warden or conservation officer after graduation. She brought two dogs to the Big E, a spaniel named Sherlock and a Labrador named Skipper.

“Sherlock is nine years old,” said Gardner, “I’ve had four years’ worth of showing with Sherlock. Skipper is 22 months old and is being trained to be a guide dog. Most guide dogs start their training at 14 months, and in addition to that Skipper has also had two shows this season.”

Asked what she thought about her time in the program, she replied, “I’ve learned a lot and had a lot of fun. It’s been a great experience.”

Lapoint is a sophomore and psychology major at the University of New Hampshire. Her companion for this year’s competition was her dachshund Frasier. “Frasier is two years old,” said Lapoint, “and this is his fourth event. I love the Big E and have come every year, except for the [pandemic] shutdown.”

Lapoint also spoke very highly of her time in the program. “It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had,” she said. “You get to learn a lot of leadership skills, and I like getting to help the younger members who are newer to the competitions.”

Lauren Gardner with Sherlock and Skipper (L) and Sarah Lapoint with Frasier at the Eastern States Exposition 4-H dog contests.

Hickey added that participants in the 4-H dog program are also eligible for free registration for their dogs with the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the AKC Family Dog Program. They are eligible for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen, Trick Dog and Certified Farm Dog programs as well.

Want to learn how to train your dog to perform at its best? Check out, who are based in Middleton, MA.

by Enrico Villamaino