MORRILTON — When 18-month-old Fonz is prancing around a showroom floor, he’s poised and has a winner’s attitude. At home, the 20-pound pup is mischievous, burrowing under covers and ignoring all his toys.
“He’s very goofy, he’s not the sharpest. But I mean he’s a boy so,” his dog handler Ava Caudell said. “He runs into walls, eats food from our cabinets, pees on the chairs, ugh. He’s crazy. He’ll act like a total goof at home but as soon as he’s in the show ring he’s a new dog. He’s just smart, he stays focused and he’s perfect.”
The skills that led him to be the second-ranked Manchester Terrier (Standard) in the country and a competitor at the 143rd 2019 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Feb. 11-12 in New York City are thanks to his handler’s hard work. It’s no easy feat, especially at 12 years old.
“I was very excited. We didn’t get anything, but he did really well,” said the sixth-grade student at Sacred Heart School and member of the Morrilton parish. “The judge is an older terrier judge and he likes the more flat chest ones; he has a more full chest ... But he had a lot of fun. We won just to get to go, we’re all winners. You win, you lose, it’s fun no matter what.”
The knowledge and optimism Caudell brings to her sport is one of a seasoned dog handler, though she’s only been doing it competitively for the past three years — 9 years old is the youngest a dog handler can compete.
But Caudell’s journey into dog showing began when she was 7 years old. She met a trainer at a 4-H event where she displayed the proper discipline even at her young age, prompting the trainer to peg her as a natural. Today, she studies with local trainer Trudy Akins.
“I just really love doing it. Because we did so well and the dogs loved it so we just kept doing it and kept doing it and it got more competitive and more competitive and now we’re just stuck with it. We couldn’t leave even if we wanted to, but we don’t want to,” Caudell said. “I practice every day. You don’t have to practice every day. I go to like a public class with my trainer once a week ... You just stack them in their dog show positions and walk them around on a leash. You play with them, keep them happy and they’ll enjoy it in the dog show.”
Her mother Rhonda Beck admits that she and Ava’s father Travis Caudell and stepmother Whitney viewed dog handling as just a fun activity for their daughter. But, “it’s almost unreal … it blew up” to local and national competitions almost every weekend in Arkansas and surrounding states, where she’s placed first, second and fourth several times.
As one of the top five dogs in the breed, Ava and Fonz were invited to the most famous dog show in the U.S. and likely could get invited to come back next year as well.
Caudell used to show her dog Rita, a Manchester Terrier (Toy), and hopes to have her compete again in Barn Hunt, a competition for dogs to sniff out contained rats hidden in hay.
“She got all the rats in less than two minutes. She’s a little natural,” she said.
The family also has three jumps, a hoop and tunnel for agility competitions that Fonz may do one day when he doesn’t get bored in the middle of a run.
And Caudell has done the research. Manchester Terriers are black and tan with a sleek build intended for hunting vermin, according to Westminsterkennel
club.org. Aside from the undocked tail, they look like a small Doberman.
“I love this breed of dog and they’re endangered. There’s more tigers than them. Last year, they only had 600 litters in this breed and labs had 2,000. So there’s not many of them left,” she said.
Though Fonz is a grand champion in the dog show world, he is so much more, becoming the family’s saving grace.
“I feel like God put him in our life,” her mother said.
The dog had already been promised to someone else when they convinced the Mississippi breeder they’d give him the perfect home in the fall of 2017. On Dec. 9, 2017, Ava’s uncle, Jamie Beck, a dentist in Conway, died suddenly at 43 years old. Beck said the distraction of going to competitions was needed.
“We were so close. He was super close to Ava. He didn’t have any children, so Ava was like his kid,” Beck said of her brother. “When you are a true dog person, you understand that dog got us through that.”
Though Fonz did not advance beyond his initial breed level at Westminster, the pair stood out as the youngest dog and handler in the room.
“Honestly, I was so nervous,” her mother said. “I asked, ‘Are you nervous’ she said, ‘No, it’s just another dog show, Mom.’”
Ava admitted she was nervous while in the ring, but prayer calmed her.
“I’ll pray before I go in the ring that he’ll do good and it always helps. Sometimes when he wins I’ll thank God. You know you win, you lose,” she said.
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