WOOD RIVER — If not for a little border collie she fostered overnight, Amy Harsch might not be participating in the Grand Island Kennel Club Dog Show this weekend.
But for the last 20 years, Harsch has found “incredible joy” in training and breeding dogs and entering dog shows. Her first Best in Show ribbon came from the Platte Valley Kennel Club in Fremont in 2018.
Harsch is an AKC bronze breeder of merit, which means she has bred at least 10 dogs who are either champions or have a title.
“That’s significant placement, but to get that, you have to travel a lot and spend time out there,” she said.
Harsch spends between 25 and 30 weekends a year showing her dogs in California, New York and Florida and nearly everywhere in between.
Next week, she’ll head to a dog show in Garden City, Kansas, for three days, then drive to San Antonio for one more show. She will be home for one weekend, then go to a show in Seward the following weekend.
Harsch also has entered the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Show in 2018 and 2019 as well as International All-Breed Canine Association events.
“This is the only sport in America where professionals and amateurs compete together,” she said. “Every weekend, there are multiple shows all over the country. Every weekend is different,” she said.
Border collie beginnings
Harsch, who was raised in Blue Hill, showed cattle and horses as a child, but when she headed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she sadly sold her horse. “But my love for animals and competing never went away.”
After she graduated from UNL, she helped a friend herd sheep and fell in love with the friend’s border collie. She got involved with the Nebraska Border Collie Rescue and fostered a purebred American Kennel Club rescued border collie that was being transported across the country.
“She stayed with me for a few days on that journey and never left,” Harsch said.
Harsch began entering the dog in what she calls the “competitive sports of rally and obedience.” From there, she watched conformation shows and began competing for the best of breed and best of show, “like I did with horses and cattle.”
In Grand Island, she will show her border collie, her Russian Toy Terrier and a Samoyed.
At all dog shows, canines are judged first by breed. Next is a competition of seven groups of dogs, in classifications such as herding dogs, terriers and sporting dogs. The best dog in each group then competes for best in show and reserve best (second best) in show.
Owners show dogs that they believe are the best representation of a written standard compiled and approved by authorities in the breed’s parent club, Harsch said.
During the years, she has seen many of the same dogs in various shows, but “every show is a new challenge. I don’t know who else is entered. Someone else with a top show dog might be passing through town and decide to enter. It’s all one judge’s opinion at that moment. Your idea of a perfect animal may be different from the judge’s. You just hope and say prayers,” she said.
‘Finely tuned athletes’
Harsch calls her show dogs “finely tuned athletes.” She feeds them a commercial pet food and added supplements for their coats, skin, teeth and more, “like what an athlete would eat when he or she is competing.”
Each dog has its own training regiment. “Puppies can handle a few minutes a day, but they are wiggly and squiggly and fun, and I don’t want to ruin that personality of ambition,” she said. As they mature, workouts stretch to 20 or 30 minutes a day to improve their skills in the ring.
“No two dogs are the same. What works for one may or may not work for the rest,” she said.
One of her dogs, Peeps, which Harsch bred and raised, won best in show one year. Peeps’ mother was “fiercely independent. She was pretty much a do-it-my-way kind of dog, so training her was a challenge,” Harsch said.
“But her daughter was easier. She wanted to please. She wanted to be a part of what I’m doing,” Harsch added, then laughed. “Now her ideas of a stressful day is ‘which couch do I lay on?’”
For Harsch, the best part of shows is not only the dogs, but the humans. “I consider some of the friends I’ve made at dog shows as my dearest friends, like family you get to see periodically,” she said. “Yes, we all compete, but it’s also about the camaraderie.”
Sometimes Harsch will serve as “an extra set of hands” for friends who are showing dogs.
“People take a lot of dogs into the ring, even ones who are not theirs. Some dogs do better with a stranger, while others are more attached to their human ‘parent.’ It’s like children,” she said.
That’s how she feels about her dogs, too. At the end of the day, they’re not just show dogs; they are beloved pets.
“They live in our house and sleep in our beds. Just because they’re fancy dogs in the ring doesn’t mean they are fancy dogs at home,” said Harsch, also executive director of the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance.
She raises just one or two litters per year so she can devote time to them. “When puppies leave my house for adoption, they are healthy and well-adjusted,” she said. “This is my thing. My husband Kevin is OK with that.”