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4-H clover Canine companions

4-H youth walk dogs on leashes -- the boy in front is smiling while keeping tight rein on very large dog, which has its tongue out a bit looking happy
Kale Johnson and Dani

The power and pull of the 4-H dog project

Kale Johnson’s dog Dani, a Great Dane and mastiff mix, weighs in at 155 pounds — more than double Kale’s weight.

Kale, 11 and from Zumbro Falls, had one critical goal: to get Dani to listen to him — on the first time, please.

“She gets the urge to run and then she pulls me,” he says, noting that Dani is so powerful that she knocked over his family’s Christmas tree last year. “In 4-H dog training, I teach her to stay by my side.”

More than 2,000 Minnesota youth choose the 4-H dog project each year. They can advance from obedience basics to competing in shows and knowledge bowls.

Goals, practice and giving back

Shelly Strusz is one of the volunteer dog trainers for Kale’s group, which meets on the Cannon Valley Fairgrounds in Goodhue County. She says setting a goal is the most important first step, even if it’s just leading the dog on a leash.

“Kids experience fulfillment in having a canine companion,” says Strusz. “They learn it is not an option to have a dog but not train it. Besides, dogs like being trained.”

“Youth realize they master a skill through practice, practice, practice, and you can see that bloom of confidence in them,” says Sharon Davis, Extension 4-H animal science program director. “Then they turn around and teach younger participants. We can depend on that.”

A girl with braces faces the camera with her large black and white dog by her side and a green pillow behind them
Lexi Aldinger and Onyx

Adults and youth lead together

Lexi Aldinger, 12 and from Ramsey, wanted to do something all on her own. 4-H offered opportunities for her to get out in front, like becoming the treasurer of the 4-H dog committee and the youth leader of the Dog Project Bowl for Anoka County.

Lexi’s mom, Michelle Aldinger, says Lexi has thrived learning and teaching about topics like animal care, breed personalities and behaviors of dogs to younger members. “In the 4-H dog program, she found that she has a voice that is heard by youth and adults alike.”

Some county 4-H programs have 30 to 40 youth-dog teams, and 4-H provides training to volunteers on the topic as well as on positive youth development.

“I just love spending time with Taylor, one of our coaches who tells me what I need to fix and gives me such kind encouragement,” says Lexi.

Lexi practices showmanship with her American Staffordshire terrier-pitbull mix. “Onyx is very good at his job,” she says, referring to the agility he shows by running a course that includes jumps, ramps and hoops. “He likes to show, but because he is obedient he can also just stand by me with his tail wagging.”


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