Teen dog handler warms up for Westminster at Novi show

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Novi — Cody Wright runs with the big dogs, but he's not intimidated.

The 14-year-old from Kalkaska, who is scheduled to show three coonhounds in the Michigan Winter Dog Classic this weekend in Novi, has qualified for a much bigger and even more prestigious dog show next month in New York City.   

Cody, a freshman at Kalkaska High School, is one of many dog handlers competing at the Winter Dog Classic who are also getting ready for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in February. Cody will join about 100 junior handlers at the New York show.

Cody Wright, 14, shows 'Tucker,' an 11-month-old male Redbone Coonhound, in the open class as he is a puppy.

“(Westminster) means a lot,” said Cody, who lives with his grandparents, Greg and Jill Wright, in northwestern Michigan. “I’ve worked real hard this past year, going to a lot of different shows and showing.”

This weekend’s event at the Suburban Collection Showplace showcases more than 7,000 dogs, including some 160 breeds. The four-day show includes competitions, seminars, educational demonstrations as well as exhibit space. Vendors from all over the country will be selling everything from dog toys, bones, and apparel to specialty jewelry for dog owners.

“Our show is a lot of fun,” said David Gibbons, president of the Oakland County Kennel Club, the state’s oldest kennel club. “It’s a totally different world. Every sport is a different world. Families really enjoy watching not only the dog show competitions you would see on TV but some of our other really fun activities.”

Some 10,000 are expected to visit the show on Saturday, the busiest day. The event is organized by the Oakland County and Livonia kennel clubs.

Cody Wright, left, 14, prepares to show 'Tucker,' an 11-month-old male Redbone Coonhound, as his grandfather, Greg Wright, right, holds onto Cody's champion dog, 'Henry,' right, the father of Tucker.

The Michigan show is one of the few dog events in the country in which the public can bring their own dogs (must show shot records) and participate in an activity known as “My Dog Can Do That.” They can work with American Kennel Club professional trainers to see how their dog can perform in agility events.

Cody is showing three dogs, all coonhounds, at the Michigan Winter Dog Classic. His dogs are competing in their respective breed categories, black and tan coonhound and redbone coonhound, called conformation competitions. In the conformation competition, dogs are not being compared to one another but are measured by how closely they conform to the standard of their particular breed.

“What most people are used to watching is the conformation,” Gibbons said. “The dog itself is being judged. You need to know how to present your dog on that as well. The judges are looking at the standards of the breed — the structure of how the dog is made. Does it look like it has the ability to do what it was bred for?”

Brandi has won multiple Best in Shows, is the 19th Best Hound in the US and number one best Redbone Coonhound in the country, both in 2019.

In the case of Cody and his dogs, “do the coonhounds look like they’re ready for the job of coonhounds? Hunting,” Gibbons said. The dogs are judged on standards set by the American Kennel Club.

“I hope to do really well,” said Cody, noting this year marks his second visit to the show.

Not just anyone can compete at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show; an invite is necessary. To compete as junior handlers, participants like Cody must have won Best Junior Handler from a minimum of two competing classes at seven or more shows during a 12-month period. For this year’s Westminster show, that period ended Oct. 31.

“It’s really a great honor to compete,” said Brandi Hunter, vice president of public relations and communications for the American Kennel Club, the largest purebred dog registry in the world and the governing body of dog sports. 

“You’re not just competing. You have to have the right grades. You have to have education dedication as well as ring dedication. These juniors are very dedicated, very focused, and we’re extremely proud of all the juniors who get to compete.”

Juniors have to maintain a 3.0 grade point average in school to remain eligible.

Cody, who also enjoys snowmobiling, hunting and fishing, has been working with dogs since he was 7 years old. His passion was inspired by his father and grandparents, the owners of Ebony Nite Walker Kennel, southeast of Kalkaska, who hunt with coonhounds.

During the past year, Cody has competed in shows throughout Michigan and as far away as Louisville, Kentucky, and Kokomo, Indiana. He trains with his dogs — he also has a fourth, a treeing walker coonhound, not competing in the Michigan show — three or four hours a day. He said you have to start training them when they’re young and make sure they’re having fun.

Going into the Michigan show this weekend, Cody said he was well-prepared.

Cody Wright, shows off his Best Opposite Sex and Best Owner Handler awards after showing his five-year-old male Redbone Coonhound named, 'Henry,' who Wright will show at Westminister next month.

“I’m not going to be nervous,” he said, noting that displaying any kind of shakiness would affect the dogs. “I’ve been there before and I know how big it is.”

While going to the prestigious Westminster show might seem nerve-wracking, the American Kennel’s Hunter said many of the competing juniors know one another.

“It is very competitive, but these kids are trained to do this. They love what they’re doing, and they’re competing against people they know,” she said.

Cody’s grandmother, Jill Wright, who is also a dog handler, is thrilled about her grandson being invited to the Westminster show.

“It’s been my dream forever,” Wright said. “I’m just so proud of him, I can’t even begin to explain it.”

Cody Wright, left, 14, shows his champion Redbone Coonhound named, 'Henry,' against Kristin Lawless, of Louisville, KY, who shows 'Brandi,' a five-year-old female Redbone Coonhound.

The Oakland club’s Gibbons said being invited to compete at the Westminster show is quite an accomplishment.

“For somebody his age, Westminster really means a lot,” he said. “It’s one of the most prestigious dog shows we have. The exposure is phenomenal. It’s kind of like being an athlete and going to training camp and getting exposed to all the NFL owners. If he decided to make a career showing dogs and being a professional handler, Westminster gives him exposure.”

The Westminster show is not the end of the line for Cody’s aspirations.

“I hope to work with a professional handler and to travel with one,” Cody said. “I’d like to qualify for Westminster again next year.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.