If you haven’t heard of 4-H before, we’re about to change that! 4-H is the largest youth development organization in the USA. While many people think of 4-H as an activity for “farm kids” - the program is expansive and covers learning and development in almost every area you can imagine. I was a 4-H member from 8th grade until my freshman year of college - although you can start much younger than that! Who I am today was greatly shaped by my 4-H experiences and I firmly believe all youth should have this opportunity in their lives.
I’d always heard about 4-H and wanted to try it - my parents were both members growing up, and I loved the small county fair and wanted my own projects on display! Through the local curling club, I became good friends with a family that was not only involved in 4-H, but also were involved in the club close to me! Shortly after, I learned that I could show dogs in 4-H, and I knew I HAD to join the Dog Project.
My goal was to show my dog, Mya, in agility. I had no desire for “boring” obedience or showmanship. I had been playing backyard agility with Mya from a young age and 4-H seemed like an ideal venue to start showing off our skills.
However, the MN 4-H program required 2 years of participation in obedience (or one year if you earned a blue ribbon) before you could participate in agility for safety reasons, so I settled myself in for a year or two of obedience training to get to my goal of agility.
We started our obedience classes, and soon enough, I was finding them FUN! It wasn’t boring like I’d predicted, and I enjoyed teaching Mya all the new skills we needed for formal obedience competition. She was definitely a challenging dog for 12 year old Alex - very distracted and excited and wanted everything to do with everyone else except me - but it was also very satisfying to see us overcome our challenges.
One night as my mom wasn’t quite back to pick me up when obedience class ended, my instructor encouraged me to jump into the showmanship class. Showmanship in 4-H is very similar to the conformation shows seen on TV on Thanksgiving, but judging “handling skills” and knowledge instead of the dog’s structure. It turned out that showmanship was ALSO fun and I was hooked. I still really wanted to get to agility, but I was also enjoying my time learning other areas of competition and training.
Over the years I was in the program, we had many ups and down - smiles and tears - but I am forever grateful for the experiences that the program gave me. From earning a white ribbon (the lowest possible color) to earning multiple state-level champions (in agility and showmanship), we had quite the collection of experiences! Several years were riddled with the diagnosis and flare ups of Mya’s Atypical Addison’s Disease, making competition that year not possible or changed, but the friendships that I made in the 4-H Dog Project were there to support me. Half of my bridesmaids in my upcoming wedding - some of my very favorite people on this planet - I wouldn’t even know if it weren’t for the 4-H Dog Project!
Not only did the project teach me how to train dogs - and help me realize that I wanted to pursue that as a career - but it gave me a host of other skills, too. I learned to be comfortable speaking in public, and I learned quite a bit of patience! The 4-H Dog Project is where I first began teaching others - I started to assist with the classes and learn how to train people how to train their dogs, working with youth younger and older than myself, and their parents as well. I also learned plenty of organization skills as I learned to plan and run the dog shows themselves, as well as coordinate paperwork throughout the year. The connections I made in 4-H also got me several of my first jobs!
There’s SO many more 4-H memories and opportunities in the dog project - and even more in the rest of 4-H! I could write a book about how wonderful the organization was and how it shaped me as a person and made me into a dog trainer.
I still volunteer as a 4-H Dog Project leader today - working closely with Black Hawk County in Iowa and with various counties and programs across the state of MN as well. With 4-H across the country, however, there are opportunities all around wherever you live to get involved.
Want to Join 4-H?
Use the website here to find your local county extension office and get in touch with them - they will help you get registered with 4-H and set to gain amazing experiences like I have had in my own life.