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Contributed Photo by Christina Frausini for Westminster Kennel Club / Johnathon Wehry with Jagster.

Johnathon "Johnny" Wehry is competing in the world's largest dog show this weekend without the canine companion that helped get him there.

Jagster — a 6-year-old cocker spaniel formally known as GCHS CH Cameo Siloet's Gold Coast Legacy — may well be brooding over the slight. Wehry says the dog notices the change in routine that accompanies the family's regular schedule of dog shows and gets excited at the chance to travel.

"Every time we go to a show, he knows we're going," Wehry says. "He throws a big fit when we're packing stuff up to go somewhere."

But Jagster isn't needed on this trip. Instead, Wehry, of Charleston, Tennessee, faces the judges at the Crufts dog show in the United Kingdom with a dog he meets only an hour or so before competition begins. If he moves forward in the first round of this Junior Showmanship competition, he is paired with another dog he must quickly get to know.

Wehry, 19, says he's nervous about the competition, his first on an international level, but he has been binge-watching YouTube segments of former competitors to learn the protocols.

"I've been watching junior handling shows from previous years to see how they do things differently," he says. "Here [in the U.S.], you can hold the leash a little tighter on the dog if you wanted to. ... Over there, the leash has to be loose the entire time. And you're not allowed to pick dogs up certain ways."

Despite his anxieties, Wehry is well-qualified for Crufts, a four-day dog show held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, England, that draws an estimated 27,000 dogs and 160,000 people each year. He earned the right to represent the U.S. after acing the American Kennel Club's Junior Showmanship Finals at the 2019 AKC National Championship in Orlando, Florida, in December.

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Johnathon Wehry with Jagster.
 

That big win, which came with a $2,000 scholarship, was followed by one he considers even more prestigious. In February, he was named Best Junior Handler at the 144th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City. He earned a $10,000 scholarship for that triumph, in which he bested a field of 108 entrants, who were judged on their handling abilities with the dogs during two days of competitions.

"Most kids who compete in junior [handling] have the dream of competing at Westminster," Wehry says. "It's easier to qualify for AKC, so more people qualify and more people go. The AKC National Championship is an amazing show — it just doesn't have the same prestige as Westminster does."

Wehry is about to age out of junior handling competitions, which are generally open to ages 9-18. He turned 19 on Dec. 27, but had amassed the wins he needed to advance in the circuit, and ultimately to Crufts, as an 18-year-old. That made the Westminster win especially gratifying.

"It really has been a dream [since childhood]," he says. "This was my last opportunity to get it. I can't even explain it because it was so great."

Wehry started showing dogs when he was 9 years old, alongside his 11-year-old sister, Diana Wehry, now 21.

Watch online

The Crufts dog show will provide coverage of events on its YouTube channel. The International Junior Handling Competition, in which Charleston, Tennessee’s Johnathon Wehry is competing, is Saturday, March 7. Rounds start at 4:55 a.m., 6:35 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. Eastern time.

"We started from nowhere," says the siblings' mother, Lisa Brown, a registered nurse. "My son fell in love with cocker spaniels. ... My daughter shows whippets."

Diana already works as a professional handler. Johnathon is studying business at Cleveland State Community College and plans to pursue a career as a professional handler after graduation.

"I love cockers," he says. "I will always breed and show my own cockers, but the goal is to venture outside and show other people's dogs while showing my own as well."

Brown says, starting out, the family felt like "outsiders" as they advanced through the insular, and often political, world of dog shows. They had basically come out of nowhere with little more than a notion to see where this new interest might take them.

The whole pursuit started after Brown enrolled a new puppy with behavioral issues in obedience classes at a pet store. The instructor was so impressed by the puppy's turnaround that she suggested Brown might want to enter the dog in obedience competitions.

"Both my kids were small, and after I got involved in that, I encouraged them to get involved in junior showmanship," she says. "In junior showmanship, they don't necessarily judge the dogs, but rather the kids' ability to present the dogs to their best ability for that breed."

Wehry admits he wasn't much of a fan of competition when he started out.

"In the beginning, it was really tough," he recalls. "I didn't really want to show dogs. I didn't like the environment. People were very negative. ... It's supposed to be about the dogs, but realistically anything you do will always be remembered."

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Contributed Photo by Jack Grassa for Westminster Kennel Club / Johnathon Wehry with Jagster.

But after "a little bit of winning and a little more winning and then a lot of winning, people started being nicer to me," he says. "Now most people are nice to me."

Wehry's back-to-back win of the two national titles — AKC and Westminster — is a rare achievement.

"It's been well over 30 years since someone won both events," Brown says.

The AKC win provides the trip to England for the Crufts competition. Westminster feeds into the World Dog Show in Madrid in April, but those expenses would be out-of-pocket for Wehry, so Crufts will be his last hurrah on the junior level. He will be among 39 competitors, one each from 39 countries, ranging from Australia to Ukraine, taking part.

The contest is split into three rounds with the finalists demonstrating their handling ability and rapport with unfamiliar dogs. Each of the finalists selects a first- and second-choice breed, but meet the individual dogs no more than hour before the first round begins.

For the second round, they handle a second dog of another breed with only about five minutes of bonding time, before returning to the ring with their original choice of breed. After the judge completes a secret short list, all the finalists return to the arena for the final parade, where the winner is crowned.

Wehry says he's trying not to pack up too many expectations on his way to Crufts.

"I'm going to the show for the experience," he says, then quickly corrects himself. "I'm just going for fun."

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.

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