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Photo contributed from Christina Miller / Christina Miller has been raising dogs and competing with them as a handler since she was 7 years old. Cayman, pictured here after a successful competition in 2014, is one of the dogs she has been closest with over the years.

Walker County resident Christina Miller grew up raising Great Danes with her parents and began competing with them in dog shows when she was 7.

Now she is preparing to take on the competition this weekend at the American Kennel Club National Championship in Orlando, Florida. It is the 19th time that Miller and her dogs have competed in the competition, which she said is "like our Super Bowl and Stanley Cup combined into one."

"My parents bred and showed Great Danes before they had me, so I have been active in these events in one way or another since before I could walk," Miller, who has since introduced her own children to the sport, told the Times Free Press during a phone call on Thursday. "I have been doing this a long time and am happy to say we now have four generations of family involved in it. It is really special to me."

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More than 5,000 dogs will compete at the AKC National Championship this weekend, according to the competition's website. Among them will be three dogs trained and raised by Miller — Gamora, Cayman and Datak. All three dogs are Canaan dogs, a breed of pariah dog first used for guarding and tending cattle and sheep.

Miller said she chose to train Canaan dogs as an adult, rather than the Great Danes she grew up working with, after seeing her first Canaan dog in 1997. She loved how intelligent they were and the challenge that came with training what she calls a "thinking dog."

"They live anywhere from 14 to 16 years on average, and they are so intelligent. They won't blindly do anything. They won't do it just because you want them to do it," she said. "It makes the training challenging, but that's part of the fun. It makes me a better trainer."

Though she is considered an "owner-handler," rather than a professional trainer, Miller said she takes her duties as a trainer and handler very seriously. She begins training the dogs she works with when they are just a few weeks old to ensure that they have the proper amount of socialization and the right temperament to compete when they are older.

"That's something we do from the time that they are born, actually," Miller said. "You need a well-rounded and stable tempered dog with a drive to compete or you won't be as successful. I find that you can tell what competitions they will be really good at by the time they are 8 weeks old because by then you will know their temperament. You'll know what they are willing to do for you."

In the case of the dogs competing at this weekend's competition, Miller said it was relatively easy to decide which should compete in which events. Gamora, the only female of the three, has always been an incredibly fast runner — so fast that she ranked 21st fastest dog of all breeds in last year's inaugural Fast CAT Invitational, a 100-yard straight race — and Datak performs beautifully in owner-handled events. Cayman is a veteran this year at 11 years old and is competing as such.

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"The Fast CAT Invitational was held for the first time last year. The top three fastest dogs from each breed based on those runs last year will compete again. Gamora was the top Canaan dog last year and is on track to go to the finals," Miller said. "With Datak, that's a pretty special competition. The National Owner-Handled Series takes the top 10 dogs in each breed from the qualifying period, which runs from October to October, and has them compete against each other."

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Photo contributed from Christina Miller / Cayman is an 11-year-old Canaan dog who will compete as a veteran this weekend at the AKC National Championship in Florida.

Cayman, she said, is "having a blast" getting attention from all the guests and other handlers at the competition. The community of people she has come to know over the years showing dogs is "incredibly supportive," which results in the championship weekend being "so much fun, every year."

"We get to know each other, and so it's really nice to have a big weekend to get together like this. It feels like a party with friends you don't get to see every single day because we all pretty much know each other, so the community is very strong," Miller said.

When she isn't taking her dogs to competitions, Miller is breeding Canaan dog puppies for others to adopt and give good homes. Because the breed is so rare and has such a strong temperament, she said she is careful to make sure potential owners know what they are getting into when they adopt a dog from Canaan Dogs of River Rock, which operates out of Walker County.

It is all part of an intense screening process that does not end when the dogs leave what she calls "the farm."

"I keep track of every puppy that comes from Canaan Dogs throughout their entire life," Miller said. "These are dogs that are so intelligent and can be such a challenge that I always want to be available to help people or give them advice."

Sometimes people will ask her about training their dog, which she does not do, though she said she will occasionally offer trick training to dogs that board in the kennel at Canaan Dogs of River Rock.

"I am by no means a professional dog trainer and don't want anyone to believe that, but I am always open to helping people," Miller said. "That is what this sport is all about."

(READ MORE: Catoosa County Animal Control shelter ends Saturday adoptions)

The competition will be held Saturday and Sunday, with all sporting, hound, toy and non-sporting breeds, as well as contestants in the junior showmanship competition being judged on Saturday. All working, terrier, herding breeds and best in show will be judged on Sunday.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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Photo contributed from Christina Miller / Gamora was the fastest Canaan dog to compete in last year's Fast CAT Invitational and is on track to enter the speed finals again this weekend in Florida.
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