Vega, a 3 1/2-year-old golden retriever, lives up to his name.
“I got the name from a small constellation of three stars. Vega is the brightest star,” said owner Joanne Bockhorn, 54, of Marine. The sweet-tempered dog will compete Feb. 15 in the First Annual Obedience Championship at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.
“It’s a pretty big honor to be invited. It’s our first year. Everything is new to me. My husband (Jeff) and I are driving. I don’t want to fly my dog on a plane unless he gets to sit next to me.”
On a recent Monday morning — the coldest of the year — Joanne, with an assist from friend Pam Meyer, of Alton, put Vega through his paces at Kim’s Dog Training, a warm indoor facility in Caseyville. There were dokkens, rubbery ducks, to retrieve, gates to jump and lots of listening and obeying commands.
“Vega likes to do everything,” said Joanne, turning to Vega, “Get close. Let’s go.”
The energetic dog trotted alongside her.
Based on 2015 OCH (Obedience Championship) points, 150 dogs were invited to Westminster’s first obedience championship. The first 34 to apply got in. In case you’re counting, Vega had 205 points.
“All my showing was here in St. Louis,” Joanne said. “He won some really big shows. If you win a show that had 50 dogs, you get a lot of OCH points.”
Once a dog wins a championship, its initials go in front of the dog’s name. Vega’s full name is OTCH MACH Highroller (kennel he came from) Summer Triangle (the name Joanne chose for him) UDX3 OM4 VER SH MXB MJB THD.
“The first three titles after his name have to do with obedience. SH is his senior hunter. The next two are for agility and the THD is his therapy dog title,” said Joanne. “He got that by visiting nursing homes 50 times. Caseyville Nursing Home is where we used to go. They loved it. We would go once a week.”
A fine pedigree
Joanne bought Vega for $1,300 from a breeder in Indiana. He was part of a litter of eight, four males and four females, and comes from good stock.
“His father is a FEMA search and rescue dog,” she said. “One of his brothers is search and rescue. Two of his cousins will be at an American Kennel Club invitational in March.
“He was 10 weeks old when I got him. (The breeder) had exposed him to agility equipment. He had been on a teeter-totter, retrieved a pigeon, been swimming, had heard gunfire. She had exposed him to different surfaces, from wobbly boards to soft things, hard things, things that went boom in the night. She was wanting them to go to working homes, wanting to better the breed. She’s a good, conscientious breeder.”
He’s a mama’s boy. I love spending time with my dog. No matter what we are doing, I love being with him. He’s just a good dog to be with all the time.
Joanne Bockhorn on Vega
Joanne got second pick of the litter.
“He had that human connection. He was that type of dog that bonded, the sweetheart of the litter. There was another puppy in the litter who had more energy. He was more of a bully. He would get on top of other dogs and rrrrrrrrrr.”
Vega took the puppy aptitude test at 49 days and aced it.
The single best test is to wad up paper, making sure the puppy sees.
“If the dog will retrieve it, that’s something,” said Joanne. “That shows they want to please and you will be able to train and work with them.”
Practice, practice, practice
Joanne and Vega practice every Wednesday at the Caseyville training facility.
“We do obedience and agility here all morning. Sometimes, I come on Mondays, too. We get the routine down. We’re training four days a week. Sometimes, you can train too much. It’s better to do a lot of short sessions than a few long ones so the dog doesn’t get bored and tired.”
Obedience training is Joanne’s favorite. Vega likes hunting.
“A lot of dogs in his line are hunters. ... When he’s in the building here, he’s a well-mannered gentleman. Get him out in the field and he’s a Jeckyll and Hyde. He gets wound up. You can tell that’s what he’s bred for. He runs like lightning to get the duck. In here, there’s no need for speed. I will take him as far as he wants with it.”
Right now, they’re concentrating on the Westminster Obedience Invitational.
“Vega, over,” Joanne called and the dog leaped a 2-foot white gate.
Dog trainer Justin Sims watched.
“Vega is an incredible dog,” he said. “Anything that lady puts her mind to doing with that dog, she gets accomplished. It’s all hard work and training. You have to have the right dog, but you have to have a trainer willing to put in the time. It’s more about the team than anything, how well they work together.”
Vega’s chances of being a top dog?
“Everybody that made it to this point has a phenomenal dog and a chance to win,” he said, “but remember, they are animals. Like people, every now and then they have a mind of their own.”
For the top 10 dogs chosen, everything will come down to six minutes in the ring.
“There are guidelines you have to follow,” said Joanne. “You have to do heeling, a right run, fast, slow, halt. You can move anywhere you want. The dog has to do a jump, a retrieve, a go out — where you stand at one end and send the dog away from you to the other side. ...”
Vega is a fast learner.
“He’s the best I have had, my third golden retriever,” said Joanne as Vega jumped up and put his paws on his owner’s shoulders. “He’s the fourth dog I have done obedience with. A friend got me interested in it. My very first was a German shepherd 30 years ago. .. After the German shepherd, I didn’t have a dog for a long time. I loved German shepherds.”
But they owned a scuba shop (the former Action One Dive Center in Edwardsville) and they needed a dog considered more friendly.
“That’s why I got my first golden retriever. They are very people-oriented. They want to please, and love working.”
Joanne and husband Jeff, who have two grown children, live on 20 acres.
“Nothing is fenced in. When he goes outside, he has free range of everything. He’s always right there. If my husband goes out in the field and cuts wood, Vega will stay out there with him. If I am in the house, he will be right back. He’s a mama’s boy. I love spending time with my dog. No matter what we are doing, I love being with him. He’s just a good dog to be with all the time.”
Joanne works part time at the Edwardsville Kohl’s. She’s also a long-distance runner who has completed marathons in every state but Hawaii. Vega is her running buddy.
“I take him on runs a few times a week. Three to six miles is my average. He’s a very busy dog. He does a lot of stuff.”
Tips on training your dog
Joanne Bockhorn’s golden retriever Vega is a well-mannered fellow. So well-behaved that he has his American Kennel Club Obedience Trial Championship, and will compete Feb. 15 in the new obedience category at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Here are some tips from Joanne.
- Build a bond with your dog. “Be the most important, happy thing in a dog’s life. They will be more willing to work with you. When Vega was a puppy, I would bring him to the park where there were soccer games going on and kids playing. I’d bounce his ball and say, ‘Do you want this?’, play tug of war, have him roll over. I liked having noise in the background, but having him focus on me.”
- Work with knowledgeable people. “I learned a lot from Kim (Berkley, owner of Kim’s Dog Training in Caseyville). She’s my trainer. She trains me. I train my dog. No matter how good you are, it’s good to have someone else critique you. It’s sometimes hard to see things yourself.”
- “There are people here who have little, tiny dogs, papillons, schnauzers, chihuahuas. People think those are just cute dogs. You can train them. Any dog is capable of training. You need to stick with it.”
- “If you can, start training the dog as a puppy. It’s a clean slate. But dogs that people adopt from shelters, they do agility, too.” Agility is a dog sport in which a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course in a race for both time and accuracy.
- Make training fun. Hollering and screaming isn’t the way to get it done.
- Consistency is important. “We all have trouble with it. You have to make things clear, black and white. Try to only use one command. Sit. Say it one time. See it through.”
- When things go wrong, let them know. “Vega had a hard time with sniffing. He has lost points because of it. He’s an intact male. They tend to get a little more distracted. He will sniff the mat and wonder who’s been here before. He’s getting better with that. I have to keep on top of it.”
- “Some people think you go to a six-week course and you are trained. Training never ends. You have to maintain it. Training is a lifelong thing.”
How to watch
- For TV and digital coverage, go to www.westminsterkennelclub.org