From Iceland to Ireland, five young women aged 14 to 22 have come to Tacoma since 2011, hoping to glean the intricacies and work ethics of another culture.
It’s no coincidence that their hosts, John and Tammie Wilcox, own a commercial dog and cat boarding, grooming and training facility and are longtime professional handlers, for dogs have been the conduit for their fulfilling visits.
During their stays, the visitors are offered a form of mentorship and maturation they wouldn’t find at home.
“I really just stumbled into it,” says Tammie. “It started with my first trip to Iceland. I was invited to come and visit after I handled the first best-in-show Icelandic sheepdog. After I returned I was sent an e-mail from Karen (Osp Gudbjartsdottir) and Erna (Sigridur Omarsdottir) who heard of my trip to Iceland and wanted to know if I would be willing to let them come for a few weeks.
“I had not met either the parents or these young girls during my visit. We exchanged several e-mails that included the parents. Karen and Erna were involved in Papillons and since I’m a known Papillon breeder and handler they had an interest in in coming to stay with us.”
Before the girls came to Tacoma, the Wilcoxes discussed their expectations. And this included their parents. “This offers them talking points with their child that can be used as learning tools,” explains Tammie. “The majority of the parents are amazed at the change in maturity after spending time with us. It’s very satisfying to see each of them blossom in their own way.”
While they were involved with dogs in their homeland, none of the young visitors have come with aspirations to become a professional handler.
“My main objective is for them to see another culture,” says Tammie. “The girls go to all of the shows with John and myself. There may be a specialty that I go to on my own but that is rare.”
At the shows, she introduces them to American Kennel Club representatives attending the event.
A recent visitor, Lauren Rowe, from Ireland, accompanied Tammie to San Francisco on a meaningful trip. Her maternal uncle had built a toothpick or matchstick replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. He died in an accident and the young Rowe yearned to see the bridge that he never viewed firsthand.
For the 21-year-old Rowe, her chief goals of coming to the U.S for six months were experiencing dog shows and the intricacies of kennel work. When asked to prioritize what she learned, Rowe replied, “The knowledge of how to use products and care for dogs on a larger scale, grooming techniques and dealing with people.”
Her U.S. experience also included a trip to Florida, where she swam with dolphins and snorkeled with stingrays, along with a visit to New York City in February to assist Wilcox in preparations for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
The girls and their families pay the roundtrip airfare. They have kennel chores that relate to the care of the animals and assisting the Wilcoxes on a daily basis.
Their length of stay is determined by the visa they obtain through the United States. “The U.S. has restrictions that include length of stay and pay,” adds Tammie. “Consequently, we cannot pay them for their work here.”
Asked if she and John had chief priorities to relate to the girls, Tammie responds, “Caring for the animals is primary. They don’t have the ability to care for themselves and are consequently very reliant on us. Secondly, education and more education. I have accomplished what I have because of education and work ethic.
“I want the girls to walk away with some idea of what they would like to do with their life. Self-esteem in their accomplishments while they are here can help them develop into more caring people and to pass that along to others without expecting anything from the recipient.”
Chores include helping prepare dogs for shows, training and daily care. They don’t replace the facility’s daily staff but work beside them and the Wilcoxes. “Boarding clients,” reflects Tammie, “enjoy meeting the girls and often exchange conversations about the places we have visited and also their trips to the girls’ countries, too.
“My show clients have developed strong relationships with them, too. They are always happy to take them on an excursion or help them out from time to time.”
Asked if the visitors keep records documenting what they’ve learned during their stay, Tammie responds, “Rarely. Most use Facebook to note their experience.”
Fluent English is not a requirement for visitation. The girls from Iceland have used their English skills that they have honed to help them in school and at home. “I have had some of them reading aloud so that I can help them with questions and pronunciation. We do this through our trips to different areas and looking up information about the site. Historical landmarks and U.S. history becomes the main focus.”
None of the visitors has had an aspiration to become a professional handler, according to Wilcox. “In Europe being a professional hander is not the same as here. You can make a living as a handler here because of the large number of shows. In Europe, they have a limited number of shows. In Iceland there are only a few each year.”
Omarsdottir, 18, of Reykjavik, Iceland, who has spent the last four summers with the Wilcoxes, has owned dogs since 2007.
“I knew I would be improving my English skills,” she says, “and that’s probably one of the reasons my parents let me go. I am dyslexic, so learning from books has always been harder for me than to learn the language by speaking it. Then it was also the opportunity to come to the U.S. and get to know the dog world. I always wanted to go out of the country and be a kennel helper but always thought I would go somewhere in Europe.”
While handling is simply a hobby for Omarsdottir because of the small number of shows in Iceland she says the grooming, care and handling several different breeds she has learned here will help her enormously in the future.
“The hardest part of each visit is leaving, since I become so attached to the dogs,” she adds.
“Erna is smart, great with the dogs and intelligent,” adds Wilcox. “Because she has spent each of the past summers with us, she is like our own daughter.”
Mentoring has been a win-win for Wilcox, too. “The girls have helped me with my patience,” she reflects. “Because I have been showing dogs since I was 8 years old it is very innate. During the teaching process I have to pause and give it some thought. Consequently, I have been able to carry this over to classes I teach and hone my training skills.”
Dogs have opened up many pathways for the Wilcoxes over several decades. Both have received plenty of help and guidance during that journey, concludes Tammie. And now they’re giving back and influencing someone else’s life in a positive manner with vigor and sensitivity.