As a child, Demery Paladichuk, of Woodinville, was scared of dogs. Today, this 17-year-old’s best friend is Gleason, a 5-year-old English Springer Spaniel.
But that bond extends far beyond their home and backyard. They are on the road together 40-plus weekends a year, competing in dog shows throughout the West and occasionally beyond.
Within a couple of weeks, Paladichuk, a talented junior handler, is hoping the third time will be the charm at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the premier event of its kind, in New York City. She will be competing against more than 100 of the nation’s top juniors for the sport’s top prize under the bright lights and on the green carpet before a capacity crowd of 18,000 in Madison Square Garden, hoping to become the fourth Western Washington teen since 1982, to claim that award.
“It’s a tough place to show,” she said. “The crowds are large and there is not a lot of room to move around in the grooming area. And, of course, you feel the excitement and stress, too.
“The first year (2008) I was very nervous and had a surreal feeling. Last year, I knew what to expect and was a bit more prepared. I made the final cut in my group, which was very exciting. This time, I am hoping to do even better.”
Paladichuk is an assistant to professional handlers Shea and Tiffany Skinner, of Stanwood, and travels with them to every event. Paladichuk and Tiffany Skinner will fly to New York three days before the show begins (Feb. 15) to acclimate Gleason and two dogs Skinner will be handling to the crowded Manhattan setting.
Paladichuk will travel to England in March, representing the U.S. in the International Junior Showmanship World Finals, after notching her biggest win ever in early December at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in Long Beach, Calif. Next to Westminster, it’s the most prestigious junior title out there.
But it was not without plenty of frustration and challenge.
Traveling with the Skinners, they were diverted from their normal Interstate 5 route by a snowstorm in the 30-mile Grapevine section north of Los Angeles
“With that show, you really need to be in line outside the arena Monday night to claim a good grooming position when the grooming building opens at 3 p.m. Wednesday. We travel in a box truck with all the crates, grooming equipment and food, and were 20th in line when we finally pulled in,” she said.
There were 3,920 dogs entered with about that many handlers, groomers and owners trying vying for space in the grooming building. “It was crazy, and we were only able to find a position in a high-traffic area,” she added.
Last year, in celebration of the AKC’s 125th anniversary celebration, the show adopted an open format, allowing all exhibitors to enter and compete for championship points. In addition, 133 breed clubs hosted specialties, prompting a huge entry.
The approximate 120-entry junior field competed Saturday. When Paladichuk was selected as the winner she was stunned and “beside myself.”
“It wasn’t long before my cell phone was ringing off the hook,” she recalls. “I checked it later, and had 46 unread text messages and others had posted my win on Face book. It was a night I’ll never forget.”
The only member of her family involved in showing dogs, Paladichuk says her chief influences in the ring have been the Skinners and a friend, Kim Bullard, of Lake Stevens. “They have been there when questions arose about handling and grooming. And they’ve been there when I needed emotional support.”
The Woodinville teen has learned to gradually put pressure aside in the show ring and make each performance fun. “I still stress out at big shows,” she admits, “but as I’ve grown in this sport, I have tried to learn to have fun with it, too.”
To achieve anything, she concedes, it takes a lot of dedication and hard work. “I tend to be a perfectionist, which is both good and bad in dog handling and grooming.”
When questions arise, she says professional handlers are generally very eager to answer them or provide advice.
An outstanding student at Woodinville High School, she began missing many classes because of her handling commitments. As a junior, she transferred from Woodinville to the Insight School of Washington, an online program that allowed her to study while on the road and accrue necessary credits for graduation. She is on track to graduate in June and will begin college in the fall, planning to major in business management.
“I have been showing dogs since I was 11,” she adds, “and missed out on a lot of things normal teenagers get to do. I have immersed myself in junior showmanship and 4H and need to widen my scope at this point in life. So, I’m hoping to attend college, enjoy it and figure out what I want to do with my life beyond that.”
She is not ruling out a career as a professional dog handler but wants to establish other options as well.
Paladichuk’s early involvement in dogs came chiefly through 4H. In fact, there’s a rich legacy there. One of her club mates was Anders Thoreson, of Snohomish, the 2006 Westminster junior winner.
“He set the bar pretty high for juniors from around here,” she acknowledged, “but it’s within reach.”