You don’t normally think of a bassett hound as an agility competitor. But nobody told Beth about this. Under the careful tutelage of her owner, Devin Schreiber, Beth balances gingerly on the teeter-totter, and then snuffles through the tunnel. The three-year-old bassett hound emerges a happy dog, and a Mighty Mutt for sure.
Mighty Mutts is the Wallowa County 4-H club’s dog project. Karen Rinehart has led the group for the past 12 years. Today, the Mighty Mutts program boasts nearly 20 youngsters, in fourth grade through high school seniors, accompanied by all sorts of dogs. “We have some purebreds, some ranch-dogs, some designer dogs, and some that are, well, sort of just mutts,” Rinehart said. “But they are all great dogs and the kids really love them and learn from them. What kid doesn’t love their dog?”
Rinehart views her 4-H program as really a youth development program. “Like all 4-H programs,” she said, “We are teaching kids life and organizational skills, and helping them learn responsibility.”
That includes teaching dogs basic and more advanced obedience. Agility is another field that both kids and dogs enjoy. “It’s the most challenging thing we do,” Rinehart said. “It can be difficult to teach dogs to run the course, so kids like to spend time practicing when we are not doing other things.” The indoor arena at the fairgrounds provides a place to practice and also store the 4-H’s bulky agility equipment.
There’s an opportunity to compete in dog obedience competitions in the club. If the Mighty Mutts team of dog and handler score 170 out of 200 points at the Wallowa County Fair, they are off to the state fair competition. Last year saw two handler-dog teams head to Salem.
There’s lots more to learn at Mighty Mutts than obedience and agility. They tour local vet clinics, have several speakers come and present to the club, and learn about everything from the parts of a dog’s skeleton to canine nutrition. Rinehart takes her charges on at least one long field trip each year. In April the club went to the Lewiston Dog Show, where they met breeders and learned about different breeds, as well as taking in obedience and agility trials. Inevitably the youngsters learn something they didn’t know before. “I’d never seen an actual poodle,” said one girl. “And I didn’t know they came in different sizes.”
Rinehart credits Wallowa County’s generous agricultural community with helping her club members branch out beyond dogs. “People in the cattle industry are always willing to help mentor kids, and even step up and keep animals for those who don’t have a place for them,” she said.
“I think of my program as a sort of gateway drug to 4-H,” Rinehart said. “In today’s Wallowa County demographic you have a lot of people who are not familiar with 4-H. But most people have a family dog. So kids get started with their dog. And by the second year they are delving into other project areas and other animals, and accomplishing things they never imagined.”