Junior dog handler takes world of sports by storm
EASTPOINTE, Mich. — A 12-year-old girl from Eastpointe has taken by storm the world of competing in dog sports as a junior handler.
Hunter Poli-Zaj, who will be in the seventh grade at Warren Woods Middle School this fall, has been competing for about four years and in that time has completed the requirements for 18 titles and three championships with her 7-year-old elkhound shepherd mix, Kharma.
A request to give Kharma a showing in obedience competition at a Canine Works and Games trial in Illinois, where her mom, Donna Zaj was competing, has turned into fun and games, accomplishments and ribbons galore.
“It’s fun to spend time with Kharma in so many different sports,” said Hunter.
She has competed in two different venues, Canine Works and Games (C-WAGS) and Canines and Humans United (CHU), and prefers CHU because of all the sports available.
Currently, she shows Kharma most in flygility, treibball and rally. The accomplishment that instills the greatest pride is being the first junior handler to have a title in treibball, a relatively new dog sport in the United States, where dogs bring exercise balls back to their handler who is at the net, from a distance of at least 20 feet away. The sport was brought over from Germany.
They are also the first junior handler team to title and earn a bronze championship in flygility. Flygility is a combination of flyball and agility where a dog negotiates a series of jumps and agility equipment to get to a box, where they release a tennis ball that must be brought back to the handler through the equipment.
The first step toward achieving these goals began with establishing trust between Hunter and Kharma, given Hunter’s youth as a handler. “Dogs have to learn to trust kids, because they are seen as littermates, not leaders,” said Donna Zaj.
Training time of at least a couple hours a week is done at Dog Zone Training and Activity Center in Clinton Township, which is owned by Donna Zaj, who serves as the facility’s master trainer. Dog Zone is the only facility in the southeast Michigan area that offers flygiity and treibball classes and competitions.
Hunter sees herself following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming a dog trainer in both the traditional and dog sporting venues.
Her mother has most enjoyed seeing Hunter gain confidence as a handler and hopes she will continue to keep achieving firsts as a junior handler.
“What she has already done has been very cool, but as a long as she is having fun, it’s good,” said Zaj.
Hunter also hopes to get back to showing Kharma in obedience competition. “It’s where we started, I would like to do more with it,” she said.
She will have the chance to add to that list of firsts as she will be the first junior handler to compete in the American Treibball Association sanctioned treibball trial at Dog Zone around Labor Day and will also be taking part in the Canines and Humans United Nationals Competition Sept. 21-23 in South Boardman, which is near Traverse City.