Connor Wharton certainly knows the meaning behind "man's best friend."
The 16-year-old Altoona native has used his talent in dog training and love for animals to gain a reputation for success through many Springer Spaniel field trials, as well as the National Amateur Championship held last month in Beatrice, Neb.
Connor and his dog, Peyton, were one of just 21 teams that finished the six-course national competition without being disqualified. There were a total of 112 teams that participated in the event. And in a hunting sport where most of the other participants are adults, Connor, his family and his supporters recognize that this is quite an accomplishment at such a young age.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Above, Connor Wharton, 16, poses with his Springer Spaniel, Peyton.
"I think there's a life lesson in that it teaches him you have to be competitive, and you have to fight for what you want," said his father, Greg who also participates in the Springer Spaniel competitions.
The Whartons currently have five Springer Spaniels and one Black Labrador. Taking care of the dogs has always been on the chore list for Connor and his two siblings, Spencer, 19, and Alexa, 14. Connor started to help train the dogs when he was five years old, and soon after was competing in local qualifying competitions.
"It's fun to watch them learn and grow when you teach them," Connor said about training, which is a never-ending process with competition dogs.
Connor became the sole trainer and runner for his dog Lena in 2008, and planned to compete with her in the National Amateur Competition this year. But due to a rare complication caused by ingesting the lawn component of a seed hull that carries a deadly bacteria, Lena suddenly and tragically passed away in late January.
Lena's death was hard on Connor, but his bond with the family's dogs became evident when they were ill. He was even able to save another of their dogs when it became ill in March because he detected the problem early.
"Connor, I think, is especially perceptive when there is something wrong with them," Greg said. "When these dogs got sick, he was the first one to know.
"He's our dog whisperer."
Connor said losing Lena was hard, but he soon started training Peyton and developed a similar bond with her. His mom, Connie, said the connection with the dog is almost as important in the sport as adequate training.
"They have to love you and want to do good for you," she said. "They really like to please."
Obedience is important during field trials, when a dog disobeying one command or making one false move gets the team eliminated from the competition. But it's not all up to the dog. The runner also has to make sure he knows how to lead the dog to the fowl based on outside factors like wind direction. Greg said Connor has developed these abilities well even though he is still young.
"I think I'm good at understanding the dogs and their temperament," Connor said.
He would've liked to place in last month's competition, but he said he's just glad that Peyton did well. He didn't get a ribbon or a trophy, but Connor certainly got noticed at the competition anyway. Dean Reinke, the Purina Area Manager for Sporting Dogs and both a past participant and judge of the National Competition said he's only seen a few other kids with Connor's talent.
"People know his name," he said.
He said that it's not only evident that Connor has a knack for training, but that he also works very hard and is open to taking advice from competitors more experienced than him. He's also a good role model for other kids to get involved in "activities that aren't video games," Reinke added.
Connor said he plans to continue competing alongside Peyton, and would encourage other kids to get involved if the activity interests them.
"If you like dogs and hunting and that kind of stuff, it'd be fun for you," he said. "A lot of people don't know about it."
Connor thinks a future career as a vet will be hard, but Connie said she thinks he'd be good at it.
"He seems to have a natural relationship with animals," she said. "They just happen."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520