Jolene freezes as still as statue. Not a single hair is out of place, nor muscle twitching, across her compact copper body. O’Malley McGee holds Jolene’s lead, standing as tall as a 14-year-old can in a big-buttoned business suit, more fit for a news anchor than adolescent dog handler. Yet O’Malley pushes her shoulders back and whispers to her partner, “We’ve got this.” She’s staring down the judge, waiting for the subtle hand signal. Waiting. Waiting. There’s the swaying index finger: 1, 2, 3, 4. Jolene is named Best of Breed, the top vizsla at the show.
“Jolene is a rock star,” explains O’Malley, the canine’s co-owner and handler. “She’s awesome. We know what we want. We feel each other. We’re such a team.” A unique duo blending human performance with canine breeding, racking up American Kennel Club awards for both the dog and young lady. O’Malley closed out 2017 ranked the ninth Junior Handler in America, after 12 Reserve and 10 Best Junior Handler wins. The AKC reports that the Greenville County teen defeated 500 peers to break into the top ten.
The composed competitor has already set tails wagging in 2018, qualifying and competing at the prestigious Westminster Dog Show. In February, she left Madison Square Garden clutching an Award of Merit, after Jolene edged out dozens within her breed. O’Malley’s mom, Meredith, was not surprised. “O’Malley kind of goes all out,” she explains. “I’m a school teacher, and I can honestly say O’Malley’s work ethic is above the norm. She works with her dogs every day. She’s got a bond with them.”
O’Malley was eight when she wanted to mimic her mom, who was showing soft-coated wheaten terriers. Juniors have to groom their own dogs, and terriers have more hair than Purina has kibble. So, O’Malley entered early shows guiding a hairless, Chinese crested named Stiletto. “When I first started, fourth place out four? I was happy,” recalls O’Malley. “But now, I’m more the competitor. When I walk in that ring, I want it. I get right where the judge is and look them in the eyes and I think, ‘You want to give this to me.’ Everybody says I have this look. I’m smiling, but when I stack my dog, I have a look and it’s like, ‘Give it to me!’”
“The look” is one useful skill of many she picked up sampling other hobbies. She gained discipline practicing the violin, composure appearing in pageants, and a rapport with animals showing ponies. Yet Meredith traces her only child’s most valuable dog-showing strength to years of competitive dance. “She doesn’t fidget, and she’s really smooth in front of the judges,” Meredith shares. “She’s good with sporting dogs. You’ve got to run with them, have smooth motions, and smooth transitions. She glides with her dogs.”
Long-time AKC judge and Greenville Kennel Club member Linda Ayers Turner Knorr has watched O’Malley. “She’s fantastic,” she admits. “Her professionalism is top-notch. She shines, and you can see her great love for the dogs. She displays such confidence when performing in front of thousands, sometimes even on TV.”
What’s equally impressive is how the freshman balances her sport, with ordinary activities at Riverside High, where she maintains an A average, and plays lacrosse. “I actually have to get up at 5:30 every morning, sometimes earlier, and let my dogs out and feed them,” the busy student explains. “If my friends are going out, or doing stuff, I have to go home and work with my dogs. It’s hard sometimes. I have late nights. And boys? The only boy in my life is Newton, one of my pointers.”
Weekends typically find the McGees on the road contending for top spots, to get O’Malley to the AKC National Championship Show, which she’s entered the past two years, as well as Westminster. This month, she’ll run rings in Alabama and North and South Carolina with Jolene and a pointer named Julia.
“I love going to shows,” O’Malley explains. “You get to travel, and I’m spending time with my dogs. I have friends who are very supportive of me and ask how I did, even though they don’t know what the heck it is.” She understands their confusion, as the sport features dozens of tests, trials, and events.
More than three million registered canines enter AKC dog shows each year. The public is somewhat familiar with the primary “conformation” event, where dogs are judged on how well they meet breed standards, culminating with the “Best in Show” award. AKC shows also host the Junior Handler competition, where students are judged on how well they handle their dogs. O’Malley competes in both. She reigns in Juniors, and then goes up against adults and professionals in breed events, where her dogs fetch awards, as well.
O’Malley hopes to win as much scholarship money as possible before aging out at 18, while establishing herself for long-term involvement. She’s already expanding her opportunities by participating as an owner, breeder, and handler. She currently owns nine dogs and runs a breeding program with her mom at Irish Starr Kennels, which involves learning to interpret DNA, bloodlines, and medical records. She has dreams of college, but always sees herself teaming with canines for victory, saying, “When I’m in the ring with a dog, I’m in my happy place.” Which puts Knorr and the Greenville Kennel Club in a happy place, knowing the next generation is heeling, ready to usher the sport and purebred dogs into the future.
For a taste of competition, visit the Carolina Foothills Dog Show Cluster, July 26–29, at the TD Convention Center. Information on the show, the sport, and breeds can be found via the Greenville Kennel Club, greenvillekc.org.