WEEKI WACHEE — Calvin jumped out of the family van, a happy face and tail wagging, as if to say, "Ah, home at last."
He'd only been to Spring Hill that recent afternoon.
Today, the golden retriever and his co-owner, 13-year-old Kristen O'Brien, embark on a much longer journey, to New York City to compete in the prestigious 135th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Monday and Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
The local duo will be among 128 entrants, ages 9 to 18, who will be judged on their skills in junior showmanship — displaying their dogs to the animals' best advantage, exhibiting precise behavior and appropriate response to their handlers' commands.
For her age, Kristen is an old hand at this. To qualify for Westminster, she and Calvin had to earn first place in 10 American Kennel Club-sanctioned dog shows with an established number of competitors during the past year.
Members of the O'Brien family — mother, Dawn; father, Mike; Kristen's twin sister, Kasey, and the girls' grandmother, Jackie Bressler, of Weeki Wachee — have traveled the dog show circuit throughout Florida and the South.
At a well-regarded competition in Ocala, Kristen branched out from junior showmanship and competed in conformation judging with Calvin among adult handlers.
"It's cutthroat," Dawn O'Brien said of the competition in the popular golden retriever breed.
The judge singled out Kristen, saying, "She was the best of all the handlers."
That would seem to put the young teen in good stead at Westminster, where the top eight junior finalist will be awarded post-high school scholarships from $500 to $6,000.
Dawn O'Brien sees a future for her daughters in dog breeding and showing.
Last year, Kasey qualified and won an air ticket to California to compete with her bull mastiff, 4-year-old Scarlett, at the notable Eukanuba show. The twins both qualified for Eukanuba invitations this year, with five certified wins each and academic excellence. That competition will be staged in Orlando. But the girls opted instead to accept Kristen's invitation to Westminster.
Said Kristen: "We haven't been to Westminster or New York, so that's why we chose Westminster."
Calvin, now age 9, was a gift to Kristen last year from grandmother Bressler, a dog breeder, who expressed concern that her granddaughter didn't have a good dog to show. Kristen campaigned last year with a Staffordshire terrier, Versache, a winning dog. But, "Versache didn't like showing so much," Kristen said.
Bressler purchased half interest in Calvin from owners Morgan and Kasey Brooks of Spring Hill. The Brookses had shown Calvin to recognition as an AKC champion by age 7, then retired him. But Bressler proposed returning him to the ring under the showmanship tutelage of Kristen.
The effort has brought accolades to all.
To accommodate all the travels, Dawn O'Brien began homeschooling her daughters a year and a half ago.
"It's absolutely wonderful," Mrs. O'Brien said, noting online studies to which the girls are committed four hours a day. "I'm pretty strict. Schoolwork and chores need to be done."
The seventh-graders formerly attended Pine Grove Elementary School, west of Brooksville.
Of being homeschooled, with her sister at her side, Kristen said: "We love it."
An education is in store for the girls' adventure to New York City. In addition to attending the Westminster show, they intend to visit the Statue of Liberty and the site of the World Trade Center towers.
Though finalist conformation judging will be televised nationally Monday and Tuesday evenings on USA Network and CNBC, the juniors will not get any air time.
However, should an owner ask Kristen to handle a dog in the finalist conformation, she says she'll be ready.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.