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Special Section Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 6, 2009

A first at the fair — the Testos bring Dog Magic to the masses

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — Chris and Eileen Testo met in dog obedience class.

“I had a Doberman. He had a Lab,” recalls Mrs. Testo. “It was pretty much we got our leashes wrapped. We’ve been together ever since.”

That was 25 years ago.

The Testos are still wrapped up in each other and in dogs.

The couple has volunteered to bring Dog Magic to the Altamont Fair this year — a first.

Every day at the fair, from Tuesday through Sunday, the Dog Magic tent will have a series of canine events, all open to the public free of charge. Although lovers of all kinds of dogs are encouraged to come and watch, Mr. Testo stresses that fair-goers cannot bring their own dogs to the fair.

The Testos have spent hundreds of hours organizing the upcoming events. “Ultimately, we love the fair,” said Mrs. Testo, “and we want it to succeed, to get bigger and better every year.”

Both of the Testos grew up in the city but longed for the country. Mr. Testo was raised in Troy and Mrs. Testo in Rensselaer.

“I’ve been going to the Altamont Fair since I was a little girl,” said Mrs. Testo. She would go every year with her father and enjoyed watching the farm animals, especially the horses.

“I always wanted to live in the country,” she said. The Testos made their dream come true.

“Everything we have, we built ourselves,” Mrs. Testo said of their Westerlo farm.

The Testos own Weston Kennels, named for their only child.

They raise sheep as well as boarding dogs. “My son got goats and showed goats and chickens in 4-H at the fair,” said Mrs. Testo. “As a family, we showed sheep. Several years, we won best flock of the fair. We have lots of ribbons.”

Their son, Weston, is currently a student at Colgate University, studying biology.

 The Testos now own five dogs. Curtis, a Jack Russell terrier, is “a total companion,” said Mrs. Testo. He is almost three years old.

Their newest dog is a Belgian Malinois, named Medz MaMa, the Armenian word for Grandmama. “My husband is Armenian,” said Mrs. Testo, explaining the name. Mr. Testo is using the Schutzhund method to train the seven-month-old dog for police type work.

The Testos’ oldest dog is a yellow Labrador retriever named Lovebug. She is in good shape for a 14-year-old, said Mrs. Testo. “She’s still kickin’, and wagging; she’s a happy old gal.”

Lovebug was raised by their son, Weston, who is now 19 and got the dog when he was in 4-H as a child.

Jack and Gus are the Testos’ border collies. “They are more like people than you can imagine,” said Mrs. Testo. “They are smart and love to have a job to do.”

Jack and Gus have full-fledged careers, caring for the Testos’ sheep. They have 30 or 40 border Cheviots, sheep that originated between England and Scotland. “We use them for wool and meat,” said Mrs. Testo.

The Testos have a couple of other breeds of sheep as well, including registered Shetland, the smallest breed in the world.

More than pets

Putting together the Dog Magic program has been a lot of work, said Mrs. Testo. “but it will be worth it,” she said. “Dogs bring magic to everybody’s lives. Most people have dogs as pets. We wanted to show what other things dogs can do.”

“We know a lot of people in the dog world,” said Mr. Testo. The couple tapped many of those people for the Dog Magic events at the fair.

Rick Rokjer will give demonstrations with his retriever on Tuesday and Wednesday — at 11 in the morning and again at 3 in the afternoon. He’ll repeat the demonstration at 5 on Sunday evening.

“He’s an old friend who just completed his master hunter title,” said Mr. Testo of the American Kennel Club program. “It’s a very difficult title to complete.”

Rokjer will work with his black Labrador retriever to demonstrate the skills needed to earn the title.

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, at 2 in the afternoon and again at 6 in the evening, Warren Mick will give demonstrations in sheep herding.

“He’s an Altamont native and one of the top border collie handlers in the country,” said Mr. Testo. “He’s just excellent.”

He’ll work with one or two dogs, probably herding ducks rather than sheep because of the limited space in the Dog Magic tent.

On Sunday at 11 a.m., Gary Kleppel, a University at Albany professor who raises sheep in Knox, will give a sheep dog demonstration.

“A nice group of people are coming to demonstrate rally-o,” said Mr. Testo. Jeff Bull and Barbara Hollis will coordinate the rally-o event on Thursday at 3 and 7 p.m.

The “o” in rally-o stands for obedience. “It’s obedience training with signs to direct the dog’s exercises,” explained Mr. Testo. “It’s the latest, combining dog agility with a timed event.”

“Exciting and fun-filled”

Some paid acts will also be featured at the Dog Magic tent. Loyall Dog Food, a major sponsor of Dog Magic, is providing the 180-foot tent, located in the infield. “It’s a brand-new food,” said Mrs. Testo. “We use it and are very pleased with it.” Loyall will give away free samples of its dog food at the fair.

Caryn Tindal’s Dazzle Dogs  — seven of them: Breeze, Caii, Charm, Checkers, Jingle, Windy, and Winston — will perform on Wednesday and Saturday, at 1 in the afternoon and again at 5 in the evening.

Tindal also owns and trains Arabian horses. Her Dazzle Dogs have been described as canine freestyle dancers.

Kountry K-9, a Florida-based dog show, will perform every day at noon, from 4 to 5 p.m., and from 8 to 9 p.m.

Brothers Jim and Pete Arnberg describe their show as “action-packed” as dogs jump over picket fences, go down a slide forward and backward, and walk on their front feet.

The Pawstars, owned by Kara and Erich Steffensen, will perform feats of derring-do with flying discs on Friday at 5 and 7 p.m.; on Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m.; and on Sunday, again at 2 and 7 p.m.

“The Frisbee dogs are a big favorite with the crowds,” said Mr. Testo. He called their performance, to music, “exciting and fun-filled.”

Solving the mysteries of scents, confirmation, and sweaters

Each day of the fair, different rescue groups will be featured. “We offered rescue groups a spot for free so they can present what their organization has to offer,” said Mr. Testo.

One of the groups is the Northeast Border Collie Rescue. Another is Grrowls — NY, which stands or Golden Retriever Rescue Operated with Love Statewide — New York. The group’s slogan is, “We find people for dogs, not dogs or people.”

Michelle Dunn-White of the Schenectady Dog Training Club will be on hand Thursday, giving demonstrations at 1 and 5 p.m. And, on Friday and Sunday, the Albany Kennel Club’s president, Jeannette O’Hanlon, will be at the Dog Magic tent.

The Albany club will demonstrate scent discrimination, Mrs. Testo said. O’Hanlon will set down an article with her scent on it and the dog will be able to pick it out from an array of articles and bring back the right one, Mrs. Testo said.

Also, she said, “A judge will do a mock show, demonstrating confirmation and describing why she chose one dog for first place and another for second place. We all watch the Westminster show and never understand why they pick the winner they do,” said Mrs. Testo. This will clear up the mystery.

Visitors to the Dog Magic tent will also learn what it takes to be a Canine Good Citizen. The American Kennel Club has set up a series of lessons and tests for dogs that, once passed, allow them to be companions and visit such places as hospitals and nursing homes to cheer the residents there.

“We’re so thankful they’ll donate so much time,” said Mrs. Testo of the Albany Kennel Club.

The local knitting and yarn shop, Altamont’s Spinning Room, will also be on hand at the Dog Magic tent.

“They’re coming with a group of gals to knit dog sweaters,” said Mrs. Testo, “so people can look at the patterns and learn how.”

Unconditional love

The Testos hope that Dog Magic will become an annual attraction at the Altamont Fair. “We want to build and grow,” said Mrs. Testo.

She went on, “There’s nothing better than a dog as a pet. When the world gets you down, dogs are there for you.”

“Dogs touch our lives in many different ways,” her husband agreed.

“Dogs never judge you,” Mrs. Testo went on. “They just love you unconditionally.”

Part of the point of Dog Magic, she said, is to show people the fun of sport and training dogs. “It’s not just having a Labrador at home on your couch. A Labrador can learn how to retrieve....Or, when you walk with your dog, he doesn’t have to pull you down the street. A dog can be trained to heel,” she said, and both the dog and the owner enjoy the exercise.

Mr. Testo has worked with their Labradors over the years to pass the American Kennel Club hunt test, simulating a dog hunting birds in the field. And he’s now working with their Belgian Malinois on police-dog training.

Mrs. Testo has worked with their dogs on obedience training— heeling, siting, staying. “You can take different tests and get titles,” she said. “You see how well-behaved they become.”

Such dog training is not only good for the animals, but for the people, too, the Testos say. “You meet a whole new group of wonderful people,” Mrs. Testo said. “They become life-long friends. You call them and they come through for you. So many of these people will give of themselves,” she said, illustrating her point with all the hours dog lovers have volunteered for the Dog Magic events at the fair. “It’s amazing.”

She concluded, “You never know what might happen. You could go to obedience class and end up meeting your husband.”

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