Oklahoma Sisters Train Top Dogs

Odd Jobs, People
on September 2, 2001

Lacey and Kelli Herbel’s passion for dogs mystifies their friends, but the hours the sisters devote to training their canine companions have earned them recognition as two of the nation’s top youth dog handlers.

“They don’t understand why I do this,” Kelli says of her friends. “They all want to know why I spend so much time with the dogs.”

Maybe that’s because the sisters sometimes miss fun activities—such as the homecoming dance—to show their dogs. But the sacrifices are teaching the sisters responsibility, says Brian Skidgel. Skidgel is the girls’ FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) adviser.

“They may miss dances or other school activities, but I think they’re getting more from the shows,’’ Skidgel says.

The girls were born into the dog business. “We’ve been around dogs all our lives. It’s all we’ve ever known,” Kelli says. That lifetime connection has helped the sisters from Putnam, Okla., (pop. 46) become such expert dog handlers. Kelli, a 15-year-old high school freshman, trains dogs for the show ring. Lacey, 17-year-old high school junior who once trained for the ring, now trains Border collies to herd livestock.

Both have competed in the prestigious Westminster Dog Show in New York.

“We probably spend more time with our dogs than we do with our friends,” Lacey says. “But it has to be that way if we’re going to get anywhere.” Lacey earned a state FFA proficiency award for her dog project. She also became an FFA national top four finalist in specialty animal production.

The awards are a testament to the long hours. Lacey spends at least four hours a day—seven to 10 on the weekends—feeding and conditioning dogs that will help farmers and ranchers round up errant livestock someday.

“The biggest challenge in training the dogs is learning to be consistent,” Lacey says. “You can’t let the dogs get away with anything. If you’re going to tell them to do something, you have to make them do it, otherwise they’ll quit listening to you.”

Lacey admits it can be frustrating. “It gets to be a little nerve-racking on the days when they bark all the time and won’t listen to a word you say,” Lacey says. “But every problem presents a challenge that you just have to overcome somehow.”

Kelli, who has traveled to 40 states and Canada for various shows, has encountered challenges just teaching the dogs basic obedience. She knows judges pay close attention to the dog’s temperament, gait, coat, and more.

“A lot of work goes into just one dog,” Kelli says. “But it seems to pay off every time I step in the ring.” Kelli earned numerous show awards in 2000. In 1999, she was named the Top Lhasa Apso Junior Handler in the nation, and she won the Junior Achievement Challenge in 1998.

The girls are keeping up a family tradition. Their father, Kent Herbel, is a Border collie breeder and professional stockdog trainer whose clientele includes Fortune 500 CEOs. Both daughters help train his high-profile dogs.

Their grandparents have been in the dog business since the 1950s. “Lacey and Kelli are third-generation dog handlers,” says Lori Herbel, their mother. “We pretty much expected them to do something with dogs. But we never pressured them.”

It was natural that they join the fun.

“It seems like I spend every waking moment with the dogs. I do get a little exhausted, but whenever I go to a show, it suddenly makes all my efforts worth it,” Kelli says.

Lacey knows the feeling.

“You really feel like you’ve accomplished something when you’ve trained a dog successfully.”

So maybe it’s worth missing a homecoming dance or two.

Found in: Odd Jobs, People