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Student leaves 'doggone' friend to join the Tribe

  • A winning team
    A winning team
    Freshman Rachel Azafrani and her dog Gingersnap have won more than 60 ribbons in competition.
    Courtesy Rachel Azafrani

Five days have passed since freshman Rachel Azafrani stood in her bedroom packing clothes and personal articles with her best friend by her side.

Her comrade, affectionately known as “Gingersnap,” didn’t make a peep. She calmly sat on the edge of Azafrani’s bed watching intensely, offering non-verbal support that only a best friend can provide.

Today, Azafrani and her parents are unpacking those clothes and belongings the Southern California native crammed into bags and boxes just a few days ago. Spotswood residence hall on the William & Mary campus is her new East Coast pad.

Azafrani pulls out a photo of Gingersnap. The two have been partners, illustrating how one performs flawless geometric figures inside a show ring, since Azafrani was 12. She’s a registered junior handler with the American Kennel Club (AKC).  Throughout middle and high school, Azafrani and Gingersnap, a cairn terrier – think Dorothy’s beloved Toto from the Wizard of Oz – traveled extensively throughout California and ventured to nearby states of Nevada and Colorado to participate in dog shows.

Gingersnap “has quite a personality inside the ring,” Azafrani said. “I’m devastated she’s not here with me. But at the same time I’m excited and really looking forward to the array of college activities and becoming involved at William & Mary.”

Joining one of William & Mary’s a capella groups is a sure bet. Azafrani sang in choir for seven years and was a member of her high school’s a capella group. She was also selected for the university’s Sharpe Scholars Program. This group of first-year students collectively participates together in academic studies, research and community engagement.

Unlike her conscious decision to come to the East Coast and attend William & Mary, Azafrani unexpectedly fell into the classic sport of dog showing. It all started when Azafrani’s parents took her to purchase a puppy. Unbeknownst to the family, the woman breeder had been showing dogs professionally for about 30 years.

“The woman had an older kid who wasn’t interested in it (dog showing) at all,” recalled Azafrani. “So when she saw a family with a young daughter who was impressionable, she took me under her wing and made me into her protégé.”

The new teacher instructed Azafrani to read about the sport of dog showing and took her to shows where she experienced the thrill of competition. Azafrani would return home and spend countless hours with Gingersnap, practicing figures and perfecting her handling techniques. Unlike many professionals, she never took a class to learn about obedience or agility. Instead, she opted to work directly with Gingersnap on her own to prepare for show ring performances.

“I never thought I would be too serious about it,” said Azafrani. “But once I started getting involved in it I really liked it.

“You and the dog are a team. The dog has to be listening to you. Inside the ring, you can be with lots of other people, you really don’t know how many at a time. You have to keep focused.”

Azafrani was an eighth-grade middle schooler when she decided to join the adult level of competition (there were no restrictions preventing her and Gingersnap from entering shows­). Azafrani said many of her junior AKC peers came from families who had parents or grandparents who had competed professionally. She felt like a misfit, and out of place surrounded by the bloodlines of dog handlers.

“I knew that I loved what I was doing. I practiced and devoted time,” said Azafrani. “I figured why not go the next step?”

Azafrani has stockpiled more than 60 ribbons to show for her dog handling performances. Gingersnap – show name “Ragtime Gingersnap” (it’s customary to tag the breeder’s name in front of the dog’s name) has enough points to participate in a national-level competition, said Azafrani. 

In dog showing, the dog is awarded the points from a show performance, not the handler. Once a dog as a certain amount of points, the animal becomes eligible for future competitions.

Azafrani said dog handling has taught her many valuable skills that are applicable to her next journey as a college student at William & Mary. 

“This experience taught me you don’t have limits,” said Azafrani.  “You only have limits that you, yourself put into your mind.”

Surely Gingersnap, who’s been by her side every step of the way, would agree.