When Kayla Hartlage was a child, she would spend time with a pencil in her hand, drawing different breeds of dogs using photos from a dog encyclopedia as her point of reference.
Often, she found herself glued to the television when dog shows were on and would cheer at videos of dog agility teams, hoping that one day she could train dogs of her own and compete.
By the time she was in fourth grade, Hartlage, a Elizabethtown resident, was teaching her family’s Pomeranian, Cocoa, tricks she would read about in the library. The following summer, she participated in her first dog show at the Meade County Fair.
Earlier this month, Hartlage’s Australian Shepherd, Rhyme, was named Best in Show Bred by Exhibitor at the Bluegrass Classic Cluster Dog Show in Lexington, a moment of affirmation after years of hard work.
“Rhyme is the very first puppy I have kept from a litter and to raise her from day one, it’s really special to see all that we are achieving together,” Hartlage said. “I still think about holding her in my hands as a tiny puppy. I totally teared up when the judge pointed at us for the win.”
Hartlage has been training her own dogs for six years, all of which are Australian Shepherds. She said her interest was ignited upon taking obedience classes at Bella’s K9 Academy in Elizabethtown. She also started taking agility classes with Agility Cues for You in Brooks, Kentucky three years ago.
“What I enjoy most about training my dogs is the relationship that I get to build with each of them,” she said. “My dogs are all very bonded to me and I attribute that to all the hours we have spent working and playing together.”
So far, Hartlage has raised five litters of Australian Shepherds. Three years ago, she founded a regional affiliate club for the Australian Shepherd Club of America. She serves as president of the club, which hosts events in communities such as Elizabethtown, Horse Cave and Brooks.
Hartlage said she enjoys working with Australian Shepherds because of their versatility
“I wanted a dog that would enjoy a lot of activity, from hiking to agility training but I also wanted a dog that I could cuddle with on the couch,” she said.
Hartlage also is a member of the Mid-Kentucky Kennel Club, an American Kennel Club all-breed member club that hosts a large variety of dog competitions throughout the region. She has served as secretary of the club for the past three years and also serves as the trophy chair.
Through her role as trophy chair for the club, Hartlage said she is responsible for selecting, designing and ordering awards for the club’s show at the annual Kentuckiana Cluster of Dog Shows in Louisville. She also volunteers for scent work and tracking trial events hosted by the club.
“Volunteering with tracking is a lot of fun for me because I get really invested watching a dog compete,” she said. “It’s emotional when they succeed.”
In the past year alone, Hartlage said she has competed in over 11 weekends of dog agility events and she plans on taking part in a few more agility trials in the coming months. She also has participated in conformation shows over the years and recently took part in her first herding event.
Aside from her recent win at the Bluegrass Classic, Hartlage said one of the highlights of dog training thus far was when her dog, Derby, took first place in Novice Obedience and finished her Companion Dog title at the 2019 United States Australian Shepherd Association National Specialty Show in Missouri.
For Hartlage, preparing for these events means giving up many of her evenings and weekends. She said she typically practices herding or obedience on Mondays, goes through conformation runs with the Mid-Kentucky Kennel Club on Tuesdays, trains for agility on Wednesdays and does training specific to her upcoming competition on Thursdays.
“No matter what kind of event I am preparing for, I always turn to experienced trainers,” she said. “I have dedicated, accomplished people that are successful and experienced in whatever I am learning how to do.”
Hartlage balances her passion for training dogs with her role as a substitute teacher for the Elizabethtown Independent School District. A 2010 graduate of Meade County High School, Hartlage earned a degree in elementary education from Murray State University in 2013.
Originally born in North Carolina, Hartlage spent her early childhood in Louisville before her family moved to Brandenburg in 2001. In 2014, she and her husband, Adam, moved to Elizabethtown.
Looking toward the future, Hartlage said some of her goals include entering Rhyme in the Most Versatile Aussie competition at the Australian Shepherd Club of America National Specialty and one day competing at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.
Hartlage said so far, the hard work she has put in has certainly been worth it.
“To be successful at a higher level of competition, I have to put in a lot of hours with the dogs but I truly love and enjoy every minute,” she said. “Each new title that I earn with my dogs is another goal accomplished and each title means that our practice has paid off and we are doing a good job working together as a team. I get super excited when my friends win, too, because training together makes you really close.”