For as long as Amy Bray can remember there's always been a dog in her life.
Growing up in a household that bred pedigree pooches, and with parents so passionate about showing dogs that Amy and her siblings slept beside competition rings, meant the young champion handler had very little choice in the matter.
"But I'm not mad about that," laughs the teenager. "I've always loved it and I'll probably never stop showing my dogs."
Given she's had such a headstart, it's hardly surprising the 18-year-old is heading to Crufts in England for the second time in three years to represent Aotearoa at the prestigious dog show.
For the Matamata kennel hand it's another chance to edge closer to being the best junior dog handler in the world.
On her first appearance she placed outside the top 10.
This time she's determined to improve her standing, spending every spare moment getting ready for the biggest canine competition on the planet.
"It's a lot different this time because when I first went I was only 15; now I'm more mature and know what's ahead of me. So I'm going to be more prepared this time," she explains.
"I'm not as nervous as I was two years ago but, obviously, when you're competing on a world stage like that it's still very nerve-wracking. There's a lot of preparation I have to do to make sure my handling is clean and crisp, and I have to have the perfect suit and perfect hair."
The talented teen says she can't imagine what life would be like without her beloved dogs − including her hand-raised mini dachshund Tanner and award-winning giant schnauzer Dixie.
Despite only teaming up with Dixie two years ago, the pair have formed a formidable bond both in and outside the ring.
"I'd go close to saying that she is one of the most special dogs ve ever had to show. We have a good rapport together. You watch us out in the ring and it's pitch perfect. We work together as a team," beams Amy.
As well as winning a national junior dog handling champion award, the pair bagged the coveted Best in Show prize together, putting the schnauzer ahead of around 400 dogs of all breeds at a Hawke's Bay show.
That triumphant moment remains a memorable highlight.
"It was my first Best in Show and Dixie's as well. I just couldn't believe it. I stopped and was like, 'Oh my God, is it her? Did she just get chosen for Best in Show?'" she says, flinging her arms around the pooch's neck and burying her face into the animal's soft coat.
"You don't really have any words. That would be my greatest win in the dog world, apart from winning junior handler twice."
But even with her years of experience, showing her first dog − a Jack Russell terrier named Morgan at age five − Amy admits to still getting pre-show jitters.
The pair have a special ritual before they get called to the competition ring and so far it's worked a treat.
"Once I've finished grooming her, and I've got five minutes before the ring, I have her sitting on the table and she rests her head on my shoulder. We just relax and that's the way we both calm our nerves."
Amy says while Dixie is the picture of obedience in the ring, faultlessly following voice and finger commands, once the judging is over she acts just like a typical dog.
"She knows when it's not show time. Dixie has a mind of her own!" she laughs.
But the time spent grooming − up to 10 hours of hand stripping, where her coat is pulled out by fingers − and her hard work in the ring is always rewarded with one of the pooch's favourite pastimes, swimming.
"She goes to the beach or the lake as a reward, not so much for winning but just being out there and being well-behaved," tells Amy.
For dog enthusiast parents Lynley and Donald Bray the fact that their daughter is excelling is a great source of pride.
"She's got such a natural rapport with dogs," remarks Lynley.
"It's taken a lot of dedication and perseverance to get to this level."
After years spent in the ring competing while raising a family − "the kids have always gone to shows with me. When our eldest son Trent was two weeks old we went to our first national dog show in Wellington" − the proud mother says Amy has also put in the hard yards outside the ring to be the best junior handler in the country.
Knowing the sacrifices her parents have made, such as ferrying her to events and encouraging her every step of the way, is something that's not lost on the talented teen.
"My mum and dad are my biggest supporters," tells Amy.
"They help me get to shows and they have done since I was little. They're the reason I'm still in dog shows."
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