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Lori Edmo
Special to Indian Country Today

FORT HALL, Idaho — Nadia fit into her owner’s hands. Blue wouldn’t budge because of his new harness. Jax could fetch, sit and lay down.

But it was Paco — a 15-year-old Pomeranian rescue dog who got a rough start as a rez dog — who claimed the title of Rez Dog of the Year Friday, July 23, on the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho.

The win caught Paco's owner, Mitten LeClaire, off guard.

“We didn’t think we’d win that,” she laughed. “It’s pretty good.”

The annual Rez Dog competition is a time for proud owners to show off their rez dogs and a fun time for people in the community, said Bob Johnson, maintenance supervisor for Fort Hall Recreation who served as emcee for the event.

“It’s been a real good thing for the community to bring their dogs out here and see what they can do,” he said.

Three contestants vying for Rez Dog of the Year on Friday, July 23, 2021, on the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes' lands at Fort Hall, Idaho, included Blue, far right, an Australian Shepherd shown here with his owner Gator Boyd. Blue disliked his new harness so much he refused to stand and had to be carried around. (Photo by Lori Edmo for Indian Country Today)

Recreation director Mike “Sak” Sakelaris said the contest started at least 15 years ago as a special event for the summer recreation program. Originally, kids would go out in the community and get some rez dogs for the contest.

“It wasn’t as big as it is today,” Sakelaris said. “We didn’t have all the categories at the time.”

In previous years, some contestants would be led with twine, and many weren’t used to a leash. Some barked at each other or were aggressive, but the kids would hang on. A couple of times potbellied pigs were entered, and another year someone brought a goat.

In recent years, adults have been able to join the summer recreation youths in entering the contest.

‘Always rez dogs’

Tadraschell “Sister” Murray said the competition has become an annual event that people look forward to.

“There’s always rez dogs, because kids walk from home to summer recreation — not everyone has a ride,” Murray said. “From what I was told, the guys (recreation staff) decided we should have a Rez Dog contest because of all these rez dogs.”

Her friends outside the area, however, were skeptical.

“They’re like, ‘Wait, you guys have a Rez Dog contest?’” Murray said. “Rez dogs, yeah, no joke.”

Wynter Begay clasps her Chihuahua puppy, Nadia, in one hand and holds the pup's parents and older sibling on the other arm at the Rez Dog competition Friday, July 23, 2021, at the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes' lands at Fort Hall, Idaho. Nadia won the Smallest Rez Dog contest. (Photo by Lori Edmo for Indian Country Today)

One year, some kids found a rez dog on the way to the gym and put a rope on it, and the dog won the contest. Then the owner came looking for it, so they gave the owner the prizes.

“The owner said, ‘My dog made it to the Rez Dog contest without me, because the kids around here just run the area,” Murray said.

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The winner in the Cutest Rez Dog category was Gator Boyd’s Australian Shepherd named “Blue.” Blue didn't like his new harness and refused to cooperate, so he had to be carried around. (Photo by Lori Edmo for Indian Country Today)

Smart, tiny or ugly?

Contestants showed up in force this year after the Rez Dog competition took a break in 2020 because of COVID-19. Summer recreation staff served as judges, dressed in Hawaiian attire — the theme for the day.

Murray said she was excited to see so many dogs entered in the various categories.

“It’s one of my favorite things, really,” she said.

For Smartest Rez Dog, which measures which dog can do the most tricks, Alexis Mendez’s dog, Jax, won first place as he could fetch, sit and lay down.

The winner in the Cutest Rez Dog category was Gator Boyd’s Australian Shepherd named “Blue.” Boyd got a new harness for the dog prior to the contest, but the dog wasn’t used to it; Blue would just lay down, forcing Boyd to carry him.

Blue was too “Rez” to cooperate, Boyd’s mom, Lizzie, said.

His light blue eyes may have been the ticket to his win.

The winner in the Smallest Rez Dog category was a tiny Chihuahua pup named Nadia, who fit in the palm of owner Wynter Begay’s hand. Begay also held the pup’s mom and dad, along with a sibling, in her arms throughout much of the contest.

By comparison, Leelayla Tyler’s dog, Dozer, was named the Biggest Rez Dog.

And John Rainey’s Belle, a mix with a curly tail, won the Ugliest Rez Dog category, edging past the competition.

John Rainey’s dog Belle, shown in the rear of the photo, edged out the competition to win the Ugliest Rez Dog category on Friday, July 23, 2021, at the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes' lands in Fort Hall, Idaho. (Photo by Lori Edmo for Indian Country Today)

Murray said the category is not intended to be mean, but there’s just some ugly dogs out there and she has one.

“I love her,” she said.

After each category, the judges would huddle to determine the three places in each. Prizes included collars, feed bowls, toys and dog food. The grand prize to the Top Rez Dog, or Rez Dog of the Year, is determined through audience applause.

Paco took the win.

LeClaire said Paco was rescued as a pup after being thrown from a truck along Hiline Road.

“He’s been ours ever since,” she said.

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Lori Edmo, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of the ShoBan News and a past president of the Native American Journalists Association. She can be reached at

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