Owner-handling is an incredibly gratifying hobby for many people in our sport. Building a rapport with one’s own dog, polishing that performance and arriving in the winner’s circle is a thrilling journey, proudly repeated with one generation of dogs after another. The beauty of the sport is that it offers pleasure to those who have happily found their niche while allowing others to explore new challenges when they’re ready. So what options are available to successful owner-handlers who decide it might be time to branch out?
Crystal Hannah of Weatherford, Texas, fell in love with Great Danes when she met her husband-to-be who owned ‘Duke,’ a fawn Dane. In time they married — and divorced — but her love for the breed never faltered. When Duke died in the mid-1990s, Hannah bought her very own Dane through a newspaper ad. After that Dane died of bloat at 2, Hannah says, “I went into research mode. I learned my lesson and knew I needed not only to find a breeder that would give me support and who was breeding quality, healthy dogs, but I needed to change the way I cared for and fed the dog,” Hannah recalls. Eventually she found Dane breeders who fed raw and health tested. She was offered a black bitch, and later a puppy from a fawn and brindle litter that she was encouraged to show.
“My first venture into the ring was mildly terrifying,” she says, even with a few handling classes under her belt. After one or two meltdowns in the ring, she was determined to improve her handling skills. She went online and found a handling seminar taught by the legendary George Alston. Seminars from Alston and others built Hannah’s confidence and helped hone her skills. She did some nice winning, her reputation as a good handler made the rounds, and requests from others to enlist her services grew organically.
“In late 2003, a friend asked me to show her daughter’s Boston Terrier, and that was my first client dog. I didn’t make a habit of showing dogs for other people until a year or so later, when I met a friend in Manchester Terriers who was happy to have help with her dogs. Then a Great Dane friend told me at a National Specialty that I was good with the dogs and should consider handling dogs for others. What a high compliment! Shortly thereafter, I became an active part-time professional handler because more people asked me to present their dogs.”
Hannah is thankful for the many people who helped her along the way, and makes a point of paying it forward by teaching new owner-handlers how to get started and how to improve. “I do set expectations with anyone who asks me to present their dog. I am not a full-time handler, and I won’t be out every weekend at a show. My part-time handling gig is a hobby that feels like an essential part of my life, and I’ll do it as long as I can physically make it around the ring,” says Hannah.
Brian Leonard of Hot Springs, Ark., says, “We grew up always having dogs around as pets, but we never showed them. We did, however, show horses, chickens and cattle through local 4-H and FFA programs. I began showing dogs when we decided to buy a Papillon in 2003. We located a breeder in Arkansas who sold us a male on a show contract. With my background showing livestock, I was hooked!”
Leonard’s foray into showing for friends and clients began in 2008. “I helped two ladies show their Tibetan Terriers when their handler didn’t show up in Southaven, Miss.” After that show, the ladies asked if he would be interested in continuing to show for them. “I’d had some success branching out and handling for other people, so I decided to keep trying to build a small client base.”
For Leonard it was an easy step to take. “I show for people who aren’t really interested in specialing a dog on a full-time basis. I like to keep busy, and showing only my own Papillons and Tibetan Terriers did not keep me busy enough. It helps offset expenses for me. I learn about other breeds, and people who aren’t able to show have someone who loves this sport exhibit for them.”
Donning the Judge’s Badge
Although Dianne Tyree of Brookline, N.H., used professional handlers to show her Golden Retrievers, when she downsized to Tibetan Spaniels, she took the Tibbies into the ring herself. “It was my second Tibbie, a poster child for owner-handled dogs, that gave me the confidence to show my own dogs. Since then, for the most part I’ve shown and finished my own dogs and a few for other people as well,” she says.
“You would think showing dogs for others would be a natural progression, but it’s not my cup of tea. I was never comfortable asking for money to show. I always traded services or just asked for gas money. I also felt it was a conflict of interest, as I had my own dogs I was showing, and ethically, a client’s dogs should come before your own,” says Tyree. “In addition, having someone else’s dogs in my care was such a responsibility.”
So what prompted her decision to judge? Tyree was lucky to have had some excellent Golden Retriever mentors, one of whom stressed giving back to the sport. “So even before I had a good dog that liked showing,” says Tyree, “I was stewarding at dog shows and obedience trials, and marshalling at hunt tests. Stewarding is a great way to sharpen your eye for a dog. Since what drew me away from performance events and into the show ring was the aesthetics of the dog, judging seemed like a more logical step. It appealed to my love of learning and my background in design. I’ve always felt a good dog, just like a good design, needs to have balance, proportion and harmony.”
Tyree had been thinking about going for her judging approval for a number of years, but she’d no sooner get her paperwork together than the AKC would make a change in the process. “After being selected by the membership of my parent club to judge sweepstakes at our National this year, I finally went and filled out the application,” she says. “On May 12, I received permit status for Tibetan Spaniels, and on June 16, the AKC changed the requirements once you get past your initial application.”
Alexia Rodriguez of Sebastopol, Calif., may be better known these days for her involvement in Cane Corsos and Löwchen, but she actually started in the sport in 1990, exhibiting Japanese Chin in Junior Showmanship and the regular classes. “I showed and bred the Chin until my 20s, when college life took me in other directions,” she says. “About six years ago, I was able to get involved in showing and training again, and the fire was reignited.”
Rodriguez says that she loves all breeds, not just her own. “Each breed has a history and a purpose. There is beauty in their purpose, and part of that beauty should be exuded in their temperament and conformation. Judging will allow me a different way to enjoy dogs,” Rodriguez continues, “by learning to appreciate their purpose, their history and the beauty of a correct dog bred for a purpose. For me, it’s not about being the most sought-after judge in the country; it’s about being able to give back to each breed, by choosing which dogs exude the type that defines them.”
Rodriguez recalls that as a young girl, when she was competing in Junior Showmanship, she had visions of becoming a professional handler. “However, that career just wasn’t in the cards for me. I give handlers a ton of credit because they have a knack for getting a dog that they’ve just met to perform flawlessly. That is not my forte.” Rodriguez reveals that “the word from a lot of my dog show friends about judging is they couldn’t do it. The list of reasons I hear is a mile long. However, for me, it’s absolutely a natural progression.”
How About a New Breed?
Still other owner-handlers relish the excitement of discovering a new breed … even if they don’t know it at first! Sandra and Bruce Coffman of Silver Lake, Kan., began in Afghan Hounds, then got involved in Chinese Shar-Pei before that breed had gained AKC recognition. “My husband and I were really not interested in getting another breed,” confesses Sandra. “Bruce is really more interested in obedience and agility. I first saw the Pumi during a judges’ seminar and fell for them immediately. After I talked to him about the breed, Bruce started researching Pumik and their herding and performance abilities. We decided it was a breed we’d like to own and show.”
The Pumi is currently in the AKC Miscellaneous Class, waiting eagerly for full acceptance and performing brilliantly in virtually every AKC venue in the meantime. Recalling what it was like to work toward full AKC recognition of the Chinese Shar-Pei a few decades ago, the Coffmans are keen to “take that journey again.”
The Coffmans still have three Afghans and eight Shar-Pei in residence, but the Pumi ‘Lanyka’ “has brought some life to the household. Our other dogs love her, and she tries to rule the roost. We have been showing in Miscellaneous, and she already has her Herding Instinct Certificate. In August she will start Rally trials. We have found our third breed, one we cannot live without!”
How fortunate we all are in the wide world of dogs that so many avenues are open to us, with something new to learn whatever path we choose to travel.