Becoming A Professional Dog Handler

Have you ever thought about becoming a professional dog handler? This article will tell you everything you need to know about handling dogs.

Adam Bernardin handles Irish Setter Grand Champion Shadagee Caught Red Handed at the Westminster Dog Show. Debby Wong/

A successful show dog is not just born — he’s made. Many elements go into the creation of a champion dog, including the relationship between dog and handler. Showing dogs means much more than just running them around the ring in front of the judge. It is a difficult job, requiring dedication to the dogs and to the effort required to show them. Handling is a career that develops on the job.

A handler’s life is physically taxing. Dog handlers are frequently on the road, traveling to shows, as many as 100 to 200 annually. Handlers load and unload dogs and gear for transport, usually in a van, SUV, or recreational vehicle; lift dogs onto and off grooming tables; shampoo, blow dry, clip, and trim their canine charges; and run, jog, or swim with their dogs to keep the dogs in top physical condition. Dog handlers may attend shows as many as five days a week, including every weekend, during the busy show season.

When handlers are home, they are still busy caring for the dogs or researching judges who will be at upcoming shows and deciding which dogs to enter in which classes in future shows. An experienced handler sometimes becomes a dog breeder as well, or works in partnership with a dog breeder, and is able to look at a litter of young puppies and know which ones have the “it” factor: that special something that will take them to the top in the conformation world.

Not all dog handlers work in the conformation ring. Some are professional field trialers who train and handle retrievers and other sporting dogs for competition in high-stakes and highly competitive field trials. A field trial is a practical demonstration of a dog’s ability to do the work for which he was bred, whether that is finding, flushing, pointing, or retrieving game. There are different types of field trials for pointing dog breeds, retrievers, spaniels, Beagles, Basset Hounds, and Dachshunds. Successful professionals may handle as many as twenty to thirty dogs and are paid based on how successful they are, which can add up to a healthy income for someone who is skilled at training and coaching dogs to bring out their best.

To be successful, handler and dog must have confidence in, trust in, and respect toward each other. Great dog handlers love dogs, are honest with their clients, and set realistic goals for the dogs they are showing. To present dogs at their best, handlers must have superb artistic and presentation skills. Not every dog is a natural showman. It takes a skilled handler to work some dog breeds. Ways that a handler gets the best out of a dog include establishing a rapport with the dog, using a toy or food as bait, working on proper leash control, and always setting the lead the same way before going in the ring so the dog knows what to expect. But showing a dog is like raising a child: each dog is an individual and requires specific techniques and motivation. Not every trick will work with every dog, so it’s essential for a handler to be flexible and observant.

A professional dog handler who belongs to the Professional Handlers Association (PHA) is expected to follow a code of ethics that spells out appropriate behavior. Beyond the courteous and professional demeanor that defines good sportsmanship, professional dog handlers should not steal clients, maliciously criticize other handlers or their dogs, or berate or belittle judges. Handlers are expected to properly care for the dogs entrusted to them and to promptly notify clients of dog show results and provide them with any ribbons, trophies, or prizes if contracts call for awards to go to the owners. Last, but definitely not least, a dog handler needs a good head for business—or the sense to hire someone who has one. Part of being a handler involves sending out itemized and timely billing statements for fees owed.

Setting up as a professional dog handler can be expensive. A handler needs a home with a kennel to board the dogs in his or her care as well as a great deal of equipment and appropriate transportation. A dog handler also needs a good contract, which provides clients with a written agreement that spells out the responsibilities and expectations for both client and handler as well as a fee schedule.

Must-have equipment includes crates, crate pads, crate fans, cooling mats, grooming tables, professional blow dryers, scissors, combs, brushes, shampoos, conditioners, spray bottles, show leads and collars, a tack box or bag in which to pack such items, bait, a cooler for food, a first aid kit, towels for cleanup, and dollies on which to haul everything. There are expenses as well for upkeep—having scissors sharpened, for instance—and replacement as items wear out or are used up.

A professional dog handler also needs reliable transportation for canine clientele. This is usually a large van, such as a Freightliner Sprinter, or a fully equipped recreational vehicle. The vehicle must be able to hold crates, exercise pens, grooming equipment, and food and water. With a motor home, the handler has lodging on wheels and can keep the dogs under a watchful eye while avoiding hotel expenses.

Only about 250 people make a living as full-time handlers in the United States. Others may begin handling dogs part-time as a hobby or for extra income and may move into full-time handling if they build up large enough client bases or retire from other jobs. When they’re not showing dogs, handlers can often be found judging matches and sweepstakes, organizing grooming and parking at dog shows, taking their dogs to nursing homes or children’s hospitals for pet-visitation therapy, or speaking to dog owners about care or animal welfare.

Excerpt from “Careers With Dogs” with permission from its publisher, Lumina Media.

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