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Dog Handler Image More Important Than You Think

From "In the Public Eye," Dogs in Review, January 2012

From "In the Public Eye," Dogs in Review, January 2012

After devoting several columns to the public’s overall perception of dog shows and dwindling interest in the fancy, I thought it time to focus on high-visibility players in the sport: professional dog handlers.

Do their people skills and public image matter? Absolutely — now more than ever, as animal activists continue their assault on the show culture. The pros are an easy target since they travel with multiple dogs, and the care of those dogs is under constant scrutiny.

What do average dog lovers think of these “superstars” they recognize from televised shows, especially when they encounter them at a local show? Intimidating? Mysterious? Talented? Snobbish? Wealthy? All of the above — and then some. “Necessary to win” was also mentioned.

Given my well-deserved reputation as the world’s worst dog handler (how many exhibitors have you seen fall on their dog at a national specialty?), I’ll start with my own perception. I’ve been in awe of these folks from the very beginning. I study their artful moves and beautiful presentation of dogs at every show I attend. Despite handling classes and lots of practice, I am forever stuck ringside.

Thus I’ve learned to rely on the pros to show my dogs. Some experiences were good, some not so good. My first dog handler was an older, seasoned veteran of the show ring. He treated me with respect, my dog even better and finished her in short order. He retired shortly thereafter.

The problems I encountered with those to follow mostly involved saying one thing and doing another. A ring conflict at Westminster with 20-plus dogs? “No chance,” I was told. “But make sure you pay me the $600 in cash.” Take a wild guess what happened. Even the judge was irritated.

One “jockey” (by today’s lingo) not only left me stranded without a handler for my veteran bitch an hour before ring time, but locked my young show prospect in a crate all night in a building at the same show, when the task was simply to “make the environment fun for him.” So much for snoozing in the motor home and enjoying the three meals I’d prepared (he only got one). The mental trauma ended his show career before it ever started.

Here are some opinions shared by a mix of spectators, part-time exhibitors and news reporters:
“While I am reluctant to publicly criticize any aspect of shows for fear of giving the detractors ammunition, I do believe professional dog handlers have an unfair advantage based on a very human, subconscious preference for familiarity on the part of the judges when they are unsure of themselves.”

“I suspect when ordinary dog owners tune in to a televised show they see dog handlers as possessed with supernatural powers over their charges. The pros make private ‘dog on the street’ owners feel hopelessly inadequate. And they’ve always seemed unapproachable. That impression comes from my attempts to reach highly ranked handlers for interviews and being blown off. I think it would be good public relations to ‘press the flesh’ with regular dog owners and give demonstrations at shows.”

“If I were inclined to get into showing dogs and had the money, I’d definitely try to get a handler on board to show my dog. Whatever misgivings I have about this strange culture that holds itself separate from the rest of us, I’d want the sharpest knife I could find in the drawer.”

“When I attend local shows I find the dog handlers to be more cliquish than at Westminster. Some are great at answering questions, others have their noses in the air. Not sure why. I understand the proper time to try to communicate with a dog handler, i.e., after they’ve done their work. I was researching new breeds before getting my current dog and was disappointed that they didn’t want to talk. They are a valuable resource and an avenue for helping people make smarter dog choices.”

“The two dog handlers I had the easiest time communicating with and who taught me the most were two junior handlers. They were thrilled to be entering the ranks and not the least bit jaded or tired out by the stress of a very competitive business.”

The Pros Weigh In On Handler Image
Bill McFadden
“Taffe and I both go out of our way to interact with spectators and to help and encourage new exhibitors. We feel that as a sport we are a little standoffish in our dealings which can leave the wrong impression in a novice’s or spectator’s mind.

“It’s really important to take a second and let them know that if they wait a few minutes they can pet the dog. If they are interested in the breed, please come talk to us or we’ll find someone who will. We need to grow our sport and encourage spectators — possibly grow a new exhibitor who doesn’t know how to access our world.

“There is a definite disregard for handlers by a certain contingent. Mostly the ones who stand behind the dog handlers in placements. It is again important to encourage, instruct and befriend even though their disdain is sometimes palpable. Remember to celebrate their wins and contributions to our sport.”

Greg Strong
“The public is a very important part of dog shows. They feed the need, interest and future of our sport including gate income, viewers for televised shows and consumers of advertised products or pet products at dog shows. Most of all they provide the loving homes for our pet puppies and, for those converted, the future homes for the next generation of show dogs.

“Many handlers/show people have little time or understanding of the needs of spectators, who are often treated with disrespect and rudeness. Exhibitors snap at them when they want to pet the dog or ask annoying questions. I put myself in their position and try to answer questions the best I can — a little education and pleasant interaction goes a long way.

“TV ads and magazines can never take the place of a one-on-one interaction between an interested party and a knowledgeable dog person. There are always grooming questions, but most importantly, we can help guide them to reputable breeders in their quest for a healthy dog. The public needs us as much as we need them.”

Bottom line? How handlers interact with the public and forge relationships with novices can hinder or help the future of the fancy. Please be conscious of how your attitude and actions influence public opinion.

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