From the highly experienced to the novice, owner-handlers face unique challenges in the ever-changing world of dog shows. Several current exhibitors agreed to provide candid thoughts as to what those challenges are. Questions posed include how long they’ve been showing, what has changed over the past decade, whether the playing field is level and how we can attract and keep new owner-handlers in the sport.
Interestingly, many newcomers were unwilling to participate, fearing it would harm their chances in the ring or offend others in their breed. The intimidation factor speaks volumes about what’s going on out there. Conversely, the more seasoned exhibitors were eager to voice opinions.
Participants were encouraged to elaborate on issues they feel strongly about. Thus, their remarks are in no particular order. Despite the wide range of experience levels, you’ll note some common ground in their opinions.
AKC Sporting Group Breeder of the Year 2006
Began showing: 1968
I was fortunate to be mentored in the early years by a renowned breeder, and my first litter produced a multiple specialty and Group winner. I was a newbie but had observed the good handlers and relied on the invaluable information I received from my mentors.
In my opinion, a great deal has changed. More and more dog shows assign judges who don’t have a clue and rely on advertisements to choose a dog to put up. We are losing the real dog people who sat at a show all day, asked questions and learned about breeds by watching and being involved in club activities. Yes, there are some outstanding judges out there. When you analyze why they are good judges, you find they have been involved for years and have either bred or handled outstanding dogs. However, the overall quality of judging has declined. If 20 years ago you gave me the names of 10 judges and asked who was a good judge, I’d have likely picked at least nine out of 10. Today I would have a hard time with that list.
Today’s young people have a much busier lifestyle. Parents are obligated to transport children to so many organized activities; they ask very few questions when they go to shows and leave when they are finished. They simply aren’t as committed as we “originals” are.
The playing field is level when you have a knowledgeable judge but definitely not if the judge doesn’t have a clue. The judge at our 2012 national was wonderful. He gave equal time to both novice and professional handlers and seemed to enjoy every minute in the ring, ultimately putting up the best dogs. He was pleasant to everyone so that both winners and losers left feeling good.
I wish I had the answer to how to attract new people to the sport. Today most couples work, and weekends are their only time to relax or catch up at home. If they have a good dog, they get discouraged when they lose to a lesser dog, and they give up. Mentoring is an important factor in getting new people involved.
The other issue that I think is affecting newcomers to the sport is the constant anti-purebred dog and “socially correct” concept of adopting a homeless dog, both media driven. As manager of a veterinary practice, I have seen the gradual change to clients adopting dogs and deciding against a purebred dog.
To me, it isn’t just the winning — it’s more about the enjoyment of spending time with friends and watching judging that keeps me involved.
BIS/Best Owner-Handler winner (International Kennel Club of Chicago)
Began showing: 1980
I’ve always been a staunch supporter of owner-handlers and have encouraged anyone who wants to show their own dog to do so. When I first started showing, someone said that there’s nothing harder to beat than an owner-handler with a good dog. I think that being an owner-handler is the best place to be because of the special bond. Win or lose, you take home the dog that sleeps on your bed, plays at home with you and means the world to you. There’s no question that it’s not as easy to win as an (amateur) owner-handler. Many judges seem to feel obligated to select handlers who bring a string of dogs over the person showing only one dog in a large entry.
The creation of the Owner-Handler series has brought more attention to owner-handlers. However, from my observation, the only people who take it seriously are the owner-handlers. Many clubs assign unqualified judges for the Groups and don’t seem to care if schedules conflict with the “real” Groups. Many judges don’t seem to consider it serious competition and complain about the extra judging.
When push comes to shove, I still believe the (amateur) owner-handler is behind the eight ball. While there are many breeders and owner-handlers in the judging pool, the majority of Group judges come from the professional ranks. If a judge isn’t confident or comfortable with a breed, they may favor a familiar person versus taking a chance with a better dog shown by an unfamiliar face. The AKC needs to encourage breeders and owner-handlers to join the judging pool rather than discourage them, and clubs, superintendents and judges need to take them more seriously.
There’s much that needs to change. Professional handlers sponsor handling seminars for junior handlers at the shows. Seminars presented by successful owner-handlers for owner-handlers would encourage new people and hone the skills of those who need some advice.
There is so much emphasis put on rankings now that we see dogs traveling to the same judges for a sure win, no matter the time and distance. When the owner-handler comes with a quality dog, they are awarded a token Select instead of being judged on their merit. Large, prestigious shows like the Garden should promote the owner-handlers.
There are many sports that highlight not only top professional competitors but also the amateur participants, and there’s no reason why this sport can’t do the same thing. Because owner-handlers are not taken seriously, they are finding other venues, such as performance events to compete in. Just a little show of support will go a long way to effecting change.
Gleanntan Skye Terriers
Began showing: 1990
Fewer Skyes are now competing. More class animals are being shown by the breeders. Fewer people are coming into our breed and showing on a regular basis. There is much less emphasis on breeding programs and more on individual winners.
Some of the newcomers aren’t as interested in learning the finer points of ring presentation, coat and conditioning. Yet they expect to have immediate success or something is wrong. Dog shows are the place where learning can and should occur, and the wins are just one part of the equation. The value of going to shows and apprenticing has diminished.
In class judging, I believe the playing field is level. I make a point to watch judging in other Terrier breeds at just about every show. A good dog can definitely win if it is well conditioned and well presented. The dog must be trained and happy in the ring and the handling confident. If you go into the ring with a feeling of defeat, you are increasing your chances of being defeated.
When I first started showing, a large percentage of people were participating for the fun of the sport. Not every exhibitor should be a breeder.
There should be plenty of room and encouragement for someone who simply wishes to finish their dog to its championship.
Over the years I notice the hardcore people are still there plugging away in their commitment to their breeds and their own programs. The biggest decline has been with the mid-range folks, many of whom have stepped away, and this is unfortunate. As mentors I think we need to create an environment that is encouraging to people. The focus should be on acquiring new knowledge rather than points and wins.
I’m not sure the AKC’s strategy of giving owner-handlers more opportunities for competition and wins really addresses the challenge.
Ruff Wave Portuguese Water Dogs
Began showing: 1998
We see the label “owner-handler” used by many, including the announcer of the Westminster Kennel Club show, to mean something entirely different from how the sport originally defined it. We see many dogs promoted as being exhibited by one of their owners today, who in actuality are professional agents.
The biggest change is that the dog fancy no longer wants to come to dog shows, preferring to send their exhibits with agents, desiring principally to receive their awards as promptly as possible.
This playing field can never be truly measured as to whether it’s level or not. A sport where science and art exist symbiotically can never be criticized in good sportsmanship. Exhibitors are paying for individuals’ opinions, and when those opinions displease them, they have the choice to stop paying for them.
We have far more information available today to help exhibitors make decisions about their individual exhibits. If they choose to ignore that information and enter shows, due to the convenience, venue, shopping, etc., they may find themselves frustrated, in part, by the criteria of their own decision.
Attracting and keeping owner-handlers in this sport is only a byproduct of how the sport wishes to define itself. Perhaps the dog fancy should define the sport’s objectives rather than just being on the defense against animal rights organizations, such as PETA and HSUS. If one of those objectives is greater amateur participation, either the conformation venue has to change or some form of balancing must occur to encourage the desired participation.
Some have said that Junior Showmanship may be the key to our future. However, if juniors see becoming a paid agent as graduation from apprenticeship, it appears the owner-handler program does very little to promote continued amateur participation.
We see agents as show chairs and all-breed club officers. How striking in contrast is this to the conflict considerations our judges struggle with to maintain an appearance of independence. The AKC needs to preserve a place at conformation venues for all amateur handlers in the years to come.
Began showing: 2005
Upon deciding to acquire our first Newfoundland, I explained to the breeder what I planned to do with my pup so that she could choose a dog with the right qualities and personality to suit my needs. I had heard about the “Versatile Newfoundland” title, and that would be the eventual goal for us. However, one of the criteria was going into the conformation ring, which I had never done. Our breeder became a valuable mentor to me and she was instrumental in my quest for a championship.
Early in our show career, I sensed those around me “looking down their noses.” In obedience there was camaraderie among entrants, but not so in breed showing. Ringside I’d hear remarks from those who were not pleased with the judging, handling, grooming, you name it. Even the people who were nearby in the grooming area were not outwardly friendly. I had very little equipment compared with what I tote to a show now. I used to spread out my little blanket and brush my dog before going into the ring. No wonder I got looks!
As I became more confident in the ring, we earned our championship fairly quickly. I was determined to do this myself no matter how long it took. I wanted to be a team with my dog, and even now I don’t think it would be nearly as satisfying had someone else showed him. I went on to be fairly successful specialing him, even earning a Eukanuba invitation. I laugh now looking back at how green I was and how the “bug” bit me. I am currently specialing my second Newfoundland who is ranked in the breed top 20.
I think professional handlers have a definite advantage over owner-handlers. On one hand I understand they are the ones supporting judges with multiple entries versus the owner-handler who enters one class per show. It’s frustrating that they often take the points because of who they are — not because they are handling the best specimen of the breed.
I often wonder what the outcome would be if, once gathered at ringside, everyone had to handle the dog to their right — not the one they showed up with. I admire a good professional handler, but would like judging to focus on the dog rather than the other end of the leash as it sometimes is.
We should all strive to be mentors to those who show an interest because you never know which ones will be bitten by the show bug and stay in for the long haul.
Tina Van Schilt
Standard Poodle Exhibitor/Master Groomer
Began showing: 2012
After earning my Master Groomer certification, I wanted a dog I could “dress up” that was smart. The natural choice for me was a Standard Poodle.
My first show was the Poodle Club of America National Specialty. My goal was simply to network and assess the top competition. One has to know how high to set the bar in any sporting event. One passing comment from a Poodle owner standing ringside was that if you want to show your own dog, enter UKC and skip AKC altogether: It’s strictly for the handlers.
Initially my puppy picked up a few points with a handler, but I really wanted to show her myself. Win, lose or draw, I wanted to walk into the ring with my own grooming. My first ring experience was disastrous, so I canned the next shows and signed up for handling classes in Massachusetts.
After taking second place three days at the Harrisburg shows, I entered another weekend in Baltimore. The first day the judge barely looked at my dog. I was discouraged, but the second day I returned proud and confident with my dog showing beautifully. There was one other dog — with a handler. The dog did not gait at all. Jumped around the ring so much the handler had several do-overs and stopped mid-ring. The judge laughed. I took second.
I know I have a good dog and hope for better outcomes in the future. I don’t need to win all the time, but I did expect to win my class more often than experienced.
Another frustration in the ring is the go-round after the down and back. Sometimes judges stop watching you go around. Others aren’t even paying attention to anything inside the ring. They should watch you until your dog reaches the end, no exceptions. We are a customer paying for our time in the ring, and we deserve the time we paid for.
I know the AKC is trying to encourage new exhibitors with the Owner-Handler series. A nice effort, but I’d much rather have a voice. I’d like to document my experience in an online (optional) questionnaire that would be accessible to clubs to help them select and review judges’ performances. I have regular performance reviews in my job, which forces me to have accountability. Why shouldn’t judges?
Overall I like the professionalism of showing in the AKC versus other clubs and plan to re-enter at some point. It’s great to have a venue to show off my beautiful dog, my one beautiful dog.
From the August 2013 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the August 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.
Dogs in Review contributor Amy Fernandez interviews owner-handlers Kathy Lorentzen, Karen Staudt-Cartabona, Tonya Struble, Sarah Lawrence, Michelle Santana, Janet York, Jay Hafford and Cynthia Huff. Read More>>