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Handler/Breeder-Owners Are in a League of Their Own

These fanciers demonstrate great mastery not just in the ring but also in breeding programs.

These fanciers demonstrate great mastery not just in the ring but also in breeding programs.
The conformation ring, it’s been said, is the only endeavor in sport where the amateur and professional compete on an even playing field — recent Olympic Games notwithstanding. In reality, this claim is only partially correct. After all, the American show scene offers a place for exhibitors of every experience level, from the most basic of beginners to the finely polished pro, and everything in between. In the dog world, it’s experience that matters most, and few fanciers demonstrate greater mastery of the game than the busy professional handlers who also manage to maintain successful breeding programs. These handler/breeder-owners are certainly in a league of their own.


Clarence "Jay" Lee with Swords Held High 

Rough Collie, GCh. Arrowhill Swords Held High, sits alongside breeder/co-owner-handler Clarence “Jay” Lee after going Winners Dog at the 2010 CCA National Specialty.


The Pros Love Dogs, Too

Jody Garcini of Henryville, Ind., has been handling dogs professionally for 20 years — and breeding them even longer. “I had my first litter of Whippets in 1992, 23 years ago, but was raised before that with Shih Tzu, Lakeland and Wire Fox Terriers,” Jody says. The young mother of two maintains a demanding show schedule alongside husband Leonardo, yet she’s been able to breed an impressive number of champions to date. “We recently had a report from the AKC that lists 125 current AKC champions, [many of which] were co-bred with my parents.” Jody breeds Shih Tzu and Whippets under the Wenrick prefix, and English Springer Spaniels with Laurie Green under the Crossroad prefix. “We have been very fortunate in that we have had a couple of clients with the same breeds — owning dogs of our breeding — that we have shown and been very successful with,” notes Jody.

The Garcini Family 
Jody and Leonardo Garcini enjoy a stroll with daughters Luciana and Victoria and Whippet GCh. Tripletime Silver Lining At Wenrick.

The Garcinis attend upward of 175 shows a year, generally with 15 or so dogs in tow. Among the couple’s string may be a few class dogs of their own breeding. “We only compete in the Bred-by class at shows which we are both attending so there is an option for either of us to be able to make the ring in case of a conflict with our clients’ dogs,” Jody says. “I love showing my own dogs but find it very difficult, as our clients always come first.” To avoid the inevitable scheduling challenges, the Garcinis will occasionally have a friend show one of their dogs.

In the busy arena that is the modern dog show, conflicts are unavoidable. On the subject of professionals competing directly with amateur owner-handlers, Jody offers her experienced opinion. “Everybody who involves [him or herself] in any breed needs to look closely at every entry in the ring for their attributes as well as the faults,” she says. “They also have to learn to be very discerning of their own dogs and see where they can improve their breeding programs, conditioning of their dogs as well as their own handling skills. There are owners out there with beautiful dogs that make them look terrible, [just] as there are terrible dogs being shown by talented owners who make them look great.” Jody suggests that many amateur exhibitors with negative feelings toward the pros just assume that all professionally handled dogs are of poor quality. “At the end of the day, all professionally handled dogs have owners and breeders who love them and have worked very hard to get the quality of dogs they have.”

Persevering with Pekes

“I think it’s nonsense and an unhealthy mindset,” says David Fitzpatrick of the criticism leveled at the professionals by some novice exhibitors. “No one starts out on top.” At his home in East Berlin, Pa., David spends most days honing his craft as a professional handler and breeder of Pekingese. “The road to success is achieved through hard work, perseverance, talent and luck,” he says. “As with any sport or business, success should be earned in order for it to be fully appreciated. I don’t think an amateur is an amateur for long if they are good.”

David Fitzpatrick with Pekingese 
Judge Luc Boileau awards BIS to Pekingese GCh. Pequest General Tso and breeder/owner-handler David Fitzpatrick.

David started in dogs in 1970, working for a professional handler after school and traveling to shows on weekends. “Most shows were just weekend shows back then,” he notes. “I then worked for successful breeders who also campaigned their dogs.” In 1984, David ventured out to handle on his own, and he’s stayed true to his profession and devoted to the breed through which he is celebrated worldwide. “I bred my first litter in the mid-70s, having obtained my first Pekingese from Mrs. Wilson’s West Wind Pekingese in Wilton, Conn.,” he recalls. “I paid $50 for Cherry Blossom of West Winds.” Since that time, David has strived to breed, condition and present Pekingese at the highest possible level. “I don’t know exactly how many champions I’ve bred, but I do know I’ve bred 12 Best in Show winners.”

As both breeder and handler, David’s résumé is impressive, especially considering his quiet — almost reverential — style of handling. He presents Toy breeds exclusively, attending between 100 and 175 shows annually. “Bred-by is [still] my favorite class,” David says. “I feel it should be utilized by anyone who is proud of their stock.” Amateur exhibitors would do well to study David’s presentation style and learn from his commitment to breeding dogs of genuine quality. “[Owner-handlers] have no limitations that I can see,” he says. “The advantages are that if you breed top quality, you can compete on a higher level. However, it requires much work and perseverance to stay there.”
Quality Trumps Quantity

Clarence “Jay” Lee of Sand Springs, Okla., attends shows virtually every weekend. “I’m typically on the road three, sometimes four, weekends a month throughout the year,” says this professional handler who breeds both Collies and Shetland Sheepdogs under the “Jute” prefix. “The number of shows would be hard to count. I normally show a minimum of two dogs [and] at times in excess of eight to 10 dogs in a weekend.” A breeder of Collies since the late 1980s and Shelties since the mid-1990s, Jay has bred or co-bred 30 or more champions in both breeds. “It’s a small number, however I still believe quality trumps quantity,” he says.

Jay says he typically shows his own dogs in the Bred-by classes, “be it a puppy or adult, unless I’m showing more than one of the same sex and forced to use the Open class.” Jay feels there’s an advantage to showing his own. He remarks that in doing so he’s assured that his canine partners have been well prepared for the demands of the show ring. “I would say that as breeders, we push nonstop to prepare our stock for the rings,” he offers. “However, as a handler, the client’s dog will supersede our own.” In the event of the inevitable ring conflict, Jay passes his own dogs on for a friend to show. Although he misses the opportunity to be on the end of the lead should his own dog be awarded Winners, his clients’ dogs always come first. “The win still carries the same weight,” he says. 

Jay, who’s been handling professionally for almost 20 years, shares his thoughts on a sport that pits amateurs against professionals. “I’m seeing a lot of amateurs stepping up their game these days. I love to see the drive to do more than come to the ring ill-prepared and leave disenchanted because they didn’t win.” Jay believes that every exhibitor is capable of winning if he or she is prepared and always ready to put his or her best foot forward. According to Jay, “They are not only putting their best foot forward, they are high-stepping!” Although he cannot participate in the National Owner-Handled Series, Jay believes that the program has become a useful platform for amateur exhibitors who want to step up their game. “I think it’s awesome,” he says. “I love to hear of my participating friends’ wins and will continue to be their ringside support.”

Find a Good Mentor and Dig In 

David Murray of Valley Glen, Calif., attends more than 100 shows annually and is well known throughout the US for the Tibetan Terriers, Havanese and Lhasa Apsos he exhibits. “I have been showing dogs for other people since 2006, but I was fortunate as a breeder/owner to have had people help me financially with my own dogs since 2002,” David says. He usually shows one to three dogs that require the masterful touch of a breeder who also manages a hair styling business. What better résumé for a handler specializing in drop-coat breeds?


David Murray 

David Murray handles Tibetan Terrier Ch. Sim-Pa’ Lea’s Razzmatazz to Best in Show under judge Anne Rogers Clark at the 2003 Lompoc Kennel Club dog show. 


“I acquired my first Tibetan Terrier in 1988 and bred my first litter in 1995,” David says. When asked how many champions he has produced under his Players kennel name, he said, “I have no idea,” but he knows the total is more than 10 and fewer than 25. “I don’t breed much and for sure do not keep or finish dogs from every litter.” As does any serious breeder/exhibitor, David devotes his energies to nurturing his show dogs from the time they enter the world. “I find the advantage comes from raising and maintaining the dogs with me. I do best with dogs I have trained from an early age, or at least have time with before starting to show them.” When his dogs are ready to enter the show ring, David often introduces them through the Bred-by classes. “I have a bitch right now I am finishing from BBE.”

As a professional handler with a breeding program of his own, David can see both sides of the sometimes contentious relationship between amateur and professional handlers. “Sometimes owner-handlers are overlooked for professional handlers due to lazy, inept or political judging,” he says. “Sometimes they lose because their dogs are not as well presented and sometimes because the dogs are not as good as what a professional may have at the time.” David proposes that every novice exhibitor learn to improve his or her chances in the ring by studying the professionals. “I am lucky to have been in this game since the early 1970s,” he says. “I had great mentoring then and [also] when I returned after some time off in the 1980s. I was taught from a very young age [that] in order to be competitive at all as an ‘unknown,’ you will need to have a better dog that is better trained and better handled in order to win.” 

As a professional handler who’s been preparing his breeding stock to best advantage for 20 years, David doesn’t think that the fundamentals of the dog game have changed much in that time. “If everyone took the time to seek out a quality animal, find a good mentor, and dig in and do the work necessary to be competitive, they would be able to enjoy some of the same successes that we all aspire to.”

It’s All Possible

When asked if she competes in events other than conformation, Valerie Nunes-Atkinson of Temecula, Calif., doesn’t hesitate to respond with enthusiasm. “We love for our dogs to have titles at both ends and send our dogs out for various levels of Hunt Test titles,” she says. A breeder of champion Whippets and German Shorthaired Pointers, Valerie is committed to the dog sport’s many disciplines. “Dogs we have bred are titled in almost anything you can think of, [including] obedience, agility, field trials, tracking and dock diving. We would rather breed German Shorthaired Pointers deep in type and quality that are well rounded family companions that can go out and take on any discipline their owners desire.”
An all-breed professional handler for more than 20 years, Valerie grew up in a doggie family. “I am a second-generation dog person, taking over my father’s GSP line when I was about 15, then co-breeding with my mentor, Marilyn Stockland of Marilee GSPs,” she says. 

Valerie Nunes-Atkinson 

Valerie Nunes-Atkinson shares a quiet moment with her homebred German Shorthaired Pointer, GCh. VJK-Myst Garbonita’s California Journey.


Valerie explains the meaning behind her GSP kennel name, VJK-MYST: “The VJK is an abbreviation of my father’s kennel name, Von Jango Kennels. MYST is my co-breeder Yvonne Hassler-Deterding’s kennel name. Marilyn also mentored Yvonne and, upon Marilyn’s passing, she and I became partners.” In Whippets, Valerie breeds under the Winway prefix with Dr. Suzie Fosnot. Suzie is “my longest client of 20-plus years, [and] we have formed a wonderful friendship and relationship that is based on a deep love for the breed. It has worked out wonderfully, as I was able to tell her about dogs I’ve seen in my travels, and [she has] used my suggestions and ideas on breeding practices.”

A busy mother of two, Valerie manages the careers of some of the nation’s top-winning Shorthairs, Whippets, Ridgebacks, Cane Corsos, Dogues, Frenchies and Beardies, to name but a few of the breeds with which she’s well acquainted. She attends between 150 and 175 shows a year with an average of 15 to 18 dogs in her string. Valerie says that she always competes with her own dogs in the Bred-by class, where she frequently encounters some very polished exhibitors. “There are many amateur handlers who are at the top of their breeds or even Groups,” she says. “It’s all about dedication, passion, perseverance and a commitment to be the best, whether it’s handling, breeding, trimming — you name it. It’s all possible.”
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