Professional handlers have existed since the advent of dog shows. However, the changing landscape of the sport led to seismic shifts in business. In the early days, pros worked primarily for one major client and a close relationship between client and handler was inevitable. Handlers specialized in one or two breeds, and their expertise was the result of a lifetime of involvement in dogs.
In time, big kennels disappeared, a plethora of new breeds was recognized and small hobby breeders gradually became the mainstay of the sport. Many of them relied on professionals as they learned to navigate the intricacies of grooming, presentation and ringside politics.
This increasingly common arrangement created a large client base for expert professionals to market their well-honed skills. It also led to problems on both sides. Novice exhibitors were easy prey for unscrupulous handlers. Professionals found themselves dealing with clients who were often unfamiliar with longstanding practices of the business.
In the late 1920s dog registrations hit the 1 million milestone. As the number of shows and exhibitors skyrocketed AKC made a concerted effort to rein in the chaos. It began standardizing regulations and procedures, initiated a judges approval system and implemented licensing requirements for anyone who handled dogs professionally at AKC events. In 1931, this led to the formation of the Professional Handlers Association, an organization dedicated to promoting ethical standards within the profession and establishing working relationships with clients and AKC.
Retired professional handler Ollie Click of Soap Lake, Wash., joined PHA in the 1970s and now serves as president. “[Today] you don’t need to be licensed to handle dogs for the public. And as a result, unqualified people can do quite a bit of financial harm to exhibitors who trust them. They do not have the knowledge, ability or equipment to do the job properly. PHA membership conveys an immediate stamp of professionalism and integrity. It’s an old, respected organization. For many years, it was the only professional group out there.” Today there are three organizations dedicated to promoting professionalism in the sport.
“The Dog Handlers Guild was formed in 1963 by a handful of really top people in the business like Dick Cooper and Jack Funk,” says Jane Flowers, longtime professional handler based in Buffalo, Minn. “My husband Stan Flowers is the only founding member who still works as a fulltime handler. The organization was formed to represent the interests of handlers who make their living showing dogs fulltime.” She explains that the Guild encourages stringent standards of professionalism, with an emphasis on top-quality care and attention to detail, such as communicating with clients, and making sure they get their ribbons and tear sheets.”
AKC stopped licensing professional handlers in 1977, a decision that engendered controversy in the profession that continues to this day. “Anyone can be a dog handler these days if they have a vehicle, tack box, a couple of leads and the talent for hustling people,” Flowers cautions. She points to several notorious incidents of dogs dying from neglect or mismanagement while in the care of handlers, saying that they became a primary motive for AKC to create its Registered Handlers Program.
“You still hear of those incidents. But most of the people involved in them are not what I consider top professional handlers. The Guild played a key role in the formation of that program. George Ward, Stan Flowers and I went to AKC three times over a couple of years to hammer out a basic plan. Dr. Robert Smith was in charge of the project at the time. I wrote the first draft of the program. Of course, a great number of people such as Bob and Jane Forsyth also had input,” Flowers says.
The AKC Registered Handlers Program made its debut in 2001. Susan Judge, project manager for the North Carolina-based program, sums up its purpose as “establishing criteria and standards for responsible, knowledgeable professional handlers, providing recognition for them, and offering guidance to exhibitors seeking to hire professional handlers. All of the handlers currently enrolled in the program have made the commitment to follow the guidelines and Code of Ethics set forth by the AKC.”
RHP members also receive a quarterly newsletter and take part in ongoing education on vet care, vehicle maintenance and AKC policies and regulations. The program is overseen by an AKC judging liaison. Field representatives Tom Glassford, Patricia Proctor and Mary Dukes double as RHP Field Coordinators, while eight RHP members act as contacts for the general membership.
“The AKC program started out along the lines of PHA, but it is a little different,” says Click. “AKC controls the RHP program.” In contrast, PHA policy is set by an elected board. All PHA members in good standing have voting privileges and any member has the potential to become an officer.
PHA is organized into six geographical regions represented by zone governors and representatives who administer Association business in that area. Members agree to comply with AKC regulations and the PHA Code of Ethics, which specifically details business practices that define professionalism, ethical standards and good sportsmanship.
The COE also requires members to accept the decisions of the board of directors in cases of disputes and rule violations. “The public does not see this in action,” Click says, “but there is self regulation within PHA to protect clients from misconduct. Complaints against members are followed up, and we take action if necessary. Penalties can range from fines to expulsion from the association for egregious violations.”
However, PHA is more than a policing organization for handlers. Their central office in Olney, Md., provides information and assistance for the fancy. They publish a newsletter, distribute a membership roster and maintain a website www.phadoghandlers.com.
Members in good standing can link to the site and identify their affiliation by displaying PHA decals and wearing the PHA emblem. In 2004 they also established a PHA Hall of Fame to recognize current and past members who have made noteworthy contributions to the organization, the handling profession and the sport.
Until recently, PHA was able to offer a group health insurance plan and they still provide a life insurance policy for members. PHA is also involved in educational seminars and demonstrations, judging match shows and assisting clubs with setups for shows.
“The Guild is somewhat different from the PHA or the AKC programs,” says Flowers. “Both of those organizations build their strength through numbers. We have never really sought out a tremendous number of members.” As an elite group of top handlers, the Guild’s main focus is professionalism and high standards. “We want our people to be perceived as being the best in the business. That is what the Guild is about,” Flowers says.
Guild business is conducted by the board and officers. They provide sample contracts for members and their recommended professional practices are outlined in their COE and constitution. They hold an annual meeting, supplemented with special meetings at shows when necessary. The organization facilitates communication between professional handlers and AKC, and utilizes Dog News editorials to take a stance on noteworthy issues. Members are also eligible for $1,000 disability/hardship payments.
Flowers admits that Guild membership has decreased in recent years. Some members have passed away, others have retired to go into judging, and “there are fewer people who do this fulltime and maintain the high standards demanded by the Guild.
“We are having a hard time identifying people we think fit the organization. We welcome applications from those who meet our criteria for membership. If we feel the person is suitable we do an onsite inspection.
“We expect our members to have a permanent kennel facility with permanent runs. Some people operate their handling business out of a truck and have no permanent residence. We are totally against that,” says Flowers. “They must have a vehicle that is appropriate for the dogs they show. Too many people cram 20 to 40 dogs into a truck, sometimes two to a crate, travelling with client dogs and their own dogs all jammed together.”
Applicants for the AKC RHP must have shown dogs professionally for at least seven years, own or lease their own kennel and carry Care, Custody and Control insurance. Hiram Stewart, based in Kenner, La., has been involved with purebred dogs since childhood and handled professionally for more than 20 years. He decided to join RHP six years ago.
“I was encouraged to join by Robin Stansell. I thought it would be another feather in my cap and provide professional prestige,” Stewart says. He has been happy with the program, noting that it has been good for business. “I don’t always have a business card on hand when I am at ringside, which is when people tend to approach you about showing a dog. They can always find me on the AKC website and feel assured that they are dealing with a true professional who is dedicated to the sport.”
In Stewart’s case, the RHP approval process was “uncomplicated, and took about two months.” After submitting his application “there was a visit to inspect my kennel facilities and means of transport used for the dogs.” He notes that there is a slightly different approach now. Applications are presented to the current membership for peer review and discussion. “They want to screen out people seeking to use the program to promote themselves, while doing an inadequate job with the dogs. They are looking for people who are really devoted to the sport. I consider it an honor to wear my AKC pin. It says that you are part of an elite, select group,” Stewart says.
He also admits that “Some people can’t manage the added expenses of annual membership fees and care and custodial insurance to cover possible injury or death to an animal. It holds them off from joining.” According to Susan Judge, 123 AKC RHP members have been approved to date. Member information is published on the AKC website (www.akc.org/handlers) and published quarterly in Dog News.
Potential PHA members must be at least 21, in good standing with AKC, with 10 years of active involvement in the sport and at least five years experience handling dogs professionally. A letter of intent must be accompanied by three letters of recommendation from PHA members in good standing, and personal evaluations by at least four PHA zone representatives.
This is followed by an inspection to ensure that the applicant’s kennel meets PHA standards for safety, comfort and sanitation. It must be used exclusively to house, condition and care for dogs. It must have 24-hour daily supervision, proper facilities for feeding, grooming and cleanup, be adequately sized, with secure, permanent indoor and outside pens and runs to accommodate all the dogs in the handler’s care.
Leased facilities are not encouraged, but will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If a PHA member relocates, their membership is contingent on passing an inspection of the new facilities. PHA also offers a program for handlers’ assistants. Time spent in the assistant program working for a PHA member can be applied toward qualifying for full membership.
Apprenticeship may seem an old-fashioned concept, but most professionals consider it an essential step to learn the intricacies of this demanding, complex business. “The handling business has changed tremendously in the last 10 years,” says Flowers. For one thing, she notes that juniors don’t apprentice like they used to. “My husband has spent 60 years in dogs. He apprenticed for Larry Downey for many years and he was very well trained and qualified before he went out on his own.”
In the late 1920s PHA’s first president, Leonard Brumby, Sr., introduced a program to encourage children to learn the sport and hone their handling skills. Children’s handling competitions were held at shows after regular judging. Professional handlers stepped in as judges and children handled any available dog.
The growing popularity of these events led AKC to formalize children’s handling in 1932, although PHA continued to run these competitions at shows for many years. In 1949, PHA donated a trophy in honor of Mr. Brumby which is still awarded to the winner of the Westminster junior handler competition. Through PHA, Nestle Purina also offers yearly cash awards to the top junior handler from each PHA zone.
AKC RHP has also instituted programs to encourage the next generation. RHP members assist at 12-15 Juniors Clinics held around the country each year. These free, hour-long programs typically attract 20 to 60 participants. The RHP Apprenticeship Program recognizes and encourages the contributions of fulltime assistants of RHP members. Their George Ward Scholarship Fund, created in 2004, has distributed $22,000 to 17 RHP apprentices to pursue formal education in fields related to an eventual career in professional dog handling.
Programs like this raise the odds that young people will come into the business with a respect for the standards and practices that define true professionalism. By providing an infrastructure of quality certification and self regulation PHA, DHG and the AKC RHP encourage professional integrity. An affiliation with these organizations offers potential clients a degree of assurance.
But membership is a matter of choice, and like any other profession, ethical conduct cannot be taken for granted. “Most of the handlers I know belong to PHA or the AKC program,” says Stewart. But he admits that “some people don’t see the need to belong.” And despite the best of intentions, no organization is perfect. “There has been some sense of disillusionment on the part of top professional handlers,” says Flowers. “They don’t belong to any organization. They feel they don’t need it, and they don’t want to be associated with other members who may not have equally high standards.”
Ultimately every owner must take responsibility for the welfare of their dogs when entrusting them to a third party. Flowers confesses that she is often surprised and frustrated by the gullibility of some owners. “It is unbelievable to me how many people will turn over their cherished pets and valuable show dogs without bothering to investigate how they will be cared for. It’s not just about winning; it’s about the dog’s quality of life.”