In the golden era of dog shows, to be a paid professional handler, you had to painstakingly work for a handler for years learning the craft and perfecting the skills necessary to advance to the level of a licensed professional handler. The process was a far cry from the agents and weekend handlers that have become so familiar in today’s dog show world.
So what does it take to graduate to the rank of true professional handler?
Learning the Basics
Without a doubt, the beginning of this journey starts with the educational process. The majority of our most successful handlers have one thing in common: They spent years, if not tens of years, under the tutelage of the masters of the dog show world. An apprentice’s job is not an easy one. The apprentice handler will start at the bottom because the bottom is where you begin to learn. You will clean kennels, you will bathe thousands of dogs and you will road work dogs for miles a day. Tens of thousands of nails will be trimmed, coats will be conditioned, crates will be scrubbed, trucks will be washed, and stool and urine will prevail on a daily basis. This is your life as an apprentice; however, this is how you learn.
In the beginning stages, you are there to take instruction and listen to everything. You are not there to be an instant expert. While you may resent all the arduous chores, what you need to realize is that each and every menial task is teaching you something. If a show dog is not eating, you learn why. If the dog has loose stools, you learn to spot changes that may indicate anything from parasites to a life-threatening illness. When a dog chews all the hair off its leg or ear and you bear the wrath of your boss, you learn how to prevent the top special in the string from doing this ever again. A simple task such as cleaning crates teaches you the value of proper equipment and how to care for it. Nothing is cheap in this sport, and caring for the tools of your trade week after week will make you cherish them all the more when you move on to become the mentor of an eager young student.
Your inexperience in the sport will show immediately as you are confronted with countless dog grooming, health and conditioning situations that you have never dealt with before. It’s the duty of the apprentice to absorb as much of this knowledge as possible. If you don’t, you will never reach the pinnacle of success that the true professionals enjoy.
As you progress in an apprenticeship, you will earn the trust of your mentor. As the list of privileges grows, you will be permitted to care for more of the priority dogs. In the very beginning, you won’t be entrusted with the handler’s top dog, but on that day when you finally walk the top dog to the ring or trim it or simply wash it, you as an apprentice will never forget the pride you felt in earning your mentor’s trust.
Years will pass under a true apprenticeship, and the care and conditioning skills you have will grow. Never assume you know everything; even when you’re a professional handler, something new, both wondrous and horrifying, will happen to you on a weekly basis. This is the nature of the sport.
So what should your goals be as an apprentice? First and foremost, you must learn animal husbandry from the basic principles of feeding and conditioning to the mental well-being of each animal. Then you will progress to proper medical care and the breed-specific traits that require proper grooming and attention. Learning the breed-specific traits of so many breeds comes with time. Read the breed standards over and over again. If you are unsure of specific points, ask your mentor or research the information on the parent club’s website. There is a wealth of information available to you. Focus on the dogs and learn all you can.
Pro Handler Organizations
After progressing through the learning process and implementing that knowledge, a handler can also choose to become associated with organizations that define even more clearly the standards, requirements and ethics of professional handlers, such as the Professional Handlers Association (PHA) and the American Kennel Club Registered Handlers Program (RHP). Both professional organizations have guidelines set forth to ensure the quality of their membership and the safety and well-being of the dogs in their care. Guidelines set forth by professional organizations such as these require mandatory kennel and vehicle inspections, insurance coverage and continued education, covering topics from health and care to billing and client relationships. For more information, visit phadoghandlers.com and akc.org/handlers.
Dealing With Clients
In order be a great professional in the sport, there is one thing you need above all else: clients. Patrons of yours who will continue to be your benefactors year after year, offering you their loyalty and understanding, become the cornerstone of your business. If you cannot maintain relationships with clients, you will be lost in this sport. Many client-handler relationships transcend the simple exchange of money for exhibiting a dog. It is imperative that you learn a multitude of coping mechanisms for dealing with clients. While working as an apprentice, observe how these interactions occur. What seems to work, and what leads to a parting of the ways? Rest assured you will witness both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.
The first and foremost concern when dealing with clients is communication. One must be forthright with a client and engage in an open dialog. If you fail to engage a client, they will feel that, in the string of animals you are showing, their dog has become insignificant. In many instances, this dog is viewed as a child to them. Ignoring their child is a sure path to being replaced in short order. Learn how to speak to clients in a manner befitting their personality, not yours. It’s not about you when dealing with clients. They are the ones paying you for a service, and you should respect that. Understand that at any moment you can be replaced, so choose your words with care.
You must also be honest and forthright with your clients. Those clients with whom you can have candid conversations about their dogs and what happens at shows are the ones who will be your clients for the long-term. Frank conversations about the quality of the dogs are essential if you want to establish a high level of excellence in your string (learn more in the “Assessing Dogs” sidebar). If you fail to be honest with clients, both new and old, you will eventually end up with a sting of less-than-exemplary dogs. This is not your goal when you aspire to become a true professional handler.
Another difficult lesson to learn, yet an essential one if your business is to prosper, is client billing. This seems to be a shortcoming in some professionals, but it is the handler’s job to properly bill a client and in a timely manner. Don’t wait for a bill to accrue until it becomes unaffordable. Remember that lax billing will end up taking money out of your pocket. You will find clients who pay immediately and those who bounce from handler to handler, running up bills then moving on to another. If you bill in a timely manner, you will eliminate many of these issues. Once the first bill is past due and the second is being produced, it’s time to consider whether the client is able and willing to pay these bills they have amassed. It seems like such a simple issue, but many new as well as established handlers miss this point. It falls on the handler to maintain proper books and bill in a timely manner.
In the end, the most important issue with respect to clients is ethics. Being honest through the good and the bad assures your client that you have a high standard of ethics.
Keeping a Kennel
Professionals must provide the proper housing, grooming, exercise and medical care for their clients’ dogs. The idea that a show dog can live a crated existence in the handler’s home is preposterous. In addition to giving each dog enough food, water, space and ventilation, the facilities must be clean. Learn what sanitizers kill pathogens many dogs are exposed to. Wash down areas where waste occurs and ensure there is proper drainage to eliminate buildup of residual contaminants.
The grooming area must be well lit and large enough so you can access all sides of the dog. Are there mirrors to see the results of grooming that may not be apparent when viewing from above? Is there space to walk the dog on a leash nearby to evaluate after bathing and trimming, to make sure the finishing touches accent the positive and diminish the negative?
Consider where the dogs will be exercised. Is your outdoor space large enough for muscle tone to be developed? Keep in mind that if a dog is placed on a trotter for exercise, someone must be present at all times. The same goes with dogs on the table. They should never be left unattended, even for a minute.
Consider also the security of your facility. Do you have a double set of fencing to ensure that if a gate is left open, no dog can get out? There should be fire alarms throughout the facility and easy access to a fire extinguisher. You must also be able to minimize exposure from one infected dog to another in your care. Is there a safe location a dog may be quarantined in the event of a communicable disease within your facility? Temperature control is also a major concern. Temperatures both low and high can cause life-threatening maladies. There must be a way to monitor and maintain the proper climate and humidity in a kennel.
In the event a dog in your care becomes injured, what do you have at your facility for treatment? All facilities should have the essential first-aid kits available to deal with minor issues that arise. Even the most cautious handler will eventually have to deal with minor and severe dog injuries. Are you equipped to deal with such instances? Make sure every kennel worker knows the vet you use and their hours. If your regular vet is not available during an after-hours emergency, have a backup vet. This could determine whether an animal in your care lives or dies in an emergency. It cannot be stressed enough to be prepared for anything and understand the health risks breeds in your care are known for, what the indicating signs of health issues are and how to treat them.
Transporting and Showing Dogs
Professional handlers must transport animals to and from shows. Determine the vehicle size you need based on the breeds of dogs you specialize in. You must be prepared to handle any situation that occurs in the van, just as you are prepared for emergencies in the kennel. Secure the crates the animals travel in to prevent serious injury in the event of an accident. The same fire precautions should be taken in a van as in the kennel, so always have a fire extinguisher on board. If you must evacuate the dogs, how will you keep them safe? One slip leash is not enough to quickly clear a vehicle in jeopardy. Keep multiple leads available to get dogs out quickly and safely.
Also have a plan in case the van breaks down. Do you have a roadside service membership to assist you? Can the dogs be maintained safely in weather extremes? Never leave home without water and food in the vehicle for the dogs. You never know how long and in what conditions you could be stranded. Prepare your vehicle both mechanically and for the safety of the dogs based on the conditions you may encounter. Have items to provide shade for hot weather and extra bedding for colder weather.
Once a handler has made it to the show grounds, it’s important to find a place to set up and establish an environment so the dogs will be able to perform well over the show weekend. This includes setting up exercise areas, crating and grooming equipment. These areas should be maintained at the highest level of cleanliness. There should never be waste in the exercise pens; this should be cleaned immediately, all hair and other debris swept up as soon as possible, and leftover food discarded after feeding so as not to attract pests. A clean, organized setup speaks well to current and future clients, and it creates an environment conducive to the professional presentation of your string.
Ex-pens and crates should have adequate shade if outdoors. A prudent handler makes sure pens and crates are always closed and or clipped shut whether a dog is present or not, as an open crate or pen denotes a potentially loose dog. Once again, the handler must be aware of where a local veterinarian is located should the need arise.
Once everything is set up at the show, a professional handler has a new set of requirements: exercising and feeding. To not show up until late morning to allow your dogs to relieve themselves is unacceptable, and projects an image of laziness and apathy. It is imperative that all dogs are maintained and cared for in the same manner at shows that they are in the kennel or in their owners’ care.
The most visible aspect of being a professional handler is what occurs in the ring at the show. This is the ultimate test of professionalism. A person with integrity and professionalism takes both wins and losses with dignity. A handler must be aware that there is always someone observing them, and that person could be their next client. To represent oneself in a manner unbecoming to the sport does not bode well for one’s career. When interacting with judges, a handler should always consider the look of impropriety and try to recognize any behavior that may be perceived as unethical.
A professional handler must also embrace the sport’s camaraderie and always be willing to assist not only newcomers but other professionals. For the newcomers, it may be something as simple as a tip on how to show or present a dog better. A handler will see his or her peers week after week, so one must also be willing to assist and work with them to create a harmonious work environment.
The handler’s responsibility also includes the care and disbursement of ribbons and trophies. What may seem trivial to some is of great value to others. Ribbons are to be given to owners in a timely manner. This speaks well of a person who not only is responsible for the care of the dogs, but the owners’ property.
When you as a professional evaluate a dog you will potentially be exhibiting, attempt to the best degree to be forthright in your critique of the dog before you. Bear in mind some clients may be new to the sport, and to not assess the dog in an honest manner is setting up both them and you for failure. A real professional nurtures the client-handler relationship so that trust is formed. Discuss the dog’s strengths and weaknesses and what type of judge will appreciate the dog’s virtue. Also be candid in the amount of time you honestly feel it will take to acquire a championship. While this is never an exact science, it builds a foundation for future conversations should the need arise.
When presented with dogs of inferior quality, a difficult conversation will ensue. Many a client has been lost upon refusal to exhibit a dog, but how you communicate this to the client will determine the outcome. Instead of just simply refusing to show it, discuss how to improve the line. Handlers should never take on a dog that lacks true breed quality. It will affect the light in which a handler is viewed not only in the clients’ eyes but the dog world in general.
To properly asses a dog’s quality, study breeds day in and day out. Observe judging at shows to see where a breed is, relative to its strengths and weaknesses. Become a student of all breeds, as it can only improve your eye. Staying and watching Groups and seeing an outstanding example of a breed is a great measuring tool for future evaluations. With this observation, one can also note proper grooming techniques and presentation skills necessary to exhibit certain breeds.
Continuing the Legacy
Beyond the day-to-day work of the professional handler is the duty to mentor the new generation. How can we expect future generations to be proficient in this sport if we don’t train them? The student must become the professional and then become the teacher. The masters of the sport should strive to set the standard again with their apprentices and instill in them the ability to properly care for their charges, as well as encourage them to receive a higher education to be well-rounded businesspeople. It’s all part of giving back to the sport that we love.
As you can see, the role of a professional handler encompasses far more than being a junior handler who shows dogs for money or an adult who decides to make a little extra cash by showing a friend’s dog. To be considered a true professional handler, one must begin in earnest to learn the trade from the ground up and accept the fact that all along the journey there is always something new to learn. By choosing this as your vocation, it means accepting the commitment to present your dogs at the highest level and arming yourself with the knowledge to care for them under any circumstances. You strive to maintain the utmost professionalism in dealing with clients and judges in and out of the ring. You mentor anyone who seeks knowledge and assist anyone in the sport who needs help. And most of all, you continue to learn and embrace all the sport can teach.
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