The Owner-Handlers Have Their Say

What's working in the National Owner-Handled Series and what needs to be fixed.

Owner-handlers enjoy a special opportunity to check the box on their entry: Owner-Handled eligible. Proponents cite the camaraderie, support and good sportsmanship in the Owner-Handler ring. Many appreciate the opportunity to show a young special in a Group ring or the additional opportunity to showcase their dog. And novices and Juniors find the Owner-Handler ring a better place to start.

Owner-handlers are exceptionally proud of their dogs and their accomplishments. Sharon Sherwood, owner-handler of Golden Retrievers and Welsh Springers, says, “In this day and age of politics in the show world, to see a dog’s achievements at the higher levels of competition completely owner-handled is a huge testament to the dog … The NOHS has given those of us who were in the shadows a shiny new spotlight, and that can only be seen as positive in shows.”

Many owner-handlers are quite capable of competing with the professionals. They have worked to get to where they are, and a higher level of competition in Owner-Handler Groups encourages others to improve their own skill set. The series was not designed for novice handlers, but accepts them. Robert Urban, a Black and Tan Coonhound breeder/owner-handler, explains, “Everybody has to start somewhere, and maybe this provides an opportunity for the green owner-handler to compete in a slightly less pressured or stressful arena. I strongly believe, though, that good competition makes for better dogs and handlers … everybody has got to up their game. I think that successful owner-handlers should be encouraged for their efforts and if possible bring others along to help in making them successful as well. I’ve known several owner-handlers who have been extremely successful, and to me they represent the pinnacle of where we all should set our sights.”

One breeder/owner-handler/judge, who prefers to remain anonymous, offers this perspective: “Owner-handled dogs are often groomed and presented in a more breed-specific manner than the cookie-cutter overgroomed, fluffed and puffed Great American Show Dog seen racing around the ring with the professional at its side. A breeder/owner-handler looks at a dog with an imperfection and asks, ‘How can I breed to improve on it?’ A professional asks, ‘How can I hide it?’” This different perspective brings a different type of dog to the Owner-Handler Group. A moderate dog lacking coat but dripping in type is more likely to be found in the Owner-Handler ring than the breed ring.


Ring Management and Negative Image

Juliet Robertson, a Pug owner-handler, identifies the two main complaints about the program: ring management and negative image. “It still seems to be very confusing to the judges and ring stewards. It always seems to be a bit of a scramble to figure out who should be brought back in for Best Owner-Handled; who is eligible; or even if they need to bring others back in because everyone is confused about who might automatically be Best Owner-Handled by virtue of another win — Winners or BOS or BOB or Select or whatever.” Robertson continues, “My perception is that so many other exhibitors — and especially the professional handlers — scoff at the Owner-Handled thing, as though it so doesn’t matter; that owner-handled dogs haven’t really achieved anything because they didn’t necessarily beat the best of the best (um, yeah, right, OK, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, the best always wins). I think a lot of them view it as a consolation prize of sorts.”

Judges have an issue with NOHS because they have no control over who, in the Breed ring, is eligible for Owner-Handler, yet they get the blame for the confusion. Judges must rely on the steward for the list of eligible dogs, as there are no notations in the judge’s book. If the steward insists the BOS is the only eligible dog, then the judge must take his word for it, effectively turning the judging over to the steward. This can and does result in eligible dogs being excluded from judging and the judge getting the blame.

AKC, in defining NOHS, has confirmed the suspicions of many. The defined purpose of NOHS is “to recognize and showcase quality dogs being exhibited by owner-handlers and to provide an avenue for the owner-handler to compete against their peers.” This statement is problematic. It is tacit admission that professional handlers have overtaken dog shows and that the AKC does not consider the owner-handlers and professionals to be peers. Juliet Robertson suspects “the root of its [NOHS] development is really just another means to boost entries and participation in the sport, and therefore, entry fees.”


Boosted Entries

If the purpose really was to boost entries, it seems to be working. Mike Mirre, an owner-handler of Sealyham Terriers, says he “would pick an Owner-Handler show over a non-Owner-Handler show if there were two available.” At a small July show in Iowa, one-third of the entries were also entered in Owner-Handler competition. The AKC has made an effort to support the NOHS. In a recent rule change, it is now required that any club holding any special attraction with competition (Puppy, Bred-By or Veteran Groups) must also offer Owner-Handler competition. And there is no additional entry fee for participation.

Ashley Fischer, a Pug owner-handler, “think[s] the NOHS has increased entries, at least in the Northeast. It has encouraged some people to compete in the specials ring with their finished dogs. Many people do not think they stand a chance in the BOB ring, especially in a breed that is shown primarily by professionals. Many people don’t have the means or time to actively special a dog, but they can come to shows on a more limited basis and have fun with their champions in the National Owner-Handled Series. They might not be able to rank a special in regular competition, but they can work on NOHS rankings. They also gain experience in the specials ring and end up doing better with their dogs than they expected in regular competition. If the program can encourage people to participate and grow in the sport, I’m all for it.”


O-H and Regular Groups

Dogs that compete in both the Owner-Handled and the regular Group get more ring time, but they are also in the ring while their competition is resting in their crates. One breeder/owner-handler/judge doesn’t like judging a nice dog in Owner-Handled only to see it dragging in the regular Group a short time later. She would like more time between the two Groups. Sharon Sherwood has experience with this problem: “Having a 3-year-old bitch that is the No. 1 Owner-Handled Welsh Springer for the last two years, and also the No. 1 Welsh bitch all-breed for the last two years, it’s a lot to compete in breed, then Owner-Handler Groups, then regular Groups, then Owner-Handler BIS and, when you’re lucky, Best in Show. You have a dog that has been shown in one day as many times as some show the entire weekend. Yet, it should really show the judges that the dog is not only a great representative of the breed, but also has that special something that born-to-show show dogs have …  and the stamina needed.”

While many of the owner-handled dogs compete in Owner-Handler and regular Groups, other owner-handlers feel “frozen out” of Group, and even breed competition, by professional handlers. Underlying their positive comments is a basic and sometimes unspoken belief that they are being shunted aside. It’s not that professional handlers have better access to exceptional dogs and they can devote all their time to training and conditioning the dog. It’s the politics. The anonymous breeder/owner-handler/judge sees that “while a large number of owner-handlers are equally skilled and quite capable of competing with the professionals, they are frequently not given the same consideration as the professionals in breed or Group competition.”

Denise Williams is a Labrador breeder and the parent of two Juniors whom she has encouraged to compete in both the O-H and regular Groups for the added experience. The result is that her son now has Group placements in both. Yet she is sad that Owner-Handler Groups are necessary. Juliet Robertson worries that Owner-Handler Groups are “a way to placate those that deserve to win BOB, but who aren’t well-connected and therefore can’t possibly be given the big win.” Paul Catterson, a professional handler who supports the NOHS and encourages owner-handlers to participate, also wonders if Owner-Handler Groups put dogs at a disadvantage, especially when judged by the same person as the regular Group — but for a different reason. “Is a dog that wins in Owner-Handler then less likely to win in the regular Group because they have already been recognized for the day?”


Respecting the NOHS Groups

Hosting clubs volunteer to hold the Series, yet harm themselves by treating the Groups offhandedly and as a tiresome inconvenience. It is unclear why a club would offer NOHS Groups and then run them in such a way as to alienate the participants. The anonymous owner-handler recalls having “won both the regular and Owner-Handled Groups at the same show. For winning the regular Group, I receive a big rosette and a nice trophy, but for the Owner-Handled Group a very modest ribbon and no trophy at all.”

Like any exhibitor, owner-handlers prefer judges who are qualified to judge the Group. When that isn’t possible, the judge needs to be approved or provisional to judge the majority of the Group and different from the regular Group judge. Owner-Handler Groups are a great way for provisional judges to get their hands on dogs, yet people with only a few breeds may not know how to run a Group ring or be familiar with all the different breeds.

Tibetan Spaniel owner-handler Victoria Marks says, “[I want] judges and provisionals who have some breeds in the particular Group. I show in Non-Sporting, which contains many shapes and sizes. Sometimes I’m frustrated by their lack of knowledge of other breeds. I’ve had judges only put up large breeds, [and I] overheard them afterward say they didn’t know what to do with the smaller breeds. I’ve had judges and stewards mistake my breed (Tibetan Spaniels) for Tibetan Terriers when they filled out their books, then I have to go to AKC to have my points fixed if I miss checking the tear sheets. My thought is, ‘If you are judging a Group and are not familiar with all the breeds in it, then take the time to brush up before you judge.’ I was pleased at a show recently to converse (while waiting in line) with a judge who was doing Owner-Handler for the first time, and she was reading the standards for the other breeds in her Group.”

Mostly, exhibitors want to be judged by people who want to be there. Many judges are complimentary of the dogs they judge and enthusiastic about the assignment. Some have noticed the increased quality of the Owner-Handler Group. Denise Williams’ observation is that “judges who actually enjoy judging enjoy the Owner-Handler Group ring as well … They seem more laid back.”

Yet Ashley Fischer has seen judges “run the gamut from being enthusiastic … to downright rude and demeaning.” She says, “I overheard one judge say to the ring steward regarding the National Owner-Handled Series, ‘I don’t know why anyone would want to be the best of the leftovers.’”

Some treat it as a lesser competition, but Robert Urban points out, “anytime you have a class where competition is restricted or limited, you will have that. Like any show, depending on the show and location, competition can be very stiff or pretty weak.”

NOHS is an exclusive, special competition where quality dogs and exceptional handlers can be found. It has increased entries, encouraged amateurs to continue to special their dog, and given novices and Juniors a place to start. Erika Peters, owner-handler of Norwegian Elkhounds and Afghan Hounds, competes because, “It continues to allow my special to be seen, judged and ranked at a Group level. It has allowed me to meet and become friends with other owner-handlers I had no idea were out there. And for me personally, it has allowed dog shows to be fun again as an owner-handler.”

Betsie Czeschin is an attorney by profession and a longtime owner-handler of Welsh Springer Spaniels who has enjoyed success in both the regular and NOHS Sporting Groups. A resident of Mountain Home, Ark., she competes with her versatile breed in conformation, obedience, rally and field.

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