At this time of year, when everyone comes together to celebrate one of the most prestigious dog shows, we’re all reminded of just how much we love dogs.

For some though, it can be a bittersweet experience. For some junior handlers, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show is in fact their very last time showing in Junior Showmanship. This year I have the pleasure of going along on what is expected to be a wonderful journey with the one and only Morgan Mattioli from Califon, N.J.!

Morgan not only has grace in the ring – demonstrating how effortlessly she can show dogs from Great Danes to Weimaraners – but she truly is the whole package. She has drive and determination, and she hopes to continue in the sport for many years to come.

Morgan and I plan to share with you all of the details about what it feels like to show for the last time in Junior Showmanship at such a big event. But first, let’s get to know Morgan a little bit more…

KB: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your last time showing in Junior Showmanship! Let’s get to know a little bit about your history in the dog show world.

Morgan Mattioli: I grew up around Great Danes my entire life. My mom, Karla Mattioli, bought her first show dog in 1998 from Nancy Simmons, when I was 3 years old. I can remember going to the shows, and always wanted to participate in them. By the age of 6, I was stacking puppies. It wasn’t until four years later that I got into the show ring. My first show dog was a brindle Great Dane bitch named Gia. We bought her from Cindy and Glenn Niske. I trained her myself, began showing her in breed, and finished her myself. Two months after I began showing, a Dane handler told my mom and me about juniors. Once I began showing in breed and juniors, I was hooked.

Morgan is pictured with one of her juniors dogs and her first show dog, Gia, winning Best Junior Handler. Photos courtesy of Morgan Mattioli.

KB: Do you remember the first time you showed in Junior Showmanship? Tell us a little bit about it.

MM: As I mentioned, I never planned on showing in juniors until I had been told about it. I don’t exactly remember my first time in juniors, but I’ll never forget my first time showing. I was so nervous and felt that I would never compare to the professionals that I was competing against! There were two in my class, and I took second place. While I was somewhat upset, I never gave up.

KB: Junior Showmanship can take a lot of hard work. How do you prepare before a show?

MM: Whether I have a show or not, I go to a handling class two to three times per week. There is always room for improvement, and each time I learn something new. Conditioning the dogs is also something that must be done year around. The days leading up to the show usually include short training sessions and grooming.

Morgan shows her Weimaraner, Reagan, and is pictured here winning Best Junior Handler.

KB: Do you have or have you had any mentors as a junior handler?

MM: So many people have been willing to help that I could just not mention all of them, although I am so thankful. Of course, there are a few that have taught me so much, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. Number one is my mom. She taught me not just how to handle, but something far more important. She taught me never to give up, and how to handle certain situations. She’s been so supportive in everything I have done, and I am so grateful for that. Also, without Nancy Simmons, I would not be showing. She was one of my first teachers and has been so willing to share her knowledge of both breeding and showing with me. I have learned so much about not only handling, but proper structure of the Great Dane as well. Then there is Denise Garber. I began going to her handling classes about a year and a half ago. She has found flaws in my handling that I never would have found myself. She’s helped me become a better handler and trainer. Most importantly, she taught me how to have fun with my dog in the ring and not to take it too seriously. After all, it is just a dog show, and you will always go home with the best dog: yours.

KB: Are you involved in any other aspects of the sport?

MM: I have always shown in breed. I enjoy the challenge of competing against the professional handlers. I am also learning about all the aspects of breeding, including pedigrees, health clearances and whelping litters. I hope to become more involved in breeding in the near future.

KB: This will be your fifth time showing in juniors at the Garden. How do you think this year will be different from the previous years?

MM: I don’t think it will be that much different. I will still give it my all, and hope for the best. From there, it is in the judges’ hands.

KB: Not only is this your last time showing at the Garden, but also your last time showing in Junior Showmanship. Tell us what is going through your head at this point.

MM: I will miss showing in juniors, but at the same time I am excited to move on. I have changed a lot since I began showing in juniors and don’t get the same out of it that I used to. Aging out is just the next chapter to many more to come.

KB: What are your dog show goals after your juniors career?

MM: After juniors, I will continue to show in breed competition. Once I graduate high school, my main focus will be on getting a degree in animal science. Although I won’t be able to show as much during college, I hope to remain active in showing whenever possible.

KB: Any last words before competing at Westminster this year?

MM: I just want to thank everyone who has gotten me this far once again. There are not enough words to describe how thankful I am for all of them. Also, good luck to everyone showing. Most importantly: have fun!!

KB: Thanks again for sharing your story with us, Morgan!

For all of you DFR readers, you can find updates from Morgan and me live at Westminster Kennel Club dog show, so be sure to become our fan on Facebook. And don’t forget to keep an eye out for part two of Morgan’s interview, after she shows for the last time as a junior handler!

Don’t forget, juniors and Dogs Freakin’ Rule!