If you haven’t heard, the winner of Best Junior Handler at the 2012 Westminster Kennel Club dog show is Ania Kelly. The 16-year-old (yes, so young and inspiring) from Maryland and her English Cocker, ‘Wizard’ or ‘Wiz,’ not only took the great honor of Best Junior Handler this year, but also made history by becoming the first English Cocker to do so at the Garden.

I had the great pleasure of seeing Ania show in both prelims and in the final and, if I do say so myself, she had quite the magic touch. She seemed in tune with her dog and showed like a professional. (To see my photos of all the winners and finalists, click here.)

Ania posted on Facebook: “I could not have asked a single thing more from Wiz, he showed his heart out & I’m glad all my hard work has finally paid off and two very well respected judges found me out of all the great junior handlers that competed.”

So let’s take a moment to hear just what she has to say about how she got to where she is today!

The moment Ania was chosen as a finalist by judge Mrs. Barbara A. Gilchrist.

Kayla Bertagnolli: Ania, tell me a little bit about yourself and your dog history.

Ania Kelly: I have been involved in dogs my whole life. I actually started showing when I was 8 years old. My mom, Rachel Kelly, and grandma, Dotty Romano, are both involved with and breed Vizslas. Now I am too! I started showing in Junior Showmanship when I was 9 and have shown both Vizslas and English Cockers.

KB: What do you like to do in your free time, if you have any?

AK: I attend public high school during the week and go to shows on the weekends. My hobbies include dancing and softball. Most weekends, though, I usually attend dog shows where I assist Michael and Michelle Scott. I love working for handlers, because I love to learn about all different kinds of breeds and about grooming. It’s great watching people who can show and handle so well. The fact that they can make it look so easy – just like nothing – is incredible.

KB: How long have you been showing Wiz, and what does it mean to win with this particular dog?

AK: It was definitely special, not only winning, but the whole journey. I first started showing a Vizsla, which is my and my family’s main breed. Then I decided to get my own Juniors dog that I could learn about and have specifically for Juniors. I started showing Wiz when he was just 6 months old, which made things a little bit harder. I had to concentrate a lot more, and train while in the ring showing my dog. In the end, it’s been a lot more rewarding. I’ve been showing Wiz for about five years now, and once he became older, I could look back and see how far we’ve come.

KB: Can you describe how you felt the moment you won? Who or what did you think about?

AK: It didn’t really hit me, actually. It still hasn’t! Making it to the finals was more emotional than actually winning Best Junior Handler. It was all very exciting. Knowing that the work I’d put into grooming my own dog, learning about handling and showing, was being recognized was a great feeling.

My favorite part about working is getting my “one time” to show on my own. Now I’ll always remember the “one time” I showed Wiz and won!

KB: Do you remember anything specific that your family, friends and supporters said to you after the big win?

Ania and Wiz, after winning Best Junior Handler, looking at the crowd as grandma Dotty screams, ‘Ania!!!! I love you!’

AK: Yes, after I was chosen Best Junior Handler, I hugged everyone and then got up on the podium with Wiz. From the stand, I could hear someone yell, “Ania!!!! I love you!” That was my Grandma, Dot. I even watched the video back and I can tell it was her voice.

Also, it was cool receiving letters and messages from people I’ve known for a long time, but haven’t talked with in a while. One of the first people to congratulate me was a long-time friend, Aaron Bradshaw. Back when I showed on the West Coast, we would compete against each other almost every weekend. He actually won Best Junior Handler at Westminster a few years ago, so I thought it was cool. Although we once competed against each other, we can now share this win.

Another friend who congratulated me also won Best Junior Handler at Westminster. Last year, I made the cut right before finals and Joanne Thibault made the finals and then went on to win. So it was cool how much can change from year to year and to hear her congratulate me.

Another big factor in the finals was that I had two of my best friends in there with me. Just being in there together made the whole thing very stress free!

KB: How does it feel knowing you made history as the first winner with an English Cocker Spaniel?

AK: That, I think is really cool. Looking further back to see how many English Cockers actually placed in Juniors, I found hardly any. The breed is not a common Juniors dog, so the fact that I could win with one was really special.

Ania free stacking Wiz one last time before being chosen as Best Junior Handler.

KB: What trophy did you win and what does it mean to you?

AK: I will remember it forever! The actual trophy was the Best Junior Handler sash and first place ribbon. Then I got a huge sterling silver engraved platter and an engraved picture frame. The frame and official photo will be displayed in my living room, together with the platter, in our trophy hutch. My name will also be engraved on the big trophy along with all of the past winners. This is kept by the Westminster Kennel Club, which I think is really cool.

We also plan to make a scrapbook with everything from the show this year, including our tickets, my wristband, and stuff like that. I also have been receiving a lot of letters in the mail that we’ll be including.

KB: Do you have any good luck charms or special preparations you make before you show?

AK: No, not really, but after every time I show, I ask my mom what I can do better. I also have some friends who help each other out if we ever show a breed besides our own. We give each other pointers.

KB: Who is your support system? Have you any mentors?

AK: My support system is definitely my mom and my grandma. My mom was actually the first person to give me handling lessons – in my backyard, no less! Along with them, my mentors include Michael and Michelle Scott. I’ve been assisting them for four-plus years now and I’ve learned so much from them. They’ve always been so supportive. I also assisted Andy Linton and learned a lot about the dog show world from him and from his other assistant at the time, Ashlie Whitmore.

KB: Have you shown or qualified for The Garden prior to last year?

AK: Yes, I’ve qualified and attended Westminster five times now. I’ve made the cut in prelims right before making the final four out of five times.

KB: How did you like having the Juniors Prelims in the Theater this year?

AK: Honestly, it was kind of stressful. I even think Wiz was feeling the same way. I definitely didn’t like it as much.

Wiz and Ania preparing to be examined in the final Junior Showmanship competition under judge Ms. Theresa L. Hundt.

KB: Everyone wants to know… What’s next?

AK: Well, I’m going to “retire” from juniors, although, if I’m able, I would love to attend Crufts. Other than that, I plan to focus on working at the shows, attending nationals and learning more about dog shows in general. I want to learn more about professional handling, what it takes not only handling-wise, but the business element. I want to attend business school to one day become a professional handler myself.

KB: Do you have any advice for next year’s contenders?

AK: Just keep your mind open and know that anything can happen! Just like me, you can attend the show and nothing happens, but the next year, you can win the whole thing! Keep your mind open, show your best and hope for the best.

KB: Is it bittersweet knowing that you will be retiring from juniors?

AK: In a way, it’s kind of a relief. I always looked forward to showing under “good” and “fair” judges, but sometimes it didn’t seem to matter how much time and effort I’d put into grooming and working hard with my dog. Sometimes that was frustrating. I’ll miss the judges who actually take their time to pick out the juniors who work really hard to get where they are today.

KB: Any last words?

AK: I don’t want to have any “last words,” yet!

KB: Thank you, Ania, for taking the time to speak with us. Congratulations!

DFR! Dogs Freakin’ Rule, my friends!!!!!

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