The American Kennel Club announced last December that, “to celebrate the dedication and enthusiasm of owner-handler exhibitors,” it would implement a new program called the AKC Owner-Handler Series, which began in January 2012.

The stated purpose of this new offering is “to showcase quality dogs at a series of special competitions offered at dog shows across the country,” where owner-handlers compete against their peers. At designated shows around the country, points – having nothing to do with championship points – are awarded to owner-handlers for Best of Breed, the four Group placements and Best in Show. For instance, a Best of Breed win is worth five points, a Group First, 30 points, and a Best in Show, 100 points. The rankings of the owner-handlers who compete and win at these specific shows are posted on the AKC website. At the end of the year, the Top 10 owner-handled dogs of each breed will be invited to compete at an end-of-the-year competition.

No dogs owned or shown by a professional handler are eligible for the Owner-Handler Series, nor are dogs shown by a professional handler’s assistant or any member of his or her household.

Billy Wheeler reported on the Owner-Handler Series back in February for Best in Show Daily. Since then, six shows have held the special series competition: in January, DFA of Oregon in Portland, Ore., and Oakland County KC in Novi, Mich.; in February, Sahuaro State KC in Phoenix, Colorado KC in Denver and International KC in Chicago; and in March, Ft. Worth KC in Texas. The first set of rankings of the participants has now been posted on the AKC website.

The current Number 1 owner-handled dog in the series is German Shorthaired Pointer GCh. Fieldfines Pure Gold CGC TDI. ‘Billy,’ bred by Dot and Bill Simberlund, Dot’s daughter Dorothea Hand and Sharon Asbell, is owned by Dot Simberlund with Dr. Gary McNeill and Barbara McNeill, who shows him.

That Barbara and Billy are having success in the show ring is unsurprising, considering from where Billy came. The Fieldfine Kennel has produced more than 100 champion Shorthairs, as well as numerous all-breed and National Specialty BIS winners, top producers and hunt-titled dogs. Billy’s sire, Am. GCh. Can. Intl. Ch. Fieldfines Back in Action JH CGC ROMX was a multiple all-breed Best in Show winner and won the National Specialty three times. ‘Ace’ was the Number 1 GSP in 2006 and 2009, but more importantly he was the parent club’s Show Sire of the Year in 2008, 2009 and 2010. He has sired more than 60 champions to date.

Billy’s dam, Ch. Fieldfine Topsfield Eternal Flame ROM, was the Number 1 GSP in 2005 and a Westminster BOB winner, but again, most importantly, she has been a producer, and in fact was the Top Dam of All Breeds in 2008, when seven of her offspring finished.

From top-winning and top-producing parents, GCh. Fieldfines Pure Gold is meeting his potential as a show dog. Photo by Tom Weigand.

Considering his heritage, then, it was no surprise that Billy finished his championship at 11 months of age with three majors. As Barbara McNeill says, “We haven’t looked back since!” Owner-handled and in limited showing, Billy has won 13 Group Firsts and over 60 Group placements, as well as a Best in Show, in regular AKC competition, aside from his wins in the Owner-Handler Series.

He and Barbara also have three qualifying runs toward their hunt title, which they achieved in one weekend, and Billy works as a therapy dog too.

Barbara says that she learned about the new Owner-Handler Series through friends. The first time she and Billy competed in the series was in February, at Sahuaro State Kennel Club. Judge Bettyann Hale awarded the pair Best Owner-Handler in what Barbara describes as “very strong Best of Breed competition,” and after winning the OH Sporting Group, they were Best Owner-Handler in Show under Robert Robertson. One week later in Denver, Eva Berg awarded them their second OH Sporting Group First. “Now I find myself combing the premium lists for the Owner-Handler Series,” Barbara says.

Justifiably proud of everything she and Billy have accomplished as a team, Barbara is especially proud to be an owner-handler. She has set what she calls “lofty goals” for herself and Billy, and they continue to achieve those goals. It was Berg who, last December, set the ball rolling for one of Barbara’s biggest goals to be realized, when she awarded Billy BOB at the Conroe Kennel Club show. Later in the day, judge Karin Ashe selected Billy first in a strong Sporting Group, and Barbara was delighted.

When sizing up the Best in Show competition, she took a realistic view. “As I watched the rest of the Groups unfold, with professional handlers, whom I admire, taking each Group with multiple Best in Show winners,” she says, “I thought to myself, ‘I have nothing to lose, so I’ll just show my dog and have a good time.’”

Barbara doesn’t exaggerate the accomplishments of the Group winners that day. In the Best in Show ring came the Number 2 Hound and Number 8 among all breeds, the 2007 World Show BIS winning Pharaoh Hound GCh. Northgate’s As You Like It, with Brian Livingston; the Number 2 Working Dog and Number 9 of all breeds, Kuvasz GCh. Szumeria’s Wildwood Silver Six Pence, with Diana Wilson; Scott Sommer handling the Number 3 Non-Sporting Dog and Number 10 among all breeds, Bichon Frise GCh. Saks Hamelot Little Drummer Boy; Number 7 Toy, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel GCh. Miletree Northern Star, shown by Clint Livingston; and Number 4 among all Herding dogs, Cardigan Welsh Corgi GCh. Aubrey’s Tails of Mystery.

“Billy was on,” Barbara says, and she just relaxed and enjoyed being in the Best in Show ring with her dog. Judge Angela Porpora examined and gaited all seven Group winners, then went to mark her book. Carrying the BIS ribbon, the judge walked to the center of the ring and said, “Today it’s the German Shorthaired Pointer.” In disbelief, Barbara yelled “What?,” sending spectators at ringside into gales of laughter, and then, some, into tears. “An owner-handler had just gone Best in Show in a beautiful lineup of some of the top dogs in the country,” Barbara says. Her peers were happy for her.

Being successful as an owner-handler takes effort and dedication. “Billy and I have worked hard to perfect our ring presence, and we’re still working on it,” Barbara notes. “I have watched owner-handlers who don’t make it out of the breed ring pack up and go home.” Instead, Barbara has honed her craft by staying at the dog show even when she doesn’t win and observing those who do. “For hours on end, I would watch the pros, their entrance to the ring and their interactions with their dogs while waiting their turn. And of course, I watch the judges too.”

She doesn’t focus just on her own breed, but moves from ring to ring, watching different breeds, handlers and judges. She has also used other tools to help improve her performance in the ring. “My husband has taken hours of video of us in the ring to learn from,” she says.

Barbara says that having a dog of Billy’s caliber, from an AKC Breeder of Merit, competing at the top levels and winning an all-breed Best in Show was on her bucket list, and now, she says, “I am living my bucket list!”

Being the first Number 1-ranked exhibitor in the Owner-Handler Series is icing on the cake. “I believe none of the secrets to success will work unless you do,” Barbara says. “So to all the owner-handlers out there, it can be done, but you have to work!”