Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
So, you want to be a professional handler.
I’ll tell you the same thing I was told at 13. Are you nuts? Get an education and a real job.
This is not a “cush” job. It requires you to be “on the job” 24/7. Say good bye to weekends, sleeping in and your social life. There are no days off. There are innumerable health hazards and no sick days.
OK, didn’t work for me either. This is not a definitive list, but here are 10 tips for getting started. Trust me, I speak from experience. I offer these suggestions as solid, heartfelt advice, mostly acquired the hard way.
1. Climbing the ladder in this business is not for the faint of heart. So, first, pull on a proverbial suit of armor. People will say and do mean things to you. It’s competition and it isn’t always friendly. Ignore it, work hard and keep your head down. Your time will come.
2. Work as an apprentice. Yes, pick up poopy. Wash dogs until your hands bleed. Lift, carry, tote, scramble. But, mostly, LEARN! PHA has an apprentice program, as does the AKC Registered Handler program. Find a handler who works with the breed or group you most want to learn about and beg to help them. Do it for free if you have to. Keep learning. Watch and learn. Do and learn. Challenge yourself to work with the most difficult dogs or situations and master them.
3. Keep working as an apprentice until such time as you have knowledge of all aspects of the business. This includes but certainly is not limited to billing, income and expense balance sheets, insurance, safety, basic medical practices, vehicle safety and maintenance, emergency preparedness, conditioning, training and grooming most breeds and not just ring prep. Study breed standards to learn what is good and faulty about a dog you might show. Learn animal behavior and know how to work with different breeds, temperaments and personalities to bring out the best in each individual.
4. Help other people. Always.
5. Spend the *years* (not weeks) it takes to — wait for it — learn the business. Continue learning, throughout your career.
6. Save your pennies. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. When you’re ready to “go out on your own” you need to have the funds to purchase a safe, reliable vehicle for transporting the number and breeds of dogs you hope to show. You need to have funds or sufficient credit to purchase, lease or build a suitable kennel facility. This includes runs, bathing and grooming facility, exercise yards and housing for you and the client dogs.
7. Save some more pennies. You will build a consistent clientele slowly and you need to be able to properly care for the animals for which you are given responsibility.
8. Stick with what you know. Start in a breed with which you are familiar and gain a reputation there. Continue expanding your horizons slowly. Staying based within the geographic region in which you have a support system, including mentors, friends and potential clients also will be useful in the long run.
9. Be fair and honest with your clients. They are your most valuable resource. Word of mouth can be your best advertising or devastating to your fledgling business. Pay attention to your reputation early and continue throughout your career to guard your words and your actions.
10. Be respectful and upfront with your fellow professionals. Amongst other things, do not solicit other handlers’ clients. If a regular client of handler X approaches you, check with X. Be sure the client is paid in full on all invoices and that there is no outstanding issue, contractual obligation, etc. While clients should be free to make changes in how their dogs are represented, you *really* don’t want to get in the middle of any questionable situation.
Bonus point. Take care of your dogs and your business. Let the underbelly of the sport sort itself out. Not your problem.
A final note, I strongly recommend joining PHA (obviously) or AKC Registered Handlers or another of the organizations designed to monitor and approve professional handlers. It is not only a badge of honor, if you will, but a mark of respect and willingness to give back to the sport that supports us.
As always, this is JMHO.