“The purpose of Junior Showmanship Competition is twofold: to introduce and encourage Juniors to participate in the sport of dogs; and to provide Juniors with a meaningful competition in which they can learn, practice, and improve in all areas of handling skill and sportsmanship. It is important that judges of Junior Showmanship Competition understand the definition and purpose of these classes and take seriously their role in guiding the future guardians of the sport. JUDGES ARE EXPECTED TO HAVE A GENUINE INTEREST IN JUNIORS AND IN JUNIOR SHOWMANSHIP COMPETITION.” AKC Rules and Guidelines

Our hopes and dreams for a strong, useful dog fancy into perpetuity rest with these young people. The breeders, handlers and judges of tomorrow, just like those of us today, start in these classes. It is arguably the most important judging anyone will do in a given day. And often the most difficult.

I am routinely impressed with the quality of presentation from these teenagers and even pre-teens. I love to watch a good team. There are quite a number of outstanding young people in the sport who I know for a fact have worked hard, and trained, groomed and presented their dog to the highest level all on their own. Still, I am usually drawn to that little one with a “project” dog that they are working hard to present to the very best of their ability. The younger ones who haven’t quite polished all the rough edges yet.

With just a little effort, most anyone can show a “push button” dog with aplomb. Grace under pressure is far more difficult to attain.

My first “juniors dog” was Chappy, a Clumber Spaniel who hated the show ring. He could and routinely did put all 65 pounds of body weight in his head, to the point that his back feet would actually lift off the ground. I developed the uncanny ability (and upper body strength) to keep head and tail on level while still offering the semblance of a smile. The second one was a GWP, basically an abused rescue dog, named Pepper. She loathed all men and would just as soon bite one as not. I worked and worked and worked, as only a 14 year old will do, until she could be shown safely even to a man judge. Thirty-something years later, the skill of showing a difficult dog keeps me in business. The life lessons acquired in those formative years, though, have proven over time to be even more valuable.

While I often placed and sometimes even won my class, I never did obtain that coveted Best Junior Handler ribbon. Every young assistant I’ve had in 20 years has out-performed me in Juniors. And I’m as proud of them, as if they were my own children.

Each of these kids was offered a juniors dog of their choice to take on as their own to train and trim and prep for the ring once they reached Open competition. We have rules: the dog can’t outweigh the child and the dog must be friendly with people and dogs. They aren’t given the option of the prettiest or the easiest dog. In exchange they learn. Those rare and valuable little ones who choose to take on challenging dogs rank highest in my esteem. They work the hardest. They don’t win as often as they’d like to or probably should. But, man, do they learn.

And not just about dogs or showmanship. They learn how to get beaten and get back up again. They learn, like puppies do at a young age, HOW to learn. They learn about commitment and dedication and perseverance. They learn that the sweetest reward is one that takes effort to achieve. A fourth place ribbon that is hard won becomes exciting. We encourage and teach and nudge and sometimes wipe tears.

When I watch the juniors ring and see a judge ignoring or, worse yet, berating, a determined kid with a tough dog, it breaks my heart. These young people need to be encouraged the most. And they are the ones we desperately need in the sport. These are the upcoming leaders. The strong ones who will take a risk instead of the easy road. The ones that might, given some guidance, stick around longer than the dreaded five-year mark.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. ….. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” — Steve Jobs

As always, this is JMHO.