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A Day in the Life of an Assistant

Being an assistant to a professional handler means more than just going to the shows and “hanging out.” It’s a full-time, adrenaline-charged job that can consume a person mentally, physically and emotionally.

But what does the word “assistant” actually mean? Well, according to the dictionary an assistant is a person who ranks below a senior person, and a person who helps in particular work. So in reality, an assistant is not just someone who helps or works for a handler. In fact, I think I’ve personally been an “assistant” since I was about 8 years old. Thank you, Mom!

When you grow up in the dog show world you are constantly lending a hand, whether that means feeding the dogs, playing with them or cleaning up after them. There’s always something that has to be done and there is always room for help. Remember, the title “assistant” doesn’t necessarily mean you are working for a professional handler. An assistant can be anyone, just like you and me!

Because no one person can possibly describe what it’s like to work as a professional handler’s assistant, I reached out to some of my hard-working peers to get an overall view of their duties. Their stories reveal the hard times and the rewards that come with the lifestyle.

So let’s take an overall look at how a typical handler assistant’s day actually goes…

Early mornings, long days and late nights are the rule. Yep, that’s exactly how it goes. Dogs can’t take care of themselves, and that’s why they have us! For an assistant, weekends are usually the highlight of the week, although they may also be the busiest. They’re definitely the most enjoyable!

The typical day starts around 5 am, depending on whether you’re staying on the show grounds or in a hotel. Either way, most people put the dogs out at about 6 am to go potty and stretch their legs. Now don’t forget, the day or night before was “set-up day.” Most handlers, if they’re able, get to the show a day ahead to set up. It takes a good chunk of time to get everything organized and settled, and to make final touches on the dogs before they’re ready to show.

Once the dogs are out and going potty, it’s the perfect time to clean crates, fill water bowls, make doggy breakfast and get everything prepared for the day. In preparation, one thing to keep in mind is the judging schedule for the day. Assistant Lauren Lavitt points out that some schedules are perfect but, others, not so much! “The hardest job for an assistant—especially if you are the only one—is to make sure that every dog gets into the ring and is presented well. You have to be able to think ahead and be on the ball in order for everything to go smoothly,” she says. Sometimes you can have eight dogs scheduled to go into the ring at the same time, and ring conflicts can be very tricky. Some rings are slow, while others move fast.

Assistant Lauren Lavitt on the right with handler Valerie Nunes-Atkinson after winning Best in Show with GCh. Shortales N Cahoots W Irondale JH.

Throughout the day of the show, it’s more than important to have all the dogs ready on time, and looking their best! Unfortunately, there’s always a chance that a few kinks will upset the day’s plans. Accidents and emergencies can happen at any time, but there are a few things we all can do to avoid or lessen the chance of those dreaded moments occurring.

Assistant Hillary Wambaugh, who’s worked for several handlers including Bruce and Tara Schultz and Amy Rutherford, has some bright ideas for helping assistants to remember what not to forget! She says, “Keep a close eye on all of your dogs as often as possible. Frequently check your truck or van, especially in the summer, to make sure the air is cool and, if needed, the A/C running. Check water bowls often. Closely watch the dogs in ex-pens, and mindfully walk dogs at safe distances from other people and dogs. Lastly, never be too far away from a dog on the table, because sometimes accidents can happen in an instant.”

Assistant Hillary Wambaugh with a Beagle puppy.

It’s always a good idea to have emergency supplies handy. For a list of important items to keep with you, check out Editor-in-Chief Dan Sayers’ article, “Prep Your Tack Box with Care for Peace of Mind.

After all of the breed judging is completed, it’s time for Groups. I would say that most of the time, if you’re assisting a professional handler, they will have anywhere from one to eight or more dogs in the Groups. Believe it or not, this is a bit more “relaxed” time of day! With any luck, between getting dogs readied again for their Group performance, exercising and walking dogs, cleaning the set-up, and possibly feeding dogs, you may be able to squeeze in some time to watch the Groups and cheer on your dogs!

You might even have time to socialize with friends and other assistants. This is always fun and a great learning experience.

After Groups and Best in Show are completed, things start to wind down. Now it’s time—if you haven’t had the chance already—to feed dogs, clean the set-up, and let the doggies have some free time. At this point, some handlers will go to dinner and then come back to exercise the dogs. Others give the dogs a nice long exercise period and then go to dinner. Whatever the case, at some point in time it is inevitable that you will get to eat!

After dinner, it’s back to the hotel or the motor home and, before bedtime, you’ll have time to prepare for the next day. Oh wait! If necessary, you get to sleep in the truck or van with the dogs, to make sure they stay cool or warm and that nothing unexpected happens. It may not sound ideal, but it’s definitely needed to ensure safety.

The next day, you get to wake up and do it all over again!

Somewhere in the craziness of that schedule, there’s an opportunity to learn more than any other people involved in dog shows. Assistants learn about grooming, about all the different breeds, and about dogs in general. You learn about the business side of things, and you meet many great and influential people along the way too. What more could you want?

Lauren says, “Being an assistant isn’t all fun and games, but it’s a great place to learn the necessary techniques in order to be successful one day on our own!” Hillary agrees. “Assisting is full of rewards, from beating your boss in the class, to getting praise and thanks from clients.”

I could not agree more with these two ladies. There really is nothing else out there like assisting and learning from great people! Whether it’s from your mom, a handler, or even a breeder, it truly is a one-of-a-kind experience. A day in the life of an assistant may be hectic—and tiring—but in the end, isn’t it all worth it? I would say so!

A BIG thanks to Lauren and Hillary for their thoughts about the assistant’s life. It is true, assistants and Dogs Freakin’ Rule!

Written by

Kayla Bertagnolli is a 23-year-old from Ogden, UT, who's been involved in the dog show world her whole life. A former junior handler who learned about breeding Beagles from her mother Leah, she assisted several professional handlers and is currently working to become a Junior Showmanship judge. Kayla is passionate about photography and writes the twice-weekly blog, DFR. She plans to continue breeding and showing, and expects to stay involved in dogs "for life!"
  • Hillary Wambaugh March 8, 2012 at 12:08 PM

    Two of some of my favorite people Lauren and Kayla! Wow well done. Thanks so much, Kayla, for including me, I’m honored.

    • Kayla Bertagnolli
      Kayla B March 9, 2012 at 6:28 PM

      Thanks Hill, it was so wonderful to have your input!

  • Chelsea March 8, 2012 at 2:14 PM

    I absolutely loved the article! This is a very valid and realistic view on the life of a handler’s assistant, yet it remains an exciting venture to the reader.

    • Kayla Bertagnolli
      Kayla B March 9, 2012 at 6:29 PM

      Thanks Chelsea! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Kayla Kurucz March 8, 2012 at 8:34 PM

    Excellent article KaylaB. I am always in awe of the assistants that manage and maintain my dogs. With all the pressure, long hours, and hard work, they’re always professional, smiling and have a good word for everyone.

  • Kay March 9, 2012 at 1:00 AM

    Thank you for writing this. I was recently asked to assist a professional handler, completely out of the blue, it seemed to me, as I have only been showing for about 4 months and am definitely still a newbie at the sport. I was on the fence as to whether or not I wanted to try and find a way to squeeze this into my already crazy schedule (school, dance, work), but your two articles on being an assistant have convinced me to at least give it a try.

    • Kayla Bertagnolli
      Kayla B March 9, 2012 at 6:31 PM

      Wow! Thank you Kay! I feel as if i have been in your similar situation even the school, dance, work part! I’m so glad you are going to “give it a try”! Feel free to contact if you ever have any questions! Kb

  • Hayley July 29, 2015 at 7:20 PM

    Hey Kayla!
    I love your article! I’ve always wanted to try being a assistant to a handler! My one true passion in life is dogs. I just don’t know where to start! What is your recommendation for getting into the business?

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