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As the Wheels Turn

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.

Warning Label:

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.

Written by

Our family always had dogs. Mutt dogs, purebred dogs, but always dogs. I grew up with dogs everywhere. My mother eventually enrolled me in dog care 4-H because I was “shy and retiring and lacked people skills”….. I am the living testimonial to the success of the 4-H program! I continued into AKC shows as my family transitioned from “dogs” to the wonderful world of Purebred Dogs. I showed all of our family dogs in conformation and participated in Junior Showmanship competition. I went to college, earned a degree and worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer. Today, I am an AKC Breeder of Merit and a member of the Professional Handlers Association.
  • Jo Ann White May 14, 2014 at 9:46 AM

    Great article. One of the toughest jobs in the world!

  • Vandra Huber
    Vandra Huber May 19, 2014 at 4:06 PM

    I really think there needs to be one more point on your list regarding take a class on business and accounting. As someone who has worked with many different handlers, handlers truly lack a sense of business. This includes preparing rate cards, monthly itemized bills, follow up with clients on late bills, paying assistants legally, completing paperwork to bring them into the U.S. legally (yes it can be done), paying young people legally under the Fair Labor Standards Act, preparing your taxes and itemizing expenses monthly rather than at the last minute. I have had handlers who have never sent a bill and I have had to guess how much I owe, handlers mismanage their own budgets and need an advance “just to get by” and even ask for that money the day they leave for a circuit. All of these things go into the title “Professional Handler.”

    • kayla
      kayla May 21, 2014 at 6:09 AM

      Vandra, you’re so right on this subject. And, it’s especially rewarding to hear from an educator! We’ve spoken with so many handlers that tell us “if I had known, I would have done…. and then they list classes in business accounting, basic tax, human resources management, real estate, how to understand code & zone laws.”

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