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Breeder/Owner-Handlers Are Not the Minor League

Some lessons that I have learned over the years seemed so small when I learned them and yet have stood by me better than anything I was ever tested on in school. One of these came from a college psychology professor more decades ago than I care to admit. I won’t try to quote him – because my recall is not that good – but in essence it was this: “If you can take a statement or joke or circumstance involving a particular group of people, insert another group of people, and you suddenly feel uncomfortable or the joke isn’t funny, you have prejudice.”

I am struck by this lesson often in my dog show travels, because when I am showing, especially in Best of Breed, my fellow breeders and breeder/owner-handlers treat me differently than they treat my professional handler counterparts. So I have to ask, “Are we hurting ourselves and our peers, but openly maintaining a lower set of standards for the owner-handler? Here are a few of the – sometimes subtle – ways I see this.

A Lesson in Sports Psychology
When I first started showing dogs, I took George Alston’s seminar and bought his book. Like many lessons along the way, I incorporated some things and left others. One of the things that stuck with me is Alston’s message that 90 percent of dog showing is mental. I also bought a book on sports psychology, and in between the visualization and methods to handle nerves was the lesson that talent gets you only so far. The difference that makes a great athlete is mental –often the reason talented individuals don’t succeed is because they can’t cross the mental threshold to greatness. So we humans are often our own worst enemies, and when we don’t succeed we have to learn to take a good hard look at ourselves and ask, “What am I doing that may be causing this issue?”

So when I think about this and how we as breeder/owner-handlers watch our sport fall further and further into the hands of moneyed individuals and lose more and more to professional handlers (sometimes on mediocre entries), instead of just pointing fingers and railing at the “system,” I find myself asking, “What are we doing that is hurting ourselves?” And more importantly, “What can we do about it?”

Unification Through Competition
Over the years, I have noticed some overriding behaviors in the dog show world that are key to understanding our psychology. On one side, we have the professional handler. This is the point where I reiterate that I don’t think that professional handlers are the devil that should be exorcised, but they are kind of the opposing team, to continue the sports analogy. So while the Phillies and the Braves may not consider each other the enemy, so to speak, and may be friends on an individual basis with opposing players, they still try to beat the other team when they play each other. I am pretty sure that the pro handlers are not colluding with each other in the RV park after judging, plotting their ultimate conquest for world domination. (I have no proof of this, but if they truly are plotting an overthrow of civilization, they are certainly taking their time about it!) They are, however, unified in their goal to keep their profession viable.

We breeder/owner-handlers, on the other hand, are only unified by our desire to beat each other and the total conviction that we alone among all of our peers stick to the standard and are producing the best specimens of our breed. We have our passion for our breeds and incredible convictions, but in the end we act as a group of individuals.

Neither of these two things is going to change. For my part, I think the give and take in the breeding community, coupled with a plethora of opinions, strengthens each of our breeds by challenging us to rethink our beliefs and strive for perfection. It is not necessarily a bad thing. But when we want to take back our sport, we need to be mindful that individuals going up against a unified group are seldom effective. We have to ask, “What can we/I do?” While most will talk about big plans and changes in AKC regulation, etc., (all of which may have to happen), I would like to propose something small. I think we need, as a group, to make a mental shift when it comes to how we view ourselves and each other.

A Tad Glib
My parent club added a Top 20 event to its National Specialty a few years back. For a while our bitches were having a tough time in the specials ring – most judges wouldn’t consider them for Best of Breed. Happily, that is no longer the case, but at the time we decided to bring the Top 10 bitches into the competition. A fellow breeder’s response to this was: “If people want to get their bitches into the Top 20, they should just spend the money and hire a handler.”

At another show, I ran into a breeder outside the Corgi ring where she was watching while waiting for a friend. She proclaimed that the competition was not as serious as our ring because “It’s mostly owner-handlers.”

First, let’s not be too hard on my compatriots here. They are merely expressing out loud what may be spoken of quietly all the time (for the record, though, I think the Corgi people are quite serious). It serves to bring to light how we think of things and makes us ask the question, “Do we really only think that those hiring professional handlers are ‘serious’ about showing their dogs?”

You Should Smile More
I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten this one. I will get out of the specials ring, and one of my peers will go, “Rhoda, you should smile more while you are showing. You look too serious!” And in handling class, an instructor will say, “Smile! You’re supposed to be having fun!”

Admittedly, I have never heard anyone ever say this to a man who was handling, and there definitely is a social pressure out there for women to have a pleasing expression at all times. Still, I respond the same when I hear, “Count how many times you see a professional handler smile while they are handling their dog.” I am not talking about when the handler is joking around with other exhibitors in the ring or when getting a ribbon from the judge. I am talking about when handlers are stacking, gaiting or free baiting their entries at the show. I’m sure they’re out there. I know of one on the West Coast in our breed, but for the most part these guys are dead serious! They are working, after all.

Think about it. When’s the last time you smiled all the way through a business meeting, especially when you were trying to make an important point? In fact, someone grinning like a fool for that long would get more than a few sidelong glances. So why would we expect this from the owner-handler and expect it to the point of going out of our way to mention it?”

One Dress Code or Two?
Nothing seems to elicit quite as many comments as my apparel. I have yet to wear a leopard print jumpsuit or an “I’m with Stupid” T-shirt to a dog show (or anywhere else for that matter). Yet I have gotten comments in two different veins pretty often. Fortunately, neither are in the “That’s inappropriate” or “Did you dig that out of the Goodwill bag?” category.

The first is, “You should dress sexier.” I am often left speechless by this suggestion. Because nothing screams, “I’m not taking this stuff seriously!” more than a short skirt and a low-cut blouse. Right? While there may be some judges out there where a little cleavage could tip the scales in my favor, I’m thinking we all know that being overtly sexy is inappropriate.

And the second comes in a few forms, but mostly is along the lines of me looking too professional or too business-like. It is my understanding that the dog show dress code is business attire. I have managed to find quite a few brightly colored suits to spice things up a bit that I wouldn’t wear to a job interview. Certainly things should be clean, pressed and in good repair when presenting your dog.

But too professional? Is there such a thing? Most weekends, I see the heavy-hitting professional handlers out there in suits and ties or dresses or skirt suits. Why be critical of the owner-handler who dresses the same way?

Congratulations or Concession?
Here I know I will get disagreement, but I hope you will hear me out.

Recently a fellow breeder saw me at a dog show and proceeded to congratulate me for going Select the previous weekend. I was a tad incredulous and have to admit that I wondered for a moment if she was joking. After all, I didn’t go Best of Breed. So, following the lesson of my old professor, let’s see how we really react when asked a question. You don’t have to say the answer out loud or admit it to anyone. But be honest, at least with yourself. So here it is: Would you ever – ever – consider going up to any of the big time professional handlers that you know, who is campaigning a special, and congratulate them for going Select at last weekend’s all-breed show? I’m betting your answer is “No.”

To be fair, there are those who are only interested in gaining the latest title that the AKC has created – the grand championship – and seem to be OK with getting Select “Whatever” weekend after weekend. And there are those who are being supportive; they may think it is an accomplishment to get anything in a ring filled with professional handlers with seemingly limitless war chests. But I really get the feeling that people – my peers – believe that I should be happy settling for any ribbon on a given day. In the specials ring, if you don’t win Best of Breed, you’ve lost. You don’t get any points toward your national ranking, and you don’t get to go to the Group ring. Even when I am in classes, I try to go Best of Breed every time. I am there to win, and I assume everyone else in that ring is there for the same reason.

Let’s Help Ourselves – and Each Other
Part of George Alston’s lessons instructed to always believe that you are going in the ring on the best dog. He also said there was nothing scarier to the professional handler than a good amateur on a good dog. It is a mental shift you have to make when going into competition. If we treat each other like minor league players, then others will follow suit. Judges, handlers, show committees, the AKC and on down the line will have no trouble thinking of us as the minor league as well. We need to make a mental shift in how we see ourselves and how we treat our peers.

Some of us like to walk into the ring on our own dog. Let’s not assume that our fellow breeder/owner-handlers are competing in a different tier of competition. The next time you are about to make a comment to one of your peers, ask yourself if you would say the same thing to a professional handler. Because as long as we remain complicit with the idea of being second class citizens, that is where we will remain.

Rhoda Springer entered the dog show world by accident in 1993, finishing her first Rhodesian Ridgeback in 1994. She has remained addicted to the show scene ever since, despite numerous family intervention attempts.

Written by

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E August 3, 2013 at 9:38 AM


  • Nancy Bitters August 3, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    Awesome article!

  • Cindi Staab Gredys August 3, 2013 at 10:06 AM

    Great article Rhoda. I joined dogs shows about the same time and also attended a G. Alston seminar. Best $ I ever spent. Because of these very points you make I have been an extremely successful breeder, owner, handler. WE are the only ones that can make our dogs look good ~ so I hope this will dispense with some of the ring side grumbling. I can’t believe how many in this sport don’t ‘see’ what makes a difference. Hey, as the saying goes, when in Rome do as the Roman’s do! and another favorite, dress for success! Come one people, breed better dogs, train them, condition them, and present them well. Remember you are part of the whole picture the judge see’s even if they are judging the dog.

  • Janet O August 3, 2013 at 7:24 PM

    I agree with the author in that non-professionals need to be cognizant of how we speak & think about ourselves as handlers, and our dogs as exhibits…….. the ringside gaggles you see of owner handlers with their dogs standing every which way is one of my pet peeves. Compare that to the entourages some dogs arrive ringside with & it’s apparent who is taking things seriously.

    Making sure your skills are on-par, your dog in fantastic condition, and superbly trained only get’s us part way up the dog show food chain. Absent sufficient funds for travel & advertising, a talented owner-handler with a fantastic dog will never have the same success as the pro-campaigned dogs. It’s simply statistically impossible for someone with a “day job” to exhibit at enough shows to get high in the rankings. We can all point to the exception……. the owner handler that is ranked in the top 20 all breed or within their group, but a closer look inevitably reveals a substantial, if not unlimited, budget.

    This isn’t ringside grumbling, it’s the truth. I have significantly decreased my participation in conformation due to these harsh realities, and am finding increased satisfaction in other dog sports & activities. I can set lofty goals, work hard towards them and have a much higher likelihood of achieving them in the obedience, rally, agility, or tracking competition. I can take that long drive home after participating in companion & performance events knowing that the days results reflect my commitment to breeding, training, and exhibiting, not due to the judges bias, the “type-de-jour”, advertising, or the fact that I don’t have unlimited funds.

    Notwithstanding all the above, I do exhibit my dogs in conformation, I am much, much, much more particular about who we enter under, the location of the show, and now more than ever…….. what other events & special attractions are available. Clubs that take care of their rally & obedience exhibitors will get conformation entries from me as a ‘second entry same dog” ………. but be advised, that impeccably dressed owner handler standing ringside with the perfectly trained, well conditioned dog, isn’t entering for Select!

  • Jeanne August 4, 2013 at 2:44 AM

    A very interesting and thoughtful article. Thank you so much.

  • Jilli Bean August 4, 2013 at 5:58 AM

    Rhonda, you started showing in 1993. After 20 years in the ring, I’d say you’re a professional today, even if you have never taken a dime for showing a dog. It’s a bit different perspective for me just starting out 3 years ago. I bet today’s show ring is different than it was even 10 years ago. It’s rough for me as an owner. Smile? In my ring, I am pushed around and spoken over many times in the ring by pro’s. The last show my bitch got BOS, one of the pro’s behind me in line for ribbons was making rude remarks about ‘something rotten’ in front of her. The pro’s in my breed do collude. They manipulated the ring in the most subtle of ways. They talk to each other ahead of time if someone needs a point for one of their dogs, they work it out. I was heavily warned to not ‘show’ my dog well in the ring for BOW when I had finished her that day as one of the handler’s needed the point from the cross over. It ruined a day that should have been one of happy celebrations. Stuff like that makes me not want to smile in the ring…or even show actually.

  • Lynda Beam (Canine Candids by Lynda) August 4, 2013 at 7:08 AM

    It’s true, handlers have a pretty stressful life. I’m not even going to go into the rigors of showing dogs, not having the choice to just blow the show off occasionally, showing in all kinds of weather, dragging stuff into buildings, staying there all day and half the night, and then up really early the next morning. I’ve known more than one handler to say if they knew how to do anything else where they could make a living, they would! And there are some great clients, and some that are not so great. I sometimes felt I needed a degree in psychology to deal with some of them.

    Fortunately showing dogs was never my profession even though at one I accepted money for showing dogs. I’ve very seldom taken more than 4 dogs to a show, usually the same breed, quite often only one. I could take my time, sleep late if we had a late showing, focus all my attention on MY dogs and not have to worry about if I’m going to make the ring because of a ring conflict. I’ve had more than one handler tell me they were jealous LOL

  • Linda Madden August 4, 2013 at 9:29 AM

    Amen Rhonda, my sentiments exactly. I’m not spending my time, efforts, and cash to win a booby prize.
    It’s no shame to lose to a better dog, but frustrating to lose to mediocre that is well financed. And don’t get me started on pros in bbe – now that Euk has $$ prizes – when one knows they have nothing to do with the breeding of the dog they are showing….

    • Collin August 5, 2013 at 12:16 PM

      Linda, while it may be true that there are dogs shown by “professional handlers” in BBE competition by people didn’t really whelp the dog on the end of the lead, it isn’t fair to imply that this is the norm. Yes, many professional handlers show dogs in the Bred-by-Exhibitor competition at AKC/Eukanuba, but a look at the winners for the past several years will reveal that the handlers of the majority of those Group winners, whether “amateur” or “professional,” have whelped their fair share of puppies. Many handlers are also very talented and dedicated breeders.

      Let’s not paint all professional handlers with the same brush. I am 100 percent supportive of owner-handlers and the breeder/owner-handler, without whom our sport would be non-existent. But we must also recognize the great contributions that many professional handlers have made, and continue to make, to our sport.

    • Mary Dukes September 6, 2014 at 11:38 AM

      The VAST majority of professional handlers started as breeder/owner/handlers, just like you They show in bred by BECAUSE THEY ARE PROUD OF THEIR DOGS, just like every other breeder owner handler. The ‘handlers’ who have won the past several years at AENC are also ALL breeders in the truest sense (Sandy D’Andrea, Amy Booth, Eileen Hackett to name a few…), and frankly probably think of themselves as breeders first. If you think they are just on the dogs ‘in name only’ then you haven’t done your homework. Laura Reeves article in the last issue of BISD hits a home run on this subject….

  • Pat Hoffmann August 4, 2013 at 10:30 AM

    Great article Rhoda !

  • Voila! August 5, 2013 at 5:39 AM

    Thank you Rhoda for a well written article for Breeder Owner/Handlers. Glad I saved it until I had the time to read. I tell fellow O-Hs – BELIEVE in your dog, BELIEVE in yourself, and BELIEVE some more.
    By the way…my owner-handler budget requires me to get a lot of my show attire from Goodwill, and not a good thing, but my outfits get more compliments than my dog. LOL
    Do you have any opinion/input on the AKC National Owner-Handled Series?
    Thanks again,

    • Kristen August 21, 2013 at 11:16 AM

      Amen Lisa!
      My budget requires a keen Goodwill eye as well but I’ll tell ya’ , I just laugh when I hear ringside compliments on attire and witty replies about having found it on clearance for 75.00. Girl you know we can find the best stuff with the tags still on for less than 10 bucks! Hey that’s 65.00 for entries 😀 Even if I didn’t have to shop Goodwill, I would. It’s smart and I’m kind of addicted to the challenge lol

  • Bonnie Clarke August 5, 2013 at 7:54 PM

    Excellent article!

  • Joan G December 30, 2013 at 6:06 AM

    What a great article! George Alston is not teaching anymore, however; Norma Smith is and her seminars are wonderful!

  • JL Kurts December 30, 2013 at 12:06 PM

    Great article! Thanks for sharing. I have to say, it did make me think about a few things. But that is a good thing!

  • G. Milke December 31, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    Well written article Rhoda. I am a BOH that entered the dog show world in 2006. I have taken the time to be friends with and learn from the professionals. I would not be where I am without their knowledge and help. When you enter the ring look and act like a professional. Not all Judges know all handlers. I firmly believe OH’s can compete successfully. Maybe not under every Judge but under a great portion. And as an OH on an OH budget you can get a dog ranked. My current special finished 2013 #1 Breed and #4 AB. With the right dog anything can be accomplished.

  • casper
    Arcticridge n Brenda Solomon January 1, 2014 at 11:43 AM

    Ronda, I commend you on a fabulous well written article. I too am a OH, specializing in rare breeds and have been at it awhile. I am another who believes OH’s can compete successfully. I also agree with the statement from Mike G. “With the right dog anything can be accomplished.”
    In my past I have had the honor to share my life with several top dogs in the following breeds (Norwegian Lundehunds / Norwegian Buhunds (having had the 1st AKC champion male AND the first champion female of the breed). I finished 2013 with (16) new titles with my current breed ‘Icelandic Sheepdogs’.
    In my opinion it takes “HEART and BELIEF” in your goals to accomplish one’s wants, no matter what they are.
    I would like to see more in print about the OH’s we need to make ourselves known, be heard and be seen! We need to stand up and support ourselves more. We do not need to do it through advertising as much as with support among ourselves. Stop blaming others around us for accomplishing what we wish we could…GET OUT THERE AND DO IT! I thank you for your time and your reading my comment. 2014 is a NEW YEAR and another chance, grab it by the horns and DEAL WITH IT.

  • Pam Schaar September 7, 2014 at 3:26 AM

    While I agree with most of your statements, I wonder where you found people who congratulate on a select unless a specialty unless they are rank novice themselves. I’ve been in this for 45 years as a breeder/owner/handler and turn pro for 10 years then back to boh again. We have yet another mindset to fight and that is the judges are aware that the handlers of today are literally putting food on the table by showing dogs. B/O/Hs probably are not. So, the game got a little tougher. Also, in the olden days, many of the judges were old time breeders. Today’s judges comprise of more ex-handlers than ever before. And, yes, it is a mind game. I encourage male/female to smile because it sends a great message to the dog and actually plays a mind game in that, while you’re nervous, playing it cool becomes fact. It has nothing at all to do with pro or not. In judging juniors, I had one super good one that scowled all the time. I didn’t give her first due to that lacking pleasantness. Now she is a top handler and this year taking breed at our Irish Setter National. She smiles in addition to her talents and her dogs are much more relaxed too. So, in summary, your thoughts and quotes from George Alston are valid but more insight is a must. Our dogs are becoming more mediocre and more breeders are sending such specimens to the ring requiring handlers to finish them. Something to chew on. Pam Schaar, Quinniver Irish Setters ret’d.

  • Jerry Berkowitz September 10, 2014 at 9:58 AM

    Thank you for a superb job-I am very tense even after 45+ years in the ring.
    My garb is business casual-dress shirt tie khakis & sportcoat-No Sneakers!
    Wish me luck!!

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