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My Take: Leveling the Playing Field

So often in the dog sport today we hear exhibitors lament that they don’t win as often as they “should” because professional handlers have the advantage and it’s almost impossible to beat them. When given the opportunity to express their point of view, some owner-handlers complain that AKC isn’t doing enough to “level the playing field” so that owner-handlers have an equal chance of success.

In some ways I’ve been sympathetic to owner-handlers, at least to those starting out, because at the Group and Best in Show level professional handlers seem to dominate. But when you really examine it, many owner-handlers have enjoyed amazing success campaigning their dogs, and lots of them are out there today giving it their all and winning.

So I recently came to the conclusion that instead of expecting AKC to somehow create a competition that levels the playing field, owner-handlers are going to have to take on that task themselves. How? By being more like the professionals.

In 1997 and 1998,the Maltese, Ch. Ta-Jon’s Tickle Me Silly, was Number 1 Toy and among the Top Dogs of all breeds, breeder/owner-handled by Tammy Simon. She is pictured winning a Best in Show under judge Bob Berndt. Photo by Sue Baines.

Professional handlers win for many reasons, and 99 percent of the time it’s not because judges automatically point to them without considering anyone else in the ring. AKC’s circle of judges today includes as many people who had a few dogs they showed themselves as it does professional handlers, and a lot of judges still show dogs. Don’t think they don’t remember exactly how it feels to be in the ring competing against the pros.

Often professional handlers win because their dogs are better trained and in better condition. This is what they do for a living, so while the owner-handler is off earning a living eight or more hours a day, the dogs in the care of handlers are being studied and groomed, and walked up and back, and in general being prepared for the next dog show. Sure, owner-handlers do all those same things, but the majority of them can’t devote nearly as much time to it.

Still, the handler that beat you last weekend has exponentially more dogs in his care than the one or two you’re showing, so if you want to beat the professionals, you have to learn to study and trim and train and prepare your dogs like a professional. As I’ve said before, if you’re passionate about it you’ll figure it out. There are countless ways to learn to perfect your grooming and presentation skills. If you can’t figure out how, ask, but be prepared to work. Being a winner takes time and effort.

Anyone who has shown dogs for any reasonable length of time learns what type, size or color dogs certain judges prefer over others. If you want to beat the pros, show your dog to judges who like your type of dog! Of course, you have to make an effort to learn that, and it takes time. But you can do it. Sometimes you have to “work smarter” by going to the shows where you’re more likely to win.

In 2006 Keith Carter owner-handled his Rottweiler, Ch. Carter’s Noble Shaka Zulu, to Group First at Westminster under Pat Laurans. ‘Shaka’ was also among the Top Working dogs. Photo by Lisa Croft-Elliott.

To tell the truth, I can’t imagine that most owner-handlers want to compete with people who are less accomplished than they are every weekend. If you breed the dogs you show, you want them to be able to take on all comers, don’t you? Even if someone else bred your dog, you live with it, love it and are invested in its career.

These statistics prove that not only can it be done, itis being done in a big way as I write. As of June 1, 2012, in the Top 10 rankings in each Group, you’ll find lots of owner-handlers, dogs shown by people who don’t handle dogs for a living. (I make the distinction because I was surprised to find how many dogs in the Top 10 in each Group are shown by professional handlers who also own, and in some cases bred, them.)

Currently one Top 10 Sporting Group, one Top 10 Hound, one Top 10 Terrier and four Top 10 Herding dogs are owner-handled! Even better: in two of the Groups, the Number 1 dog is owner-handled. The Number 1 Working dog is, of course, the Doberman Pinscher, GCh. Protocol’s VeniVidiVici, handled by her breeder/owner Jocelyn Mullins, and the Number 1 Toy is the Min Pin, GCh. Marlex Classic Red Glare, breeder/owner-handled by Armando Angelbello. These owner-handlers leveled the playing field for themselves.

Again, so many elements go into winning at the dog show, but I’m convinced that for many of the owner-handlers who want to win more, working harder and smarter at it will level the playing field a lot more quickly than AKC will come up with that magical solution that will allow them to win more. If you want to beat the professionals, be more like the professionals.

Written by

Christi McDonald is a second-generation dog person, raised with a kennel full of Cairn Terriers. After more than a decade as a professional handler’s apprentice and handling professionally on her own, primarily Poodles and Cairns, she landed a fortuitous position in advertising sales with the monthly all-breed magazine ShowSight. This led to an 11-year run at Dogs in Review, where she wore several hats, including advertising sales rep, ad sales manager and, finally, editor for five years. Christi is proud to be part of the editorial team for the cutting-edge Best In Show Daily. She lives in Apex, N.C., with two homebred black Toy Poodles, the last of her Foxfire line, and a Norwich Terrier.
  • patti welch July 27, 2012 at 7:14 AM

    I totally agree. I am an owner handler showing terriers. I work hard and still have a long way to go in so many presentation aspects but I have to admit…… when one of my bred/ownerhandled dogs go over the pros.. its like winning best in show for me.

  • Kerrie Kuper July 27, 2012 at 10:47 AM

    Thanks for the article…would like you to have mentioned the co owners of the top dogs you mentioned also possibly?? Also, Min Pin Classie is bred by Carole Rio and not her owner handler although he is the breeder of the sire of Classie and he himself was a Top winner and producer also! I am sure Armando would like Carole to have the recognition.

    • Christi McDonald
      Christi July 29, 2012 at 5:32 AM

      Thanks for the extra info, Kerrie.

  • Larkin Vonalt July 27, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    So 90 percent of the top sporting dogs, 90 percent of the top hounds, 90 percent of the top terriers, 100 percent of working, toy, and non-sporting top ten and 60 percent of the herding dogs are campaigned by professionals. I think you just disproved the hypothesis you were trying to support. Nice try, though.

    You’ve also forgotten the most important factor: money. It’s far easier to campaign, condition, advertise and influence when the bills are paid by someone else with very deep pockets.

    • Christi McDonald
      Christi July 29, 2012 at 5:30 AM

      Sorry, but the statistics prove exactly what I said — that owner-handlers CAN compete with the professionals and win enough to get their dogs at the top of the ranking systems. I didn’t say that as many top dogs would be owner-handled as those show by professionals. Of course it is easier for the professionals to campaign dogs to the top spots. Again, they do this for a living, and as you mentioned are often afforded budgets far larger than the typical owner-handler. The point is that those who show their own dogs can achieve the dream too.

  • Robin Gates July 27, 2012 at 11:43 AM

    I truly strive to take on all challenges and show that I can be just as good if not better than the pro handlers. I have had a dog in the Top 10 of my breed for 3 years and am proud to say he is 100% owner handled. I do agree that many handlers do have better specimens and better examples of the breed and they are paid to make them look their best. However, I have also been on the end of the nepotism that occurs when judges put up their handler friends with a subpar specimen and it is obvious.

    I do not always expect to win and no one should but I want the judges to judge the dogs and not the handlers. This being said as in any business, and this is a business, your best customers and most popular customers are always going to be treated better. What owner handlers have to do is bring their best dog and be as visible as the pros. Don’t show up in flip flops, shorts and messy hair (yes I have seen it) and expect to win over a polished and well seasoned pro even if you dog is better. The owner handler is distracting from the presentation of the dog.

    If I show up, well dressed with a well conditioned and beautiful example of the breed, then I know I have done my best. If a judge chooses a better example that is not my dog then kudos to them for doing what is best. If they choose a lesser example because of the person handling then after 2 different tries they do not get an entry from me. However, I can say that I truly went in and did my best and I will speak with the money I do have which is entry money.

    I have learned a lot watching the pros and I say, “Challenge Accepted!!”

  • not that into it July 27, 2012 at 12:33 PM

    …totally agree with To in. And have felt weighted when the owner handler of a beautiful dogs, shows up in my class dressed for a day of lounging at home on the sofa. It sort of cheapens everyone else in the ring and mocks the sport as well.

    However, my real question here is: does the AKC keep statistics on judges who may have a decrease in entries in certain breeds, and especially when it is known that there are a high number of a particular breed in an area where entries should be high?I often hear breeder owner handlers say they withhold entries on certain judges, boycott them if you will. The AKC doesn’t track these thing and hold judges accountable?

  • Peri July 28, 2012 at 7:58 PM

    Perhaps one way to look at the “winning edge” instead of professional vs amateur might be to look at years in the sport. We know that there is a tremendous turnover in dog sports. Folks buy a nice dog, then immediately acquire a couple more and within a few years they are maxed out on space and money and haven’t won enough to maintain their interest… your average owner handler. On the other hand, every top ranked owner handler I can think of and almost all the professionals have been in the sport for twenty, thirty or more years and have learned well how to compete and win. I know of very few judges that are biased in either direction; professional vs. amateur. They are just judging what is presented to them.

  • Susan Van de Water July 30, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    I have no objection to being beaten by a worthy, well trained, well groomed, well-conditioned dog who is presented to perfection. But in the past 2-3 years I have been beaten with well structured athletic dogs that were groomed to the teeth and showing like a million bucks, by a poorly structured out of coat dog that was balking all the way around the ring at being shown by a stranger who happened to be a well known professional handler. It is so blatant that the person was being “done for,” rather than the dogs actually being judged, that I have been showing less and less because many judges, even breeder judges, believe they need to support the professionals who make a living at it, and the owner-breeder-handler doesn’t “need” the win as much. The trend has gotten much more obvious in the last 20 years. When I was showing in the 90’s, owner handlers got a good look in group. Now they rarely do unless they have mounted a very expensive ad campaign and have a good network of supporters among the judges. My skills as a handler have increased substantially as the years have passed, as have the dogs I have bred and exhibited. I have accepted the challenge of competing with the pros, upgraded my show wardrobe substantially, learned a LOT about grooming, attended handling seminars and picking people’s and judges’ brains about how I can improve my presentation, etcetc. And then I get kicked in the teeth by a judge who rewards an inferior specimen whose faults that even a superb pro handler can’t hide. AKC really does need to wake up. The breeder-owner-handler is the backbone of the sport. Is it any wonder that show entries have been sliding dramatically as the bias towards the professionals has intensified?

    • Judy Silker August 2, 2012 at 4:47 AM

      I just wanted to point out that the Number One Hound is also breeder-owner handled by pro handler Lisa Miller. She and her husband Harry have really done alot to promote American Foxhounds.

  • John Lawshe May 3, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    Three suggestions for all amateur handlers…………………….do the work, do the work, do the work!!

    I was taught that by old time terrier handler “Pete” Clay @ 1972. Best advise I ever received.

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