Ernesto Lara’s journey toward becoming an all-breed professional handler began with an act of valor. While visiting an aunt in his hometown of Mexico City, the quiet 13-year-old overcame his fear of dogs in an instant by preventing a fight between the woman’s Airedale Terrier and another dog.
“I didn’t think about it,” Ernesto says, when asked how he managed the courage to restrain the territorial Terrier. “I just did it.”
That Airedale, named Bengal, became Ernesto’s dog. Their tumultuous introduction was the first of several experiences that would eventually lead the young man to a successful handling career, first in Mexico and then in the United States.
Meeting the Neighbors
Ernesto enjoyed walking his new friend around the neighborhood. One day while passing by a house with a variety of pets in the yard, two girls asked him if his dog was an Airedale. “Our mother breeds dogs,” they told him, and soon he was introduced to Tita, mother of his good friend and current assistant, Carlos de la Torre.
“Does your dog have papers?” Tita asked. Her husband was a vet, and the family knew quite a bit about animals – especially dogs. When Ernesto showed Tita the Airedale’s pedigree, the woman could see that this was a well-bred dog.
Ernesto liked the idea of breeding his dog someday, but there was one thing he hadn’t considered. “Nobody will use him unless he’s trimmed,” Tita told him. So arrangements were made for Bengal to be groomed the following Saturday.
Ernesto took his Airedale to Tita’s house and promptly received his first lesson in hand-stripping. “I thought we were going to use clippers,” he remembers thinking. During the grooming session, Tita showed the young man a dog book with photos of various breeds. “She showed me pictures of the Airedale and Welsh Terriers, and said that, although they looked similar, they’re not the same breed. She showed me a photo of the Bedlington and told me it’s the Greyhound of the Terriers.”
“Tita liked to teach,” Ernesto remembers. Their time together was the beginning of the young man’s education in the world of purebred dogs and dog shows.
A Magazine’s Influence
“I was spending time with Tita, going with her to dog shows,” recalls Ernesto. During this time, he began poring over the woman’s copies of “Terrier Type” magazine. “’Terrier Type’ arrived in Mexico six months late, and I studied the photos and pedigrees. I started to learn English by translating the magazine,” Ernesto says.
In “Terrier Type,” Ernesto appreciated the photos of some of the best dogs being shown in the U.S. “I saw pictures of Ric Chashoudian’s Lakeland Ch. Jo Ni’s Red Baron of Crofton, and his son, Ch. Baron’s Carbon Copy, shown by Peter Green,” he remembers. “Carbon Copy was bred in Mexico by Antonio Lemus, who was very active and spent time in California helping Ric for a little bit,” Ernesto says.
The international shows held in Mexico provided the fledgling fancier opportunities to see first-hand many of the dogs he’d seen only in the magazines. Through a local Terrier club, he learned that California professional handler Eddie Boyes was coming to show a Wire Fox Terrier and give a seminar. “I went with Tita’s family, who’d kind of adopted me,” Ernesto says.
In 1978, the World Dog Show was held in Mexico City. Many American handlers came to show, including Dick Cooper, who taught Fernando Treviño in the late 1960s or early ‘70s. “Fernando started showing dogs as a kid. He was a real professional and showed for wealthy clients in Mexico. When I met him, he’d retired from handling and had started to judge.”
The former handler provided Ernesto with a single valuable lesson in presentation. “Fernando imported several dogs, including a Kerry Blue, owned by Tita and her husband,” he remembers. “Because of the dog’s trim, he wasn’t winning, so Fernando took him to get him ready for a midweek specialty show. It was amazing for me to see the transformation from Sunday to Wednesday. I knew the dog, and in my eyes he acted differently with Fernando. He showed himself proudly.”
Ernesto says of Treviño’s influence, “He inspired me. Everybody wanted to be like him.”
From Hobby to Career
“The first time I showed a dog, it was under Bob Forsyth. I didn’t even know who he was,” Ernesto laughs. The dog was the Airedale Bengal, and the points earned that day marked the beginning of Ernesto’s life in the show ring.
Ernesto put himself through school with the money he earned handling dogs. He did very well for himself, in fact, showing the number one dog in Mexico in 1988. His introduction to this particular dog reflects the close association between fanciers in the U.S. and Mexico, and highlights a friend’s exceptional “eye for a dog.”
“I was at a show in Puebla, and I took along Carlos de la Torre, who was just a kid, maybe 12 years old. One time after the show, he came to me and said, ‘You have to come see this dog. I think it’s nice, and this lady needs a handler.’”
Susanne Heffner was a stuntwoman from California who owned a Bouvier des Flandres named Icobod De’L Sprit. Ernesto met up with the lady and her dog by the hotel’s pool later that day.
“Carlos showed me this Bouvier that was kind of shy. So I asked him, ‘What do you know about Bouviers?’ and he said, ‘That’s the thing, you just have to see him.’ He began to walk the dog around the pool, and pretty soon Icobod started to move better and better. He was out of shape and didn’t have a haircut, but I could see he was a nice dog. So I said, ‘Okay,’ and this dog later became top dog all breeds.”
With each new dog he showed, Ernesto was given an opportunity to learn. He would show for two days, study the standards during the week, and apply what he learned the following weekend. “I just wanted to learn,” he says.
Ernesto is justly proud of the many talented breeders, owners and handlers in Mexico who have always maintained the highest standards in their efforts to promote purebred dogs. “There is a lot of talent in Mexico at all times,” he notes, and mentions Carlos Novarro, David Osuña and Adrian Escandon among the many influential fanciers who have done much for the sport in Mexico and the U.S.
Sergio Balcazar was a man of great influence to many young handlers, including Ernesto and Gabriel Rangel. The Mexico City resident traveled to the U.S. for business, sometimes attending specialty shows where he would find Lakelands, Welsh and Scotties to bring back for people to see. “He imported some very nice dogs, including the Smooth Ch. Foxmoor Macho Macho Man. He kind of revived all the Terriers in Mexico,” Ernesto recalls.
“Sergio co-owned a Wire Fox Terrier with Ric Chashoudian in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and got Ric to come to Mexico to show a couple of his dogs. That’s how I got to meet him.
“I don’t think anybody had as much passion about dogs,” Ernesto says of Ric. When the man Ernesto knew only from “Terrier Type” magazine was scheduled to arrive at a local show, he made certain he was there to greet him. “I wanted to see him coming in the door,” he says.
Balcazar introduced the young handler to the man Ernesto describes as a great teacher. “Ric was not a politician. He would say what he thought,” says Ernesto. “He knew that while you teach, you learn, and his way of teaching was specific to each person. Ric was in the military, and he taught that way,” says Ernesto. “He wouldn’t let you get away with anything.”
The Green Team
The seeds of Ernesto’s move to America were planted in 1985 at a dog show in Vera Cruz. He was asked to translate for visiting American judge Esme Treen, with whom he shared his desire to learn more about Terriers. He mentioned the possibility of working for Ric Chashoudian, but was told that he wasn’t really handling much anymore. She said, “You want to go work for Peter Green.”
He got in touch with Peter at Greenfield in Bowmansville, Pa., but was unable to leave the country at that time due to a military obligation. So, for the next 10 years, he worked as a handler in Mexico, traveling on occasion to the U.S. to show his clients’ dogs.
In 1994, while showing in Texas, Ernesto met up with Gabriel Rangel, who’d come to work in the States eight years before. “I set up next to him, and we started talking about going to Montgomery together,” he recalls. As it happens, Ric Chashoudian was judging at the show and mentioned to Ernesto that Peter Green needed an assistant, somebody he didn’t have to teach from scratch. “Will you do it?” the teacher asked his student.
By that time, Ernesto had abandoned the idea of coming to the U.S. to learn. He had a successful career at home, and no longer felt that it was something he needed to do. Nonetheless, he did agree to revisit his earlier plan and made arrangements to relocate to Greenfield for a year. Ernesto had only one month to prepare for his move, but first he needed to tell his clients that they must find another handler.
He flew from Mexico to Philadelphia that fall in time for the Westbury Kennel Club’s show. Peter met him at the airport, testing his fitness for the job by squeezing his arm. Now properly introduced, the two men got to work preparing for the first of many dog shows they’d attend together.
A Very Well-Run Army
Ernesto joined Peter, Beth Sweigart and Andrew Green as part of what would become known as the Green Team. “I originally planned to come for a year or two,” Ernesto confides, 18 years later.
“We were an army,” Ernesto says of the Green Team’s coordinated effort to show dogs. “This is not an exaggeration. We showed 75 dogs at Bucks County one time, 67 at Montgomery and 47 at Westminster. It was all very well-run.”
Showing dogs on such a scale is not for the faint of heart. “After a while, it doesn’t hurt,” Ernesto says of the demanding job. “The Green Team was very tough. Everyone was a hard worker. Peter was not afraid to do anything, and Beth never gets tired!”
“We showed our dogs like a big family,” he says. Beth organized the schedule so everyone knew where to go, what to do and when to do it. “We also had a bunch of people who would come and help for the weekend,” he says. “You don’t get that kind of experience anymore.”
In his first year on the job, Ernesto says that he learned how much he didn’t know. He only began to learn in his second year, and by the third year, he declares, “I was stuck.”
The hard-working assistant found it impossible to leave the excitement generated by the dogs he was exposed to. “I was spoiled,” he says. “We had just had Willum, then the Kerry Blue, and the Airedale. And Rocki was coming up. I couldn’t walk away because I wouldn’t find these dogs anywhere else,” Ernesto confides. (‘Willum’ was the Norwich Terrier Ch. Chidley Willum the Conqueror, Number 2 among all breeds in 1993 and Best in Show at Westminster 1994, owned by Ruth Cooper and Patricia Lussier. ‘Rocki’ was the Norwich Terrier Ch. Fairewood Frolic, Top Dog among all breeds in 1997 and Best in Show at Westminster in 1998, bred in Canada by Lotus Tutton, owned by Glorvina and Sandy Schwartz. “The Airedale” is Ch. Serendipity’s Eagle’s Wings, who was handled by Andrew to Number 1 Airedale 1994, ’95 and ’96 with a Best of Breed at the Airedale Terrier Club of America at Montgomery and 26 Best in Shows, bred by Barbara Schneider and owned during his show career by Joe Vaudo and Barbara.)
Ernesto enjoyed traveling with Peter to shows. “He’s a great teacher,” he says of his former boss. “You just have to watch him work.” Ernesto enjoyed asking questions too, and found Peter to be a great storyteller as well as an adept instructor. “I would ask him about dogs he had that I liked, and he would tell me all about them,” he says. “I once asked Peter which dog he would like to have shown, and he said he had every nice dog he ever wanted to show. Who else can say that?”
In 2006, Peter and Beth retired from professional handling. After the Garden that year, the senior members of the Green Team began their judging careers, leaving Ernesto to carry on with the business of showing the dogs.
Ernesto found the transition to be a challenge. “We came home from Westminster on Wednesday, and on Thursday I was on my way to shows in Maryland. There was no transition,” he remembers. Ernesto recalls leaving for the shows as Peter and Beth waved goodbye. “It was hard for them too,” he says.
Fortunately, Ernesto headed out of the driveway with Leonardo Garcini riding shotgun. Leonardo, who is also from Mexico, had arrived at Greenfield as an apprentice the year before, and he and Ernesto had become good friends. With Leonardo around, Ernesto could once again speak Spanish at home.
Always Be Nice to the Dogs
His old pal, Carlos de la Torre, assists Ernesto today. The two men have maintained their friendship through the years and now work together showing some of the top dogs in the country.
“The pace now is crazy,” Ernesto admits. “The only way to make a number one dog is to go out every weekend.” He says that in order to do this, it is important to establish a weekly routine for keeping the dogs in condition. Keeping them happy and healthy is just as important as winning in the ring. “Always be nice to the dogs,” he says.
At dog shows, Ernesto sets up crates and ex-pens like a little village, a practice he learned from the Green Team. “Shy dogs go up high so they feel secure. Dogs that bark usually stop barking in this setup,” he says.
Ernesto’s team shows far fewer dogs today than handlers did in the past, although the challenges and rewards of presenting great dogs to perfection remain the same. He makes every effort to be sure that his clients’ dogs look their best in the ring. “I never see my own dogs being shown,” he says, “so I ask my assistants for their opinion.” Getting a second opinion is something he learned from Ric Chashoudian who understood that in order to be a great teacher, it was necessary to be a good student first.
As he reflects on the people who have influenced his life in dogs, Ernesto says that becoming a professional handler was never something he wanted to do. “I never thought I would do this for a living. I liked it so much that I didn’t want it to become an obligation. I wanted to enjoy it.”
When asked what he enjoys about his life in dogs today, his answer is one that would no doubt please his mentors: “It’s a pleasure just to see a good dog.”