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.