An Owner Handler’s Observations From ‘The Dark Side’

    An Owner Handler’s Observations From ‘The Dark Side’

    I have been showing my Pugs for six years now and throughout I have been proud to have done so as an owner handler. I have finished two dogs and specialed my Spike to a ranking in the Top 15 in 2007, an achievement of which I am very proud since he was my very first show dog. Like any competitive endeavor, it has been an experience filled with thrills, disappointment, and sometimes, frustration.

    Still, I have always encouraged my friends and people new to our sport to try handling their dogs themselves. I hate to admit that I couldn’t understand how people derived any fun from watching their dog in the ring with a handler. I came from Agility where the game is all about fun and the dog/handler team and I have enjoyed meeting the challenge of bringing that to the Conformation ring.

    The wins might have been fewer and farther between but each one was savored, especially when we were able to prevail over the professional handlers about whom we owner handlers complain and against whom we have often felt to be at a distinct disadvantage. I dare say that we might even have felt that some of those highly ranked dogs with the pros at the end of the lead were no better than our own dogs.

    I know I always said that I would never hire a handler, that this weekend activity was all about my dog and me—nobody else. Well, it is amazing how as soon as you utter the word “never,” cosmic forces have a way of saying, “Gotcha!” and everything changes. Yes, this year I have my young special showing with a handler for the majority of our shows and, oh my, has it been an incredible learning experience in so many ways.

    I never set out thinking, “This will be the year I try using a handler.” It all just kind of evolved. At the end of February I wanted to go to the West Coast to look at a couple of litters of puppies. The trip conflicted with a 3-day cluster very close to home with three judges I admired. I asked my husband, Mac, if he would be willing to deliver my young dog, Stanley, to the show each day if I found a handler for him for the weekend. He said, “yes,” and so, I contacted the best handler I knew to take over the leash for me just for that one cluster.

    While I was away, Mac watched as Stanley won the breed all three days and earned a Group 4. He got more and more invested as the weekend progressed and even learned how to read a judging program, something he had never bothered with in the past. Before I knew it, I was getting play-by-play texts from ringside during the Groups from my “I don’t like dog shows” husband. I came home and he raved about his weekend and the professionalism of the handler’s operation. Never have I seen my husband so happy to spend his money or his precious free time for a weekend at a dog show. A seed was planted.

    Fast forward to the spring. Stanley had finally started to look like an adult and I considered my goals for the year. I wanted to go to Eukanuba because it will be the last year it is in Long Beach and I love the shows leading up to the big event. Our National will be on home territory, Rhode Island, next year and I thought it would be fun to show Stanley in the Pug Dog Club of America Showcase, but I had to get him ranked in the Top 25 for the year in order to do so. I had been able to do both with Spike and had enjoyed the experiences.

    Stanley, in my opinion, was a worthy dog, as good and possibly better than Spike. I liked him more and more as he matured. Unfortunately, we were starting late in the year as it was already April and I felt I needed some extra help to get the job done. I wasn’t feeling as if we were consistently clicking as a team yet because I had only been spot-showing him until he matured.

    We had almost four missed months of showing to make up for, a third of the year. And frankly, I wanted to watch my dog in the ring to see how he was coming along. I contacted the handler I used in February and we met in Delaware for another three-day cluster so that we could discuss my goals and give his showing Stan a try. I showed the dog one day and watched the handler team show him the other two days.

    All three of us won with Stanley that weekend but I absolutely loved the way he showed for his new handlers. To my extremely biased eye, he looked beautiful in the ring. A plan was formed, that they would show Stanley at those shows in which we were both entered. I would show him when they were going to be too far away, and so, the concept of Team Stanley was born.

    Here we are a little over three months into this endeavor and, oh boy, have I learned a lot. It has confirmed some of my feelings about having to compete against a professional handler as an owner handler and it has also dispelled many assumptions and misconceptions I had. Let’s get the first assumption we all make about professionally handled dogs out of the way. The handlers win far more often than we owner handlers do.

    Yes, Stanley has been winning more consistently since he got a new teammate. I think Stanley has won under a few judges who would not consider him the same way as if I had been showing him myself. As a relatively new dog on the scene, he has probably been able to get a jumpstart on success, gaining momentum much faster than he would have with me. However, make no mistake, he is being presented far better than I ever managed when I was showing him. My six years of experience showing only my few dogs is a drop in the bucket when compared to the career of just about any good professional handler.

    Here is another interesting fact. We have shown to a few judges who did not put up Stanley when I was doing the honors. Those same judges did not put him up with his new handler either. Conversely, judges who like the dog have put him up with yours truly handling AND with his handler. There are even a few judges out there who PREFER putting up an owner handler just as there are some who seem to prefer the professional.

    If you think hiring a professional handler will assure your dog of a win, think again. It will help, but it will not earn you a Best of Breed win or Group placement if your dog is not a good representation of your breed standard. No matter how well known your handler, there is always the very real possibility that there will be another dog in the ring whom the judge prefers to yours.

    One thing I have loved about using a handler is that Stanley and I now have an advocate. No, contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that our handler is trying to influence judges. What I do mean is that I am now getting great advice in planning and executing my dog’s show career. A handler who knows the judges far better than I is able to advise as to which judges really know our breed, who might prefer my dog’s style, and which ones are real dog people.

    They have advised as to which highly ranked Pugs we might not be ready to take on yet and where they might be going. The handlers know the different shows, which ones might be smaller and therefore good possibilities for Group placements, and which larger shows will offer up more breed points. I have learned a great deal about advertising, what is effective and what is less so. There is constant feedback as to what helps Stanley show well and what doesn’t work. That advice has helped me on those weekends when Stanley and I are on our own.

    Has it all been positive? No, of course not. I am not a Pollyanna. More than a few people resented my choice to use a well-known handler and were even quite vocal about it. I would be less than truthful if I said that there aren’t a few judges for whom the face at the end of the leash seems to make a difference. However, I found out that there are far fewer of them than you might think. I will tell you that I have become more aware than ever of judge etiquette.

    Only this past weekend I was showing Stanley to a judge under whom I was prepared to lose for a number of reasons, but we were at the cluster anyway and she hadn’t yet seen Stanley, so I figured it was worth a try. Yes, we lost. However, that is not what upset me. When we were doing our triangle, I looked up at our judge in order to check our path in relation to where she was standing. She was looking around outside of the ring and not at my dog! This has happened to me before but this time I considered the behavior in a different light. I am pretty darned sure that she would not have darned to be so discourteous to any well-known handler.

    I have shown many times over to judges who have not put up my dogs but under whom it is a pleasure to show. They are fun and they are kind to my dogs. That will always get my entry. However, a judge who is rude to me or unkind to my dog will NEVER get another entry from me. I have noticed that this sort of behavior is rarely, if ever, directed towards a handler. Your dog is assured fair consideration.

    There are times when that fair consideration is very important. Have you ever looked into a ring and noticed that one or two dogs stand out from the others as being different in style or appearance? Maybe the color is different or the size. We do have some varied styles in Pugs, especially in different parts of the country, and often it is all too easy for a judge to dismiss the “different” dog regardless of its quality. Sometimes the different dog is outstanding, that in itself causing it to stand apart from the others. I think a handler on that dog will cause the judge to take more time and care in her examination, making it less likely for the dog to be dismissed out of hand.

    So… what should you consider if you are trying to decide whether or not to hire a professional handler? First of all, what will work best for your dog? Some dogs, like my first special, Spike, will work as well, if not better, for their owner. In that case, go for it and handle the dog yourself. What are your goals? Do you just want to have fun with your dog on the weekend or do you want a high national ranking? What is your time frame for meeting those goals? How much traveling can you do yourself from weekend to weekend? Of course, your budget for showing your dogs is also a consideration.

    If you do decide to use a handler, ascertain whether or not you want the dog to travel with the handler or remain with you so that you can meet the handler at shows. Talk to people you trust to find out which handlers they respect. Watch the handlers you are considering in the ring. Do you like their handling style? Are you impressed with their results? Watch how they treat the dogs under their care at their set-ups. Be VERY honest with yourself about your dog’s strengths and challenges. Face it, no matter how nice, no dog is perfect. Is your dog of sufficient quality to merit the attainment of your goals? Finally, and most importantly, will it be fun for you to stand on the sidelines and watch your dog being shown? For some people it is not fun at all, even when the dog wins.

    If someone had asked me a few years ago if I would ever consider using a professional handler for one of my dogs, I would have replied, “Absolutely not.” However, I have to admit to having a wonderful time. We have discovered new shows that we have truly enjoyed. We have gotten out of New England and seen more of the northeast quadrant of the country. We have met a lot of new people and learned about their breeds. It is great fun being part of a team rooting for everyone’s dogs in the Groups.

    Stanley and his handler make a wonderful team. He clearly enjoys showing for him, perhaps more than he does for his nervous Mom. I am learning a great deal. I am delighted with the results. I will always try to finish my Class dogs myself, but, am I such a convert that I will definitely use a handler on my hoped for future specials? Probably not; each dog will be considered as an individual case and the decision will be based on his or her best interests.

    In the meantime, I will enjoy the ride wherever it takes us and I will never again bear any prejudice against those whose dogs are being shown professionally. On the other hand, I will also always applaud and respect those who have chosen the owner handler path. No matter what you decide, remember it is always about the dogs. In the end, whether you get dumped or carry the Best in Show rosette, you are lucky to be going home with the very best dog at the show.

    (A version of this article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of TNT.)

    Ashley B. L. Fischer

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