Interview with a Professional Handler, Bekki Pina
My name is Bekki Pina and I am an AKC Registered Handler Program Professional Dog Handler. I am a non-practicing Licensed Practical Nurse and I’m a former Critical Care Medic for the United States Military. I have previously trained and assessed PTSD Service Dogs for returning veterans. I went back to school and became a certified Veterinary Assistant.
Additionally, I am an AKC Junior Showmanship Judge, AKC Open/FSS Judge, and AKC CGC Evaluator. I am a Breeder of Merit (Bronze) with Pharaoh Hounds. I am Vice-President of the Portuguese Podengo Pequeno of America, Vice-President of Responsible Dog Owners of Maryland, Inc. (an AKC Legislation Federation), and a member in good standing of the Azawakh Association of America and the American Belgium Lakenois Club of America.
Outside of AKC, I am a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals and an evaluator member for International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. International breed club memberships include the Pharaoh Hound Club of UK, Bergamasco Shepherd Association of Canada, and S.A.B. Associazione Amatori del Cane da Pastore Bergamasco (the Italian FCI-recognized parent club).
Where do I live? How long have I been in dogs?
Bekki Pina: I recently moved to Oneonta, Alabama. I have been involved in dog show Conformation since 2005. However, prior to that, I was focusing on K-9 training and behavior modification.
When did I decide to become a professional handler?
Bekki Pina: I decided to be come a Professional Handler around 2009, when I saw beautiful dogs at shows that were not being shown to their full potential. I would then see Professional Handlers take the lead and present an almost completely different dog. It was like admiring the process of majestic artwork.
Who did I apprentice under and for how many years?
Bekki Pina: I apprenticed under Gary Sheetz (RIP) for about two years. I would also work for different handlers as a weekend assistant to learn the different aspects of professional handling.
How many shows do I typically attend each year?
Bekki Pina: I attend about three show weekends a month.
How many dogs do I generally show on a given weekend?
Bekki Pina: I typically show breeds that need a little bit more one-on-one attention to bring out their best, so I don’t typically show more than eight dogs a weekend.
How do I decide which all-breed Shows to attend? What about specialties?
Bekki Pina: Most of the breeds I have shown are low-entry and/or rare breeds. So, it is entirely up to where the most points can be found with most of the breeds. The new Group-placing rule starting January 1, 2023 will greatly change my approach to all-breed shows. As for specialties, I do try to have my breeds represented because this is often where the most hands-on education happens. It’s easy to say a dog is a really good ambassador of the breed when it beats one or two dogs. Can that same dog hold its own and place when there’s 10 or more of the breed?
Can I talk a bit about my facilities? Do I have a kennel?
Bekki Pina: My facilities must meet the requirements of the AKC Registered Handler Program. Their requirements include proof of indoor and outdoor safe containment—and of the proper size. Exercise areas must be clean and of a proper size that is adequate for the breed using it. The area must be free of any safety hazards. An emergency plan must be on file with AKC RHP. Proper ventilation and lighting are also required. I have five indoor 5×5 runs in my finished basement. This sits right under my bedroom, so I can hear if there’s any danger or distress. I also have cameras on all the indoor/outdoor areas that tell me temp/fire alert, CO2 alert, and freeze alert.
What’s it really like to be “on the road” with a group of show dogs?
Bekki Pina: “On the road” requires great dedication and even some sacrifices. Anyone can take a dog in the ring. Where it matters is the conditioning, grooming, training, proper nutrition, proper socialization, and safe environments required for all the dogs.
You are at work, and you “think dogs” from the moment you wake up to ex the dogs by 6 a.m. until you go to bed by 11 p.m. You often do not get to socialize and “hang” with people because your whole focus is what you have to do next with the dogs. You miss many non-dog family events. You absolutely have to find the balance to maintain relationships.
When we are “on the road,” we know we have people’s most prized possessions with us. This can be a constant source of stress, if well-being is not maintained. Many handlers are breeders as well. We have to decide if we “go on the road” or take time to whelp litters. Both are necessary for our sport.
Am I going to Orlando? If so, what are my goals for my current string of dogs?
Bekki Pina: Yes, and I’m very excited. I haven’t been for some years, as I was whelping litters. My current string is a bunch of newer dogs, so I want them to go and have fun, and represent their breeds and owners well. I will be excited to offer them for requested judge’s education. I also have a new special coming out that I had previously finished as a puppy. He has now matured and is ready to live a campaigned life. I am, however, most excited about being able to present two different breeds in the special Bred-By exhibition: my primary breed, Pharaoh Hound, which I whelped; and the son of my new Bergamasco Sheepdog Special that I co-bred and whelped. This brings me immense joy to even think about stepping in the ring to present to the fancy my Bred-By dogs.
Just for laughs, do I have a funny story that I can share about my experiences as a Professional Handler?
Bekki Pina: There are many because, at the end of the day, we just have to laugh to make it through. My funniest story was when I had been a Professional Handler for about 12 years. I had entered my Bred-By boy that I was campaigning for the owner in our Regional Specialty. We won the Specialty and went on to win a Group One. It was my first Bred-By Group One, so I was an emotional mess in the Best in Show ring. I was trying to focus, for the dog to work, but I lost my spacial awareness.
Mind you, in Best, there are only seven dogs in that huge ring. I was baiting my dog with my hand stretched out, when suddenly I felt the back of my hand touch a POODLE TAIL! The handler calmly whispered, “I’m sorry, do you need more room?” I realized what had happened and was mortified. Thank goodness, the Poodle did not even move. That Poodle went on to win Best in Show. I congratulated the handler and he joked, “Next time, I will give you more space so you can win.”