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Curious Collaborators

Owner Handlers Partnerships


Today’s owner handlers shares every dog show experience with his or her own dog, of course. But the adventure of showing dogs is really a community affair that brings together a variety of individuals who share a common interest. Attending any show places each and every exhibitor in the company of like-minded people who care deeply about the welfare of purebred dogs, even if the participants have different breeds or live in different cities, states or countries. Initially, the human connections made through the dog sport can seem random, even accidental. However, the intersection of exhibitors at fairgrounds and convention centers sometimes signals the beginning of influential—if unusual—partnerships.

In 1983, my curiosity about showing dogs led me to join a local all-breed club. By the time I purchased my first show dog, I’d already met exhibitors with an assortment of breeds and interests. Among the first friends I made in the sport was a married couple who had experience breeding and showing several Hound and Non-Sporting breeds. At monthly meetings and handling classes, we’d strike up conversations about our dogs’ progress. I listened intently to their advice, hoping to pick up a few tips that might translate into show ring success, and they patiently answered my many questions and offered suggestions that might improve my handling. Eventually, our discussions turned to entering our puppies at their first show. I was shown how to fill out an entry form, dress for the ring, and pack for a weekend out of town with a dog. The couple even allowed me to hitch a ride on occasion and set up with them under the grooming tent. Without their support and guidance, I would have been lost. In fact, without their encouragement, I might have quit before I’d even gotten started!

The connection I made with this pair of devoted dog fanciers was extremely important to me as a novice. Our informal partnership could only have happened through membership in an all-breed club. In fact, it is only due to the kennel club and conformation shows that we had anything in common, really. We came from different towns, worked in different industries, and had different points of view on many social, political, and even religious issues. Yet, despite the many differences between us, we still managed to encourage one another and provide real support when it came to our dogs. I received guidance and encouragement, and they had an extra pair of hands to help with the packing and unpacking—and repacking. Our collaboration continued until my dog earned her championship and I felt confident enough to try a few things on my own. Of course, I was only just beginning to learn about the challenges and rewards of being an owner handler. Today, I remain grateful to this couple for the kindness they extended to me as a rookie in the sport.

As my owner handling journey progressed, and I started showing my first bred-by dog, I received even more guidance from my fellow exhibitors. In my own breed, second generation breeders offered praise as well as constructive criticism, and owner handlers like me shared grooming and training tips as well as points toward our dogs’ championships. The Group ring provided exposure to handlers of other Sporting breeds, and introduced me to a new—more challenging—level of competition. Professional handlers (George Alston, Doug Holloway, and Bill Trainor) provided inspiration simply by showing their clients’ dogs to the highest standards of the day. I was in awe of their ability to make it look so easy. Though I never managed to reach the level of success that these men and other professionals attained, I nevertheless established goals for myself that pushed me out of my comfort zone. And along the way, partnerships of various kinds were formed with dog show friends in many different breeds.

At any dog show, opportunities to have partnerships with others abound. Alliances can take many forms, from ridesharing and ringside assistance to the sharing of tips on grooming, training, and conditioning. Even the choice of where to set up for the day can establish impromptu partnerships—if only for a weekend. A casual greeting to a neighbor in the parking lot or exhibition hall can lead to a wealth of information during a lengthy show cluster. At my very first show as an exhibitor, I’d set up next to a Poodle handler who showed me (by way of observation) how to keep a dog comfortable while getting its coat prepared for the ring. Grooming areas provide an ideal classroom for learning, and they are great places to eavesdrop too—especially when you’re set up next to a master groomer.

Sometimes the best opportunities to partner occur when you’re the only entry in your breed. Without the comfort of close friends nearby, connections with other owner handlers and exhibitors of different breeds are easier to make. When you’re set up next to a handler with a giant breed, for example, you quickly become aware of space limitations. Exhibitors of Toy breeds will demonstrate a gentle assurance that allows their diminutive partners to feel both idolized and invulnerable. Sighthound exhibitors offer lessons on how a dog is to be respected above all else, and handlers of many Working and Herding breeds reveal a tenderness that betrays their dogs’ sometimes-tough exterior. By simply saying hello (or offering a helping hand) to a neighbor, dog shows can become more than just a competition. For exhibitors looking to make connections, they can become a kind of co-op where ideas and experiences are freely shared and opportunities for collaboration are everywhere.

At a recent outdoor show, I was parked next to a handler who spent the day getting his Herding dogs ring-ready. Although no scissorwork was in play, it was still interesting to watch how this exhibitor managed to get the double coats of his dogs to sparkle as brightly as their eyes. I had a front row seat, it seemed, and all it took was a compliment (He looks wonderful!) followed by a question (What are you using on his coat?) to start a conversation that expanded throughout the day to include a few more exhibitors. By lunchtime, our little group of strangers began to feel more like a partnership in the sport we all enjoyed. We discussed dogs and people from the past, and we shared our plans to attend shows later in the year. We even shared food and beverages—and were treated to tall glasses of fresh-squeezed lemonade! For me, the encounter was reminiscent of the shows I’d attended early on with my first show dog. The atmosphere felt relaxed, and the camaraderie was decidedly candid. Who knows? Maybe our little group will reconnect somewhere down the line…

In the sport of dogs, opportunities to make partnerships with like-minded breeders, owner handlers and exhibitors are always available. Some of these relationships, like co-ownerships, can be formal. Others, however, are the result of spontaneous decisions such as where to set up a grooming table or which seat to take at a seminar. No matter the setting, every dog show, performance event, and educational seminar has the capacity to bring people together. And every meeting can spark conversations that ultimately lead to curious collaborations and lasting—if unusual—partnerships.

Dog events bring people together, sparking conversations that can lead to curious collaborations. Photo by Dan Sayers