Interview with Erin Bernecker, best Junior Handler at the 146th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show that was held in Lyndhurst Mansion in Westchester, New York
1. Congratulations on your Best Junior Handler win at Westminster! Is it a dream come true?
Erin Bernecker: Yes, winning Best Junior Handler at Westminster was one of the best nights of my life. I have been watching Westminster since I was a little girl and it was part of the reason I got into dog shows. Ever since the moment I started showing dogs, Westminster has been the goal to work towards. It was a goal I never thought possible, but I ended up proving myself wrong.
2. Was the experience different somehow because it was held at Lyndhurst instead of in Madison Square Garden?
Erin Bernecker: Showing in the preliminaries was definitely different due to it being outside, but the finals felt just as special as they would in Madison Square Garden.
3. Who was the first person you called or texted after you’d won?
Erin Bernecker: I was unable to call or text anyone right after winning as my phone had died just before I went into the ring. Luckily, all of the people I wanted to tell were at the show, watching and supporting me.
4. How have you celebrated your victory? Did you and your dog enjoy a special meal that night?
Erin Bernecker: Winning Westminster was special enough that I didn’t need to do anything afterward to celebrate in any big way. The meal I had right after Best Junior was pita chips and hummus that I ate while sitting on the couch watching the end of Best in Show after driving home. I celebrated with those around meback in the car before leaving. When my phone eventually turned back on, I had the privilege of realizing that everyone had witnessed my dream and was celebrating with me in some way.
5. You’ve shown several different breeds in Juniors. How did you choose which dog to show this year?
Erin Bernecker: While I have shown many different breeds in Juniors, mostly Sporting dogs, Löwchens hold a special place in my heart. My original plan was to show a Löwchen named “Mylie” as she was always my favorite dog to show and we made an excellent team. I had grown her hair out, after having puppies last spring, to show her in Orlando and at Westminster. I competed with Mylie at the AKC National Championship where I made it to the finals of the Junior competition. I was getting her ready to show at Westminster in January, but then the show was postponed. We had already skipped one heat cycle for me to finish out my Junior career with her, and realized that we could not do that again. That is where “Rip” came in. Rachel Tepera, the co-breeder and my mentor, thought that it would be a great idea to show Mylie’s son who would only be a year at the time of Westminster in the summer. I thought it was a brilliant idea and that if nothing else, no matter if I won or lost, I would have fun with a puppy that I’d whelped and helped to raise and show.
6. What does your dog mean to you now that you’ve completed this journey together?
Erin Bernecker: Rip was already a special dog to me. Not only was he my very first bred-by, but we have had a couple other special wins such as winning Breed from the classes at one of the Orlando pre-shows in December and Select Dog at the Löwchen National Specialty a couple days after finishing his championship. He is just a pleasure to show and he never ceases to make me smile with his many puppy antics in the ring. Now, no matter what, he will always hold a special place in my heart.
7. How has Junior Handling made a difference in your life? In your family’s life?
Erin Bernecker: Junior Handling has taught me not only the importance of losing gracefully but also winning humbly. It has brought me both friends and “found family” that I cannot see my life without. As for my family, I think that my mom had to let me go earlier than she thought so that I could travel with professional handlers like Rachel Tepera. I spent my summers and weekends traveling, learning all that I could.
8. Can you offer any advice to Juniors looking to compete at Westminster in 2023?
Erin Bernecker: The best advice that I can give to Juniors competing at Westminster is to just go out and have fun. I walked into my last time in Juniors with a year-old puppy. I honestly didn’t expect to win anything, but I went out and tried my best and soaked up every last minute. On top of that, learn from your mistakes because they make for some of the best lessons.
9. Would you like to say a few words about this year’s judging panel?
Erin Bernecker: I believe that this year’s judging panel did an excellent job, but I might be a bit biased now that I have won. I believe that the Junior judges were looking for kids who really showed off their handling skills and stayed calm when their dogs were not behaving.
10. What’s next for Erin?
Erin Bernecker: My next adventure in life is going to be college. I still want to stay in the world of dog shows and continue breeding. Sometime in the future, I plan on getting approved for judging Juniors. I am still young and have many more dreams to fulfill.