How to Rise to the Top 20 Percent – When You Are Among the 80 Percent Majority

westminster kennel club judges

A whopping 80 percent of the competitors in today’s dog shows are comprised of owner handlers. This means that as an owner handler, you’ll be in good company and plenty of it. There’s a lot of quality amongst the owner handlers—quality dogs and quality presentations. Despite being a strong field, the over-arching question for many owner handlers has been, “How do I strategically make my dog stand out among all the professionals in the ring?” But what if you shifted the focus to, “Who, amongst the entire field, is your real competition and why?” If you are within the majority, how—you must ask yourself—will you strategically stand out and rise to the overall top 20 percent? How will you win with your dog?

Let me propose a scenario. What if you knew nothing at all about dog shows and were invited to attend your first show? You observed some competitors getting tangled in their leads, tripping, and stumbling around with their dogs. In contrast, you also saw competitors who moved with grace, confidence, and flowed in a way that highlighted their dogs. Their beautiful presentation caught your eye—yes, even as a novice. They may have even mesmerized you enough to influence your choice for a breed. It’s likely you wouldn’t have known whether the standout presentations were professional handlers or owner handlers. You simply noticed a difference.

The point I’m trying to make is that reflecting on how to make your dog stand out amongst the professionals in the ring isn’t always the right question. Perhaps, the focus shouldn’t be on who the professionals are, but who the winners are. Who are the handlers with the dogs that win the most? While thinking about these numbers, it’s important to keep in mind that the top dogs’ handlers are a co-mingled mixture of owners and professionals. With this broader perspective, the next challenge will be to consider what it will take for you to rise to the top. What is required to compete at a level that will yield success and wins for your dog?

A Game of Numbers—Only if You Really Want to Win More

Let’s look at the 80/20 rule as it pertains to dog shows. As we started out saying, at 80 percent, owner-handled dogs make up the majority of entries. Next, we’ll apply this to the win rates. Flip the numbers, and we see that 80 percent of the wins are taken by 20 percent—the top dogs. It’s a little bit of a mind bend here, but stick with me. In other words, those who occupy the top 20 percent show up with a dog that presents better than 80 percent of the other exhibitors.

You must “up your game” if you want to be a part of that 20 percent. Consider how you will elevate your presentation enough to join the elite. Remember, this is not the best of the owner handlers; it is the best of the entire field. Make the decision to be the driving force, and move up into the winner’s circle. At this point, be ready to move beyond any self-imposed limitations. It’s up to you to set and work towards your goals. The new reality is that your competition is both owner-handled and professionally-handled dogs. I call them quality-handled dogs.

How impressive it is when you see a handler and their dog in the ring, and they’re in sync. Right? You’ve seen it. It stops you in your tracks. It stops me as a judge! Sometimes they’re professionals and sometimes they’re owner handlers. Seeing the handler in sync with their dog is a sight to behold—it’s beautiful. As both a judge and a dog person, I want everyone to aspire to that level of excellence. This is what Dog Show Mentor (DSM) is about.

What Does It Take to Win a Little? To Win a Lot?

What it takes to win is not to be blinded by a drive to succeed. A well-rounded evaluation will also include the questions: “How do I define success?” and “What would be fun for me and my dog?” My own research reveals that owner handlers go to shows to both have fun with their dog and to win. The definition of “fun” is different for each of them. In all the cases that I’ve seen in the last four-and-a-half years, “fun” includes at least some winning.

This can be an entertaining game. Think of a board game where you get money for every win, or in this case, for every ribbon. The strong players go into each game of Monopoly or Chess with a strategy to win. If your goal is to go to dog shows with your dog for fun, and winning is part of the fun, what are your considerations?

You do have to have some level of preparation and experience for your dog to be competitive. For some of you, this means you must at least become a force to be reckoned with in the breed ring. Imagine marching around the game board picking off your opponents one at a time. Getting the pieces, the cash, the hotels—the ribbons and the wins. Cha-Ching!

Ramp Up Your Excellence Quotient

I ask you, where have you set the bar? Are you coasting or are you continually improving? For all of you who are experienced, I know this sounds really basic. But trust me, I see this in the ring and I’ll bet some of you have seen it too—the longtime, experienced exhibitors showing their untrained dogs. These folks don’t train, or minimally train, their dogs because they’ve been around so long, and their “good enough” quotient is pretty low. They have set their own bar to coasting rather than to excellence. Ask yourself if you’re coasting, or do you aspire to excellence? And I want to insert here for a moment that even if you’re winning Groups, you can still be coasting. If you’re not always trying to up your game; if you aren’t looking for that competitive edge, that advantage; if you’re not looking to evolve and are not competitive—you are coasting. If you are relying on your experience, but not adding to it—ramp it up! Consider upping your game.

Where Do You Start?

Are you looking at the back of a select few elite handlers who consistently make the winner’s lineup? Are you one amongst a group of top competitors who are knocking at the door to step into the elite 20 percent? If you are in a position to reach the top, or if that is your long-term goal, stop worrying about who is already there. Start here:

  1. Compare your dog to your breed standard.
  2. Compare your competitor’s dog to the standard.
  3. Compare the dogs to each other, keeping faults and virtues in mind.

Back to Basics

Take your standard and go line-by-line. Look at each of your dog’s qualities. Don’t go by memory, even if you have it memorized. With each reading, you will see something with new eyes and with a new perspective. Each read-through will allow you to notice a point that you did not have in previous readings. It’s amazing how even seasoned breeders gain insights that they didn’t think of before. Then, address how you and your dog will stand out amongst other quality dogs and other skilled handlers.

Create a System

Be in the habit of tracking what you are doing with your dog. Create a spreadsheet or a tracker. Put the list on your phone, print it out or write it on paper. Wherever it is, create a system for yourself. I created a tracking system that I use with members of the DSM program. They work through a “Rate your Dog Checklist,” which functions as a tracking system to get the most out of each dog. Every dog is an individual and you should be working through a system with every dog.

Adopt a Professional Approach

Do you want your dog to be competitive with the top 20 percent? What I heard before I started DSM—and still hear—is what made me start this program. I saw people sitting around complaining that professional handlers win the lion’s share; the 20 percent. Well, the professionals show up like rock stars! Don’t they? They prepare for shows and participate in them as skilled handlers. Yes, of course, they do this because they are professionals, but you can show up with the same presence. Shoulders down and back, chin up! Are you doing this? Do you have a confident walk? The pros carry an “I’m here to win” attitude. “Take me seriously!” How about you?

A Competitive Mindset

Do you have an attitude and a level of professionalism on your road to success? Such is the mindset that you will be competing with amongst the elite. It is one that I encourage you to adopt as your own. When the day is over, I’m sure you’ve seen handlers (professional or otherwise) working with their dogs. They were focused on creating a team with their dogs. That’s the commitment. That’s the mindset they have. Do you put in that kind of training? If you want to compete with the best, you’re going to have to put in the time and commitment to rise to that level. That’s not always what people want to hear. My question is: “How badly do you want it?”

Train Them and Show Them at Their Best

Consider the timing of your dog’s first appearance. If you have a really special dog, and you know it’s going to show exceptionally well, you want people to see it at its best. Once you have made the decision that your dog is ready to make its debut, always bring your dog looking its best, whether it’s for the Breed level or the Best in Show level. Don’t bring a dog that is unfocused, untrained, and just not looking its best, and have the expectation to place. Remember why you have stepped into the ring.

Your Spot in the Top 20 Percent

Being a part of the largest segment of handlers is an honor. Put in the training time and consider what will be asked of your dog. Strategically decide when to bring your dog into the ring. Consider the 2.4 minutes that your dog will be in front of the judge and what needs to happen leading up to that moment to ensure that you and your dog are on point and brimming with confidence. Ultimately, your dog should exhibit what the breed standard is—at its finest. Be prepared to support your dog in the spotlight; to have a brilliant performance and experience. Put on a show where the judge can focus on your dog’s virtues and not on their poor behavior. Make it easy for the judge to point to your dog. Your hard work, professional mindset, and confidence will lead you to your spot amongst the top 20 percent, even when you are amongst the 80 percent majority of owner handlers.

For a free Rate Your Dog tool, go to

All photos are courtesy of Lee Whittier.

  • Ms. Lee Whittier has been involved in the sport of purebred dogs for over three decades. Her involvement began as an owner, exhibitor and, subsequently, a breeder of Rottweilers. She has owned Akitas, Bullmastiffs, and a Sussex Spaniel. She currently owns, breeds, and exhibits Tibetan Terriers. Ms. Whittier began judging in 2000, and then took a hiatus for several years to work for the American Kennel Club as an Executive Field Representative in the Pacific Northwest. She returned to judging in 2011, and currently judges the Working, Terrier, Toy, and Non-Sporting Groups, seventeen Hound Breeds, ten Sporting Breeds, Bouvier des Flandres, and Best in Show. Ms. Whittier has judged dog shows around the world, from the United States, Canada, South America, and Asia, at shows large and small; all of great importance to each and every exhibitor. Some of the larger shows are Westminster Kennel Club, Kennel Club of Philadelphia, Del Valle Dog Club of Livermore, Great Western Terrier Association, Northern California Terrier Association, Hatboro Dog Club, Inc., Malibu Kennel Club, and the Kennel Club of Palm Springs. Ms. Whittier is a standing member of Dog Fanciers of Oregon, The Central Florida Cairn Terrier Club, Columbia River Cairn Terrier Association, and the Tibetan Terrier Club of America. As an active member in numerous clubs, she has worked in the capacity of Show Chair, President, Vice-President, Secretary, Board Member, and Constitution & By-Laws Revision Committee Member. In addition to judging, Ms. Whittier developed the Dog Show Mentor program, exclusively for owner handlers. This is an online program where owner handlers of all stages and levels learn to develop an individual, strategic approach to showing dogs. She also travels to speak to owner handlers all over the world. She currently lives in Vancouver, Washington, with her husband, Wayne, and their three Tibetan Terriers. Her other interests include gardening and hiking with the dogs.

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