As you may or may not have noticed, this issue features owner-handlers and breeder-owner-handlers. This topic of course brings with it all of the dialogue about owner-handlers versus professional handlers and whether or not politics affects judging. As a breeder-owner-handler myself, it is one of my favorite dog show arguments, because it is such a fascinating and complex topic.
To begin with, the popular vision of the sport being split between professional handlers who only show dogs for money and owner-handlers who show dogs for fun is inaccurate. It isn’t a black and white dichotomy. While some professional handlers do have a regularly rotating string of dogs from different owners, others are highly involved with individual breeders and campaign the latest star from a given kennel. Some professionals co-own the dogs they show and are involved with the breeding decisions and choosing the next puppy to run on. And while some owner-handlers are the average American family that brings their dog to a show on the weekend, others painstakingly choose their next show dog and campaign it regularly. “Owner-handler” includes the breeder-owner-handlers who are legends within their own breeds and may not get paid to handle but are well-known and respected. And then of course there are the owner-handlers that primarily show their own dogs but that also do some handling on occasion. This last group is particularly difficult to classify, because they do get paid to show dogs, but they don’t have the rest of the trappings that come with being a professional handler as a career (somewhere I read an article that was somewhat derogatory about these “weekend handlers,” but that is a different topic).
We need to get away from this black-and-white mentality. The only inherent difference between owner-handlers and professional handlers is that the pros handle as their job that they do every week. Doing something professionally does not guarantee skill, and just like any other profession, there are professional handlers all across the spectrum from terrible to spectacular. The same goes for owner-handlers, because the money is not what creates the quality. There are backyard soccer players that could have played in the World Cup had they pursued that path, but instead they are accountants and teachers. Plenty of owner-handlers could have been professionals; they just didn’t follow that path. What you do or don’t get paid for doesn’t define what you are and aren’t good at. Most people are good at a variety of things, and may or may not get paid to exhibit any of those talents.
Nothing prevents owner-handlers and breeder-owner-handlers from being just as good at presenting dogs as professional handlers. Where the difference lies is in the time dedicated to mastering the skills and in the quality of the dog being shown. Training to do your job well is basic survival—you need to do it well in order for your boss or clients to continue paying you. But what motivates a hobbyist to improve? The owner-handler needs to be self-driven to master ring procedure and presentation of the breed being shown. The owner-handlers that work on these skills look like they know what they are doing in the ring, while those who don’t work on the skills look awkward and detract from their dog.
So what about the dog? Most owner-handlers buy a puppy or pick one from their own litter, and then show that puppy when it is old enough. Sometimes the puppy turns out as planned, sometimes it doesn’t. Many owners keep the dog anyway, and that mediocre dog is what they take to the shows. The advantage that a professional handler has is that he or she gets to evaluate the dog later in the game and compare it to the assorted dogs that they already have as clients. It’s probability: you are more likely to find a high-quality show dog in a pool of twenty dogs than in a pool of one or two. So while the average owner-handler is showing the dog that they bought, for better or worse, the average professional handler is showing the best dog out of the available clients.
Does that mean it is hopeless for owner-handlers and breeder-owner-handlers with limited resources? Of course not! You just have to either be willing to place a dog that doesn’t turn out, buy adult dogs that have already fully matured (this can be very difficult depending on your breed), or get better at evaluating and selecting puppies. The most successful breeder-owner-handlers are highly skilled at both planning breedings and evaluating puppies, and the most successful owner-handlers either possess those same skills or get their puppies from breeders who do.
Conformation is a game. Like any game, you have to know the rules and master the necessary skills and strategies to do well, and of course, you have to play. Yes, most of the top-ranked dogs are out with professional handlers. That is because rankings are determined by points, and points are earned by defeating other dogs, and you can only defeat other dogs if you compete. Dogs that are out with professional handlers get to go to a lot of shows, and have a lot more opportunities to earn points than owner-handled dogs being shown only once a month. If an owner-handler wants to have the #1 ranked dog in the country, he or she has to pursue that goal and show the dog often.
I am an owner-handler, and I have won my National Specialty twice. Neither of those bitches will ever be #1 simply because I don’t show them very often. One has been highly successful at the Group level, with placements almost every weekend that she has shown. I have made many professional handler friends from showing her, because they live and breathe this sport and appreciate a really nice dog. It is my responsibility to recognize the quality of their dogs as well. There is no shame in losing to a nice dog, no matter who is handling it. My other bitch has literally been in the Group ring three times, so I should probably get a bit more serious about her show career before making assumptions about how well she will or won’t do. Judges can’t reward a dog that they never see!
If there is one thing that I would like to get across to every owner-handler in the sport, it is that they have just as much potential as professional handlers, and that you are only as “disadvantaged” as you set yourself up to be. I grew up competing in Junior Showmanship, where the whole point is that the best handler wins. That encouraged me to pay attention to what good handlers do and don’t do, and to practice with my dogs to be as good as I could be. There are many tricks to being a good handler, but one that we all learned is that a good dog makes a good handler look better. For many people that start out as adults and have never done Junior Showmanship, there is never an obvious force encouraging them to work on their handling skills because the whole point is that the best dog wins. But while there are many things that go into a good dog, one trick that everyone should learn is that a good handler makes a good dog look better. And you don’t have to be a professional to handle like one.