Pictured Above – Walter Goodman owner-handled his homebred Skye Terrier Ch. Glamoor Good News to Best in Show at Westminster in 1969. Photo courtesy The Dog Show, 125 Years of Westminster.
Amateur Exhibitors Hope for the ‘Best’
It used to be said that dog shows are the only sport where amateurs compete head-to-head with the professionals. Though this statement is still true, today’s amateur owner-handlers can also enter their dogs in contests that exclude participation by paid professionals. Since 2012, the AKC National Owner-Handled Series (NOHS) has provided bonafide owner-handlers—a designation that’s strictly defined—the opportunity to compete for Group and Best in Show wins without going head-to-head with seasoned pros. The series has increased entries at most show-giving clubs where the competition has been offered and bolstered support for a sport that depends on individual entries to sustain itself. However, some critics have suggested the program’s success has created a two-tier system that rewards owner-handled dogs as second-class citizens. Time will tell whether the series proves to be a time-tested tradition or a short-term solution. In the meantime, owner-handled dogs have given their handlers every reason to feel optimistic.
It’s Owner-Handled, Not Owner-Handler
The NOHS is a competitive forum that allows dogs that are owner-handled to compete only against other dogs that are owner-handled. The series is intended to celebrate the caliber of the canine, not the merits of its owner-handler. Although the distinction may seem obvious, some participants have gotten into the habit of referring to the series as an “owner-handler” competition. This is not the case. Unlike Junior Showmanship, the NOHS does not instruct judges to evaluate the competency of the handler. Instead, they are to consider how closely each dog conforms with its breed standard, just as they do in the regular classes and for Best of Breed. As stated on the AKC website, “The determination of the awards in the AKC National Owner-Handled Series is based solely on the quality of the entry. The owner-handler’s handling ability is not of consideration.”
According to the AKC, more than 80 percent of American show dogs are taken into the ring by their owner-handlers. This figure represents a lot of competitive people. “The purpose of the AKC National Owner-Handled Series is to recognize and showcase the quality dogs being exhibited by owner-handlers and to provide a venue for the owner-handlers to compete against their peers,” instructs the AKC. Participation in the program has helped to maintain (or increase) entries at those shows where the series has been offered. The offer of additional trophies and rosettes has proven irresistible to many owner-handlers around the country.
Although it’s the dogs that are rewarded and not the exhibitors, it’s important for owner-handlers to maintain their amateur status while competing in the program. Participants must be mindful not to jeopardize their amateur status by receiving payment for services rendered in the ring. “Any type of remuneration associated with the service of handling a dog in the conformation ring meets the definition of a professional handler in regards to eligibility for the AKC National Owner-Handled Series,” according to the AKC. “Compensation for expenses outside of the conformation ring does not meet this definition.” Owner-handlers who show dogs for family and friends should be compensated for their efforts only through gifts of a lunch or dinner and a full tank of gas.
Entry is by Eligibility
Any exhibitor may compete in the NOHS provided he or she is not a professional handler or a member of a professional handler’s household. As characterized by the AKC, “Professional handlers are defined as any person who belongs or has belonged to a professional handlers’ organization, distributed rate cards, or otherwise advertised or represented themselves as handling dogs for pay within the last five years.” Assistants may compete with their dog in the NOHS provided they are a genuine Junior Handler as well. As recorded in the April 9-10, 2018 AKC Board Minutes, “Current assistants that are eligible to compete in Junior Showmanship (meet age and amateur status requirements) may compete in NOHS.” Any dog that is co-owned by a professional handler or a member of his or her household is also eligible to compete in the series, provided the professional handler or household member doesn’t handle the dog during the breed level competition for that point show.
Dogs that are eligible to compete in the NOHS must
be entered accordingly for each show where the series is offered. These events are identified on the club’s premium list club’s where an eligibility “check box” appears beneath the signature line on the entry form. No additional fee is required. All eligible dogs must be handled by eligible owner-handlers throughout Breed, Group and Best in Show competition. The NOHS competition occurs immediately following Best of Breed judging. According to AKC regulations, “All dogs in the BOB competition (including WD & WB) will stay in the ring after the judge makes their placements in BOB competition. The ring steward will ask all professional handlers, household members and current assistants to professional handlers to leave the ring and then the judge will select Best Owner-Handled (BOH).”
Each BOH dog is eligible to compete in its respective NOHS Group. Judging of these Groups may take place 30 minutes before regular Group judging and in a separate ring. For maximum recognition, the AKC advises clubs to “schedule the NOHS Best in Show just prior to the Best in Show judging for the regular show.” This exposure has inspired many owner-handlers to renew their dedication to both their dog and to the sport. This commitment is recognized through a scale of points that rewards NOHS Group placements and Best in Show wins. Each BOH Breed win earns 5 pts. (BOB at a National Specialty earns 10 pts.) Groups One through Four receive 30, 20, 15 and 10 points respectively and RBIS receives 75 pts. For an all-breed NOHS BIS, 100 pts. are earned. Since points are accumulated at each show, the top NOHS dog receives 135 points for a day’s work.
Dedication Has Its Rewards
The contribution owner-handlers make to the sport of dogs is acknowledged each year as part of the AKC National Championship, held in Orlando, Florida. This year, the NOHS Finals begins on Friday, December 14th with Breed and Group competition, and wraps-up the following evening with the awarding of NOHS Best in Show. Dogs that have finished the year (from October 12, 2017 to October 10, 2018) ranked in the top ten (including ties) for their breed received an invitation to compete. This invitational tournament all but guarantees the highest level of competition available to the sport’s most dedicated owner-handlers of every recognized breed.
Accumulating the qualifying number of points necessary to make it to the finals in Orlando doesn’t come without costs. Pride of ownership requires serious dedication, sacrifice and reserves of energy on the part of owner-handlers and their families. The risks can be as great as the rewards. Personal commitments are often postponed due to conflicts with the show calendar. Birthdays, anniversaries and weddings can be missed. Vacation time can be spent alone in motel rooms on the outskirts of nowhere. In the pursuit of their dreams, many owner-handlers regularly make the kinds of difficult decisions that can have a negative impact on other areas of their lives. Having an understanding spouse or partner—and children—can help to ease the burden.
Like their professionally presented counterparts, owner-handled dogs must be kept in competition-ready condition. The regimen required depends largely on the breed, but every dog demands attention. Maintaining optimal health and providing physical and mental conditioning for the ring can be as demanding as training for a half marathon. Drop-coated breeds come with their own conditions for success as do breeds that require continual scissoring. Many breeds require roadwork and a place to safely run free each day. Too much time spent on the road can be damaging to muscles and harmful to the spirit. It’s important for owner-handlers to be mindful of balancing the demands of competition with the ability to take the road less traveled on occasion. A NOHS Best in Show rosette is not earned simply through dedication and hard work. It comes with the satisfaction of knowing the owner-handled dog has been rewarded together with its very own person.
The enthusiastic embrace with which the AKC National Owner-Handled Series has been embraced by the fancy emphasizes the important role owner-handlers play in helping to preserve a sport that is, in turn, preserving purebred dogs. Since many owner-handlers are also dog breeders, their recognition cannot be overstated at a time when the purebred dog’s value in society is being challenged. Today’s owner-handled dogs represent the eternal bond that has been shared by our two species for millennia. This bond cannot be broken, which should give every owner-handler a reason to feel optimistic.