Interview with Owner Handler, Keira Nguyen
When were you first introduced to the sport of purebred dogs? To your breed?
Keira Nguyen: For the longest time, my husband, Truong, our two young daughters, and I were involved in The International Cat Association (“TICA”) Cat Shows and cat rescue. At the time we owned a Miniature American Eskimo we had gotten from a hobby breeder. “Kianna” was not fully registered.
Our children, Malina and Serina, were involved in TICA Junior Showmanship and each owned a purebred cat: one a beautiful male black and white tuxedo Munchkin named “Panda;” and the other a GORGEOUS show-stopping female Abyssinian named “Star.” We had originally been hooked for years on cat shows and had traveled a lot as a family to shows in different parts of the Northeast.
In 2008 I had a long conversation with a close friend/Bengal breeder who had been in cat showing and breeding for years. After telling her that I was considering “breeding cats,” she said to me, “Cats are tough to breed and come with a lot of heartache. Getting involved in dogs, both showing and breeding, would be a better option for you.”
She told me, “Dogs are healthier and you get more merit from breeding dogs in general. They are also a more rewarding species. They enjoy working with their humans, unlike cats who are more solitary.”
Since we were unable to register Kianna, we decided to start searching for a show/breeding quality American Eskimo. After researching the breed more and speaking with several breeders, we finally became the PROUD owners of a BEAUTIFUL female Standard American Eskimo puppy we named “Rosie,” PR Wright’s Rosebud Of Snow Buddies. Ultimately, Rosie became our first AKC/UKC CH.
As my mentor Eleanor Main (“Ellie”) and I were recently reminiscing about the beginning of our relationship, I remembered looking on the UKC website for an American Eskimo breeder. Ellie just happened to be a UKC Judge/Juniors Judge back when I first reached out to her. In addition, she is now an AKC Juniors Judge and a Standard American Eskimo breeder. I had been hoping to find a kind and knowledgeable mentor in the New England area and reached out to Ellie.
Luckily, she was willing and able to make time in her weekly schedule to meet with my daughter Serina and I. We would meet at a nearby park and Ellie trained us how to show Rosie in the Conformation ring. She also taught us about bathing and grooming, as well as tips for how to present ourselves and our American Eskimo in the ring. In the beginning, Ellie occasionally showed Rosie for me due to my being uncertain and a bit intimidated by the newness of it all. In time, I gained confidence and developed my craft as a devoted Owner Handler, trainer, and some years later, breeder of Toy and Miniature American Eskimos.
I am very proud of all of my dogs, including the ones I have bred with my husband: two female Toy American Eskimos that have earned me the prestigious honor of Bred-By Medallions. I am working towards my Breeder of Merit with a puppy from our third Blaze and Lily litter; the Valentine’s Surprise Litter. (This litter came as a HUGE surprise, as we did not believe that Lily’s breeding had taken!) I am talking about “Moon”—Dorry and Brad Stone’s puppy, Snow Buddie’s Sir Moon Stone—who will celebrate his first birthday on February 7, 2023 and is close to getting his championship title at under one year of age.
In the beginning, Ellie occasionally showed Rosie for me due to my being uncertain and a bit intimidated by the newness of it all. In time, I gained confidence and developed my craft as a devoted Owner Handler, trainer, and some years later, breeder of Toy and Miniature American Eskimos.
How many years in dogs? How many as an Owner Handler?
Keira Nguyen: As an adult, I have owned dogs since 2006 when we brought home our first family dog—a Shiba Inu we named Kitsune (“Kit”). As it so happened, we were destined to continue forward with spitz-type dogs, with our first two American Eskimo dogs with first Kianna followed by Rosie.
A year later we brought home our first male Standard American Eskimo we named “Buddha.” Buddha showed for some time in AKC (pointed). (In AKC: Wright’s Zen Master Of Snow Buddies RN THDX CGC RATN; in UKC: PR CH/CH Altered MBISS Wright’s Zen Master Of Snow Buddies RN CGC RATN.) Most importantly, Buddha has been my trained Service Dog since age four.
We have produced a number of Bred-By champions as well. We were lucky enough to be honored with the blessing of our current and most successful Show Dog thus far, AKC GCHB CH Stardust License To Thrill (“Blaze”). Blaze is also a trained Service Dog and has training in three levels of Obedience as well as having qualified in Precision Coursing.
As to the Owner Handler question, I have been showing as an Owner Handler for 13 years; however, I did not get involved with the NOHS until 2021. That was the year I showed our AKC/UKC Bred-By CH Snow Buddies Little Miracle (“Whisper”) in my first NOHS Group ring. Currently, I am showing Blaze, ranked the Number Three NOHS American Eskimo in the country. Blaze is, and always will be, my Dream Dog. From the moment Blaze steps into the ring, he literally commands attention. Blaze is very flashy, playful, and LOVES to show. He literally lives to please people.
Do you attend show handling classes? Have you attended any handling seminars?
Keira Nguyen: We attended our first breed handling classes with Ellie and Rosie at Champion Kennels in Sterling, Massachusetts. I have continued with handling classes in multiple training facilities for the past 13 years.
I have not attended any handling seminars; however, when my youngest daughter Serina (age 11 at the time) was showing Rosie as a Junior, she got invited to attend a special Junior Handler seminar at the Big E in Springfield, Massachusetts. I remember being very impressed with the way that the seminar was handled.
First, the kids were invited to have pizza and drinks for lunch, followed by a Judge and/or Professional Handler coaching them on how to present their dogs, move them properly in the ring, and what would be expected of them and why. When this seminar ended, all the kids received goody bags with special treats for each of them and their dogs. I was SO PROUD watching my little girl handle Rosie so well!
Have you found virtual learning tools to be helpful? Classes? Videos? Websites? Social Media?
Keira Nguyen: For me, I have found several things to be helpful. One thing would be watching televised dog shows, such as the Westminster Dog Show, the AKC National Championship, etc. The reason being because you can watch and hone in on the Professional Handlers (their posture, what they do with their dog such as entertaining, touching-up, sustaining their dog’s attention while in the ring, etc.). Sometimes I learn from others and note what that person is doing well with their dog that I am not doing with mine. I have found it helpful to use the expertise of others as an inspiration to guide me.
Another useful thing that works for me is watching videos of my performance taken at almost every training and competitive event where I participate. There have been times when I have sent these videos to my breeders for help. I view these videos to see what I did well, and what I need to do to better myself when handling my dog(s). I have learned that the dog is only as good as its handler because that dog takes its cues from you.
For example, early on in my effort to show Rosie, I sent a video to her breeder and asked why she was pulling me instead of focusing on working with me in the ring. After watching the video, Rosie’s breeder suggested that the problem may stem from my lack of confidence in the ring. She recommended that I attend extra handling classes. Also, my breeder pointed out that if I focus on enjoying my time with Rosie and try to have fun with her in the ring, our performance would likely improve. I also learned that when we are nervous (or fearful) that dogs can detect a hormone that we emit. One solution was for me to use a flavored mint, such as Tic Tac, in my mouth so that my dog would be less likely to sense that hormone.
My goal is to be the best Owner Handler that I can be. To accomplish this goal, my mantra has always been, “Practice, practice, practice.” To sum it up, I recognize that there will always be someone else who may have more experience handling their dog or have a dog that better fits the Standard on that day. I often ask myself, “Do I need to change the way I’m presenting my dog or is there something I could be doing differently?” Showing in Conformation has taught me to be positive, focused, and devoted. I now realize that harmony and success with my dog in the ring takes a lot of time and practice.
Do you compete in the National Owner-Handled Series? Are rankings important to you?
Keira Nguyen: Yes, it is of the utmost importance to me as a Breeder/Owner/Handler to show in the National Owner-Handled Series (“NOHS”). As a matter of fact, it was when I showed “Whisper”—my second female Bred-By Toy American Eskimo—that I got my first BOB OH and entered the Group ring with her. More times than I would have ever anticipated, I find myself participating in the Owner-Handled/Variety Group rings.
High rankings are of the utmost importance and are extremely meaningful to me. In fact, they are one of my biggest goals at this point—to be ranked first in the NOHS for American Eskimo Dogs and receive an invitation for Blaze and I to participate in the prestigious AKC NOHS show next December in Orlando, Florida. If I could wish upon a star, I would love for Blaze and I to receive yet another invitation for the Gala at this AKC event.
In which class(es) are you most likely to enter your dog(s)? Why?
Keira Nguyen: I begin with 4-6 Month Beginner Puppy matches, followed by Puppy Classes and, thereafter, Open Classes. Once a champion, we move on up to Best of Breed. Once my American Eskimo Dogs become champions, I prefer to special them—like Blaze, who now has his GCHB CH. I prefer to pursue other championship titles with my dogs, so long as they enjoy it. Whenever possible, whether a class dog or a special, I enter and show as an Owner Handler.
Again, AKC is tough to show in. Everybody knows that it is not easy and not every dog has what it takes to go all the way. So, to be involved as an Owner Handler takes it one step further. I have been on both ends of things. On the one hand, I have had my dog with a Professional Handler when I did not have the confidence to show him myself.
Once I learned more and gained confidence, I developed a desire to be the best Owner Handler I could be. I have to expect that I will not always win, but… I have learned that you must persevere, take whatever steps necessary (e.g., ongoing training, participation, education, etc.,) and stick with your passion in order to perfect the skills needed to be the best team possible. And… I just happen to have one of the most spectacular American Eskimos in the country to do so with! Blaze is the most extraordinary dog I have ever owned from a conformation and breeding standpoint. I owe a lot to my friend and his breeder, Laurie Boles of Stardust American Eskimo Dogs, for blessing my husband Truong and I with such a spectacular Show Dog!
Is it a challenge to compete with your breed(s) as an Owner Handler?
Keira Nguyen: Of course, the challenges are unlimited. You have to have a lot of belief in yourself because the Owner Handler competition is tough. For Blaze to be ranked Number 3 at this point in time is a huge honor!
There are many challenges in showing, and each breed has them. For the American Eskimos, one challenge is the AKC Standard which requires that all three sizes compete against each other in the same ring: Toy; Miniature; and Standard. I have to focus on myself because, in the long run, I may never be the best Owner Handler among my peers. But as long as I focus on being the best Owner Handler that I can be and make sure that Blaze enjoys his time spent in the ring, then I have my perfect formula for eventually reaching the goals I have for Blaze and me.
Are you intimidated by the Professional Handlers? By the Judges?
Keira Nguyen: As a newbie I was very much intimidated by Professional Handlers, as I would think are most Owner Handlers at some point. Nevertheless, eventually I learned the importance of paying close attention to Professional Handlers because I could learn by observing them and their actions. This is one of the ways I improve my own handling techniques.
I don’t know that I’d say I’m intimidated by Judges. I guess there was a time when I was intimidated, but I now realize that Judges are given the AKC Breed Standard and, in the end, they do their best to stick with these guidelines to judge each dog as it best fits the Standard. Judges can be like a roadmap for you and your dog as you learn what Judges like and what they’re looking for in your breed.
Judges can be like a roadmap for you and your dog as you learn what Judges like and what they’re looking for in your breed.
Who have been your mentor(s) as an Owner Handler?
Keira Nguyen: One of my biggest mentors as an Owner Handler is not a Conformation trainer, but instead, my personal dog trainer, Janice Ritter of A Better Way Dog Training. Janice focuses on multidisciplinary types of training. She focuses on activities of interest and goals specific to me and my American Eskimo Dog in a variety of other ways—more so as training a dog for life itself than merely competitive events.
More importantly, and critical to my evolution as a confident Owner Handler, Janice focuses on positive reinforcement training and has a very Zen formula that helped me develop mutually pleasurable relationships with each of my individual dogs. Janice has helped me train my American Eskimo Dogs in a variety of skills and activities. Just to name a few, she has training that ranges from the AKC All Star Puppy Certificate, Obedience, and Rally, to some Agility tricks as well as CGC, Service Dog, and private training lessons that target specific goals.
There have been many mentors, however, who have been crucial to my evolution and ongoing development as an effective and confident Owner Handler, including some of my competitors, breeders, and friends in the dog world. This state of affairs continues to this day and has a lot to do with my expertise acquired thus far as an Owner Handler.
How important is the Owner Handler to the future of the dog sport?
Keira Nguyen: Oh, it’s huge! It’s hugely important. For me, it’s one of a number of things that fuels my ongoing goals within the sport of Conformation. And I’ll tell you why…
First off, every person who goes into the show ring (whether it is their first time, or they have shown for a number of years, or they are a Professional Handler), each of them in their own sense is an actual Owner Handler, regardless of whether someone is:
- An owner who gets a dog as a child and becomes a Junior Handler by virtue of the fact that their parents were breeders who showed and encouraged them to do so as well, or;
- A Professional Handler who also owns a dog they show in the ring, or;
- A judge who has gone up through the ranks of what they need to do within the profession.
All of these “handlers” have the same goals. So, in this sense, anyone who is, or has been, involved in any aspect of Conformation is, or has been, an Owner Handler. This in itself should bring us all together to better our breed so that we have the best of the best in the show ring. We want to better our breeds so that everyone can have a healthy, sound, and well-bred dog. Indeed, I find it most gratifying to breed healthy, happy, beautiful American Eskimo puppies, which, in turn, bring years of happiness and joy to the humans who love them.
What are your goals as an Owner Handler? Is their a victory that has eluded you?
Keira Nguyen: I’ve already spoken about my goals to some extent; however, part of my master plan is… I had always dreamed of Blaze going to Westminster—which he did last year with a handler and came home with an Award of Merit. Another dream is to be invited to show Blaze at Westminster myself and experience this historical sporting event myself. Due to recent foot surgery, I was unable to show Blaze, so my husband Truong agreed to show Blaze as his Owner Handler, leading to Blaze receiving his Grand Champion Bronze. I would also like to get his Grand Champion Silver title by year’s end.
Ultimately, my goals with Blaze emanate from a desire for him to follow in the footsteps of his sire, GCHG CH Ducat’s Smokin’ Hot OA AXJ NJP OF NFP SCA SEA SIN, bred by my friend, breeder, and AKC Judge Helen Dorrance of Ducat’s American Eskimos, and his dam, GCH CH Stardust Mea Culpa, bred by my friend and breeder Laurie Boles of Stardust American Eskimo Dogs. I already have plans to take him to the 2023 AEDCA National Specialty and I’d like to see him place there. Yet another dream would be for Blaze to receive the honor of Best of Breed against some of the most incredible American Eskimos in the country.
In addition, I have a goal for Blaze “outside of the Conformation ring,” which is to further his training in order to do work with the Animal Talent Agency, Pawsitively Famous, which is involved in TV, advertising, and film. I am currently working with my instructor, Janice Ritter, as well as Ling Messer, a professional photographer of Story Dog Photography, to acquire the skills needed in order to make this goal a reality.
Two victories have eluded me, actually. A goal not yet attained that I have already mentioned is my aspiration for Blaze to be ranked Number One in the NOHS. Other goals I continue to pursue are to get a Best of Breed, an Owner-Handled Group One or a regular Non-Sporting Group One, and a Best in Show in either Group. I have yet to get a Group One in either Group format while personally handling Blaze.
Is there a funny story that you can share about your experiences as an Owner Handler?
Keira Nguyen: One situation that continues to make me laugh occurred when in the Conformation ring with my first Show Girl, “Rosie.” As a relative newcomer to Conformation competition, and armed with my mint-flavored fear hormone coverup, I thought to myself, “I’ve got this! Rosie won’t know I’m nervous.” It was an outdoor show in an unshaded ring on a very hot summer day. I thought I was prepared for success!
As it turned out, I faced a major dilemma once in the ring with Rosie. To mask my nerves so as not to interfere with Rosie’s performance, I was using the aforementioned mint flavoring in my mouth. However, instead of using Tic Tacs I had opted to use spearmint-flavored Mentos and stuck one in my mouth before I entered the Conformation ring. As I moved Rosie around the ring, the sticky Mentos fell from my mouth and stuck onto Rosie’s coat. I don’t recall who first pointed it out to me (whether it was my husband or one of my other competitors in the ring), but someone tried to get my attention and whispered to me, “Your dog has a Mentos on her back.”
In the meantime, Rosie was trying to lick the sticky substance off her coat. I was already sweating from the extreme heat of the afternoon sunlight, and as if that wasn’t enough, I could feel the sweat dripping from my brow as I realized I had to react quickly—we were next in line to go on the table. Luckily, I managed to grab the Mentos from Rosie’s back and discreetly stuffed it into my pocket. (I’d realized that I couldn’t put it back in my mouth because Rosie had such an extremely long coat and the Mentos was literally covered in her fur!)
My hand now covered in the sticky substance, I ultimately opted to smear my hand on my suit so as not to get Rosie’s coat soiled or sticky. After that, I honestly was so focused on being incredibly embarrassed by the situation that I no longer remember what happened afterwards. However, I have never again used anything bigger than a Tic Tac!
Are you looking for an American Eskimo Dog puppy?
The best way to ensure a long and happy relationship with a purebred dog is to purchase one from a responsible breeder. Not sure where to begin finding a breeder? Contact the National Parent Club’s Breeder Referral person, which you can find on the AKC Breeder Referral Contacts page.
Want to help rescue and re-home an American Eskimo Dog?
Did you know nearly every recognized AKC purebred has a dedicated rescue group? Find your new best friend on the AKC Rescue Network Listing.
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