I have been involved in dog sports for over 30 years, having trained dogs in Obedience, Agility, Tracking, Herding, and Scent Work. I showed German Shepherd Dogs in Conformation for over 15 years, as well as Dutch Shepherds and the occasional Rottweiler. I have raised German Shepherd Dogs and Dutch Shepherds under the kennel name “Traka” and produced several champions/certificate of merit holders.
In 2013, I met my partner, Franklin Williams, who introduced me to the world of coonhounds, and I introduced Frank to the world of AKC Conformation. Shortly after meeting, we selected an American English Coonhound puppy from a litter—and I never looked back. The coonhounds stole my heart. That puppy, GCH River Bottom Tri Dunkin Me, became the foundation stud of our American English Coonhounds, produced under Frank’s kennel name “River Bottom.”
In addition to Conformation, I also compete with River Bottom Coonhounds in Scent Work Trials, Water Races, and Bench Shows, and I am currently training two of our dogs in K9 Search and Rescue.
When were you first introduced to the sport of purebred dogs? To your breed?
Tracy Kaecker: In 1992, I purchased a German Shepherd Dog puppy, the first puppy I ever bought, and thought I should do right by taking him to training classes being held locally. The trainer saw great potential in this dog and tried talking me into competing with him in Obedience Trials. At the time, I was showing horses, and show season was coming up, so I said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
A few months later, I lost my mare to a freak accident in the pasture. Devastated and looking for something to distract me, I went back to my dog trainer and asked her about Obedience Trials and what I needed to do to title my dog in Obedience.
I was competing for my GSD’s third leg for his CD and the trial was held in conjunction with an all-breed Conformation show. I was fascinated and intrigued by what I saw. I went back to the breeder of my GSD and asked her about Conformation. A year later, I got my first show dog from her.
I was still showing German Shepherd Dogs when I met my fiancé, Frank, in 2013. Frank had Bluetick Coonhounds at the time, but he had been looking for a nice English Coonhound.
A few months after we met, Frank heard about someone with a litter of English Coonhounds. Together, we picked out a male puppy. Frank had been thinking about showing in the Conformation ring and I convinced him to do so with this puppy. The puppy we picked out is GCH River Bottom Tri Dunkin Me. He is the foundation sire to our line of American English Coonhounds.
How many years in dogs? How many as an Owner Handler?
Tracy Kaecker: My mom loved German Shepherd Dogs. So, we always had one growing up, but they were purely pets. I was the first (and only) member of my family who began competing with dogs in 1993. I have been involved with dogs in some form ever since.
With a few rare exceptions, I have owner-handled my dogs since I first started showing. I have actively participated in the National Owner-Handled Series for the last four years, competing with the pick bitch from our first litter of American English Coonhounds.
Do you attend show handling classes? Have you attended any handling seminars?
Tracy Kaecker: I have attended a few. I found they were more about getting your dog used to gaiting, stacking, and being examined. They were not focused on teaching handling skills.
I had the opportunity to attend Norma Smith’s two-day handling seminar a couple years ago. It was the best time and money I ever spent on my Conformation career. I wish I could have taken the class 30 years ago when I first started out!
Have you found virtual learning tools to be helpful? Classes? Videos? Websites? Social Media?
Tracy Kaecker: I have watched some instructional videos and found some useful tidbits here and there. I don’t think anything beats hands-on instruction with your own dog, though.
I belong to a few Owner-Handler Facebook groups, but find they are more supportive than instructional. They are a great place for newcomers to learn the ins-and-outs of dog shows.
I also belong to Lee Whittier’s Dog Show Mentor Group. It is a fantastic environment to deal with the psychological aspects of showing. It provides a great forum to learn how to reflect on failures as well as successes, and how to use them to make a stronger connection with your dog as well as a better presentation to the judges.
Do you compete in the National Owner-Handled Series? Are rankings important to you?
Tracy Kaecker: Yes, I compete in NOHS. I’d be lying if I said rankings weren’t important to me to some degree. I’m a very competitive person and the rankings, for me, are a reflection of how well I’m doing. But the most important thing to me is that I am, and more importantly, my dog is, having fun. I want to make sure that we look and do our best every time we step foot in the ring.
In which class(es) are you most likely to enter your dog(s)? Why?
Tracy Kaecker: My current dog is entered in Best of Breed since she is a champion. However, our up-and-comers are entered in the Bred-By Class. If we have a dog that we have not bred, we use the appropriate age class (Puppy, 12-18 or Open).
Is it a challenge to compete with your breed(s) as an Owner Handler?
Tracy Kaecker: When I was showing German Shepherd Dogs, absolutely! It is a breed that is predominately professionally handled and it was hard to get a look from the judges as an Owner Handler.
My current breed, American English Coonhounds, are shown mostly by Owner Handlers. That makes it a much more level playing field in the Breed ring. The dogs and Owner Handlers are much more connected. We are the breeders, the trainers, and the handlers. It is very rewarding when we win because we are invested in our breed.
Are you intimidated by the Professional Handlers? By the judges?
Tracy Kaecker: When I first started showing, absolutely. I was terrified of both! I am definitely not a “natural” when it comes to handling dogs; I’ve looked the fool on numerous occasions, lol. As I’ve gained experience and confidence, I am not as intimidated by Professional Handlers.
There are a few Judges whose presence still intimidates me, but I shrug it off and show my dogs to the best of my ability.
Who have been your mentor(s) as an Owner Handler?
Tracy Kaecker: The best mentors I’ve had, and still have, are some of the Professional Handlers.
How important is the Owner Handler to the future of the dog sport?
Tracy Kaecker: Owner Handlers are the backbone of dog sports. At any given show, a majority of the entries are made by Owner Handlers. Without them, shows would languish as the financial support would be substantially less. And without financial support, clubs and shows would collapse from ever-rising costs. Without clubs and shows, the world of purebred dogs would be in peril.
Additionally, Conformation was designed as a way to recognize exemplary specimens in the breeds. We, as Owner Handlers, are focused on bringing our specific breed(s) as close to the written Breed Standards as possible. In order to find dogs to supplement our programs, we need to seek out those animals that help us improve it. Not every person who is a breeder and has a well-bred dog or bitch has the financial means to pay someone to put it on display. Without Owner Handlers showing in Conformation, exemplary breed specimens may never be known.
We are not in the sport for financial gain. We show our dogs and dedicate our time for the love of our respective breed(s).
What are your goals as an Owner Handler?
My goal as an Owner Handler is to continue to learn how to present any dog to look its best. I want to be in the Group ring and have spectators think, “Wow, what a professional looking presentation.” I don’t want them to be critical of me, but only aware of the dog. (I may never reach that level, but I will continue to try!)
Is there a victory that has eluded you?
Yes, my dream, since I started showing, is to win Best of Breed at Westminster. We’ve qualified the last three years with the American English Coonhounds. The one and only time I actually showed at Westminster, we won Best of Opposite Sex and not the Breed.
On the other hand, I always thought that an unachievable goal was to win an AKC all-breed Best in Show. But we did, and we did it by beating some No. 1 dogs not only in their breed but in AKC overall standings! (Note to all you owner handlers: Yes, it IS possible and yes, you CAN do it!!)
Is there a funny story that you can share about your experiences as an Owner Handler?
I made a very good friend in the dog show world because we saw each other frequently in the Hound Group and we would start talking while waiting for our individual examinations. Well, my American English Coonhound is an exceptionally food-driven coonhound. Those pleading hound dog eyes were impossible for my friend to resist. She started giving my dog, “Diva,” treats both inside and outside the ring. It was all in fun and we joked about how Diva could sucker anyone out of a cookie. My friend quickly became known as my dog’s “cookie dealer.”
One day, we were both in the Owner-Handled Hound Group. My girl is a seasoned show dog and could probably go in the ring and show herself. When it was our turn for the individual exam, I started my down and back, and halfway down, Diva spotted my friend in the ring. Without missing a beat, she turned right towards my friend, stopped, and free-baited!
I couldn’t help but laugh. I finished my down and back, and the judge, smiling, said, “That was a really nice free-stack. Too bad she didn’t do it at a better time!”
Are you looking for a American English Coonhound 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 a American English Coonhound 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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