Junior handlers: Teamwork in the show ring

Teamwork in the show ring: the ultimate bond between you and your dog


It was a warn, sunny day with an occasional breeze blowing gently across the Live Oaks campus — a perfect day for a dog show. Fourteen young people, aged 10-18, waited outside ring three as noon approached. Judge Melinda Lyon of Louisville awarded ribbons to the Scottish Terriers in the show, and then it was time for the junior handlers to enter the ring and be judged.

The first class of juniors, five 10-14 year-old boys and girls, brought their dogs into the ring. The dogs were all purebred as required by the American Kennel Club, but they were not all the same breed. There were two Australian Shepherds shown by sisters Amanda and Cheryl Hitchcock of Orient Ohio, a Basset Hound shown by Julie Jones of Erlanger, Kentucky, an English Setter shown by Beth Kidd of Danville, Kentucky, and a Puli shown by Michael Plowman of Lexington, Kentucky.

Other breeds shown by juniors that day were Akita, German Short-haired Pointer, Shetland Sheepdog, Whippet, Shiba Inu, and Basenji. Some of these juniors showed dogs in the regular classes — against adult handlers — at this show as well.

Each exhibitor followed the judge's instructions and worked his dog to show the teamwork they had developed. Judging was based on the smoothness of effort, the partnership between dog and child.

For about a half hour, the judge studied classes of junior handlers to choose the best exhibitor of the day. Four of the 14 exhibitors went home with blue ribbons in their pockets, and Nicole Hirsch of Ferndale also earned the ribbon for best junior handler of the day.

Who can be a junior handler?

You can, if you have a purebred dog and a desire to work with the dog as a smooth team. If you want to work in 4-H competition, you don't need a purebred dog -- you can participate with a mixed breed.

Junior handlers must work hard with their pets. Daily training is necessary to prepare for a top performance, just as it is in any sport. Some juniors enjoy handling so much that they become skilled enough to show dogs for other owners. A few even make handling a profession and travel with clients' dogs to shows throughout the country.

The purpose of a dog show is to present top quality dogs to the judge and to work towards championship points for the best dogs in a kennel. Dogs must earn 15 points to become a champion, and two of those wins must be “major” victories of three-to-five points. When competition is intense between several very nice dogs, the skill of the handler often makes the difference between a major win and a pointless second place ribbon.

A successful handler prepares the dog well for the ring, keeps the dog perky throughout the judging, has the dog under control at all times, and obviously enjoys the relationship with this wonderful animal.

Selection of a dog to handle

It is important to select a dog that fits your personality, appearance, available time, and family circumstances. If you have no time or energy to groom a long-haired dog, don't get a long-coated breed for your show dog — even if your parents breed long-coated dogs. If you don't have the time or energy to exercise a very active dog, don't get a very active dog — even if you can easily get a one from a relative or friend.

If you are petite, don't go for a giant breed, and if you are big-boned or tall and lanky, don't get a small breed. Judges look at teamwork, and it's easier to look like a team if you are evenly matched in size.


Once you get your chosen pup home, you can begin his training by handling him all over — look at his teeth, feel his toes, rub his ears, put your hands all over his body. A pup that is accustomed at an early age to such handling is more relaxed in the ring.

Then teach the pup to walk on a leash. Never drag him anywhere; coax him to come along with you by softly calling his name, squeaking a toy, or enticing him with a soft treat such a bit of cheddar cheese or cooked chicken.

When he walks nicely on a leash, take him places to get used to noises and commotion. Always let your pup know how happy you are to be with him. Don't yank him or yell at him when he does something wrong, just show him what you want him to do until he understands -- even if it takes months of practice.

Teach him to stand still and to allow you to place his legs in proper position. Most dogs look best when standing with all four legs straight underneath their bodies. Your pup must learn to let you place his legs in proper position so he looks his best when the judge examines him.

Getting ready

Puppies must be six months old to enter a dog show, so you have plenty of time to get ready. The best place to learn about exhibiting as a junior handler is to attend a training session with an experienced handler or instructor. Many clubs have conformation classes for show dogs and some have special sessions for junior handlers along with a regular conformation class.

In such a class you will learn the gaiting patterns for judging, the best method of standing (or stacking) your dog for examination, and the smooth moves necessary to prevent blocking the judge's view of your dog. You'll also learn what type of show leash works best for your dog and how you should dress for competition.

If you want to know more about junior handling, there are several books available at the library, including Junior Showmanship from Hand to Lead by Mary Miller. If you want information about 4-H showmanship clubs, call the 4-H agent at the Cooperative Extension Service in your county.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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