Life in the Ring: What It’s Like to Be a Professional Dog Handler
When Laura Reeves, of Grants Pass, Oregon, discovered after college that the 9-to-5 life of corporate America wasn’t for her, she went to the dogs — in a good way: Reeves traded in her office job for work as a professional dog handler. Her schedule isn’t any easier now, though: On the days she’s showing, Reeves typically starts her workdays at 5 a.m., exercising, feeding and grooming dogs before taking them into the show ring. After the show, she and her team of assistants exercise the dogs, clean up, eat dinner and feed the dogs. Their day generally doesn’t end until 10 p.m.
If you had always assumed that the job of showing dogs professionally — or handling, as it is commonly known — was as simple as leading a canine around a ring and collecting the ribbons at the end of the show, think again. Show dog handlers work, well, like dogs. And that doesn’t mean they’re lazing around on the sofa all day. Reeves, who began showing dogs in 4-H when she was 9 years old, describes it as 24/7/365 job.
But it’s a job she loves.
Hard Work, Long Hours
Dog handling is truly a full-time job; many handlers share their homes with the dogs they show, including those owned by clients who hire them to manage the dogs’ training and show schedule. This involves a lot of daily maintenance: Dogs must be cared for, and kennel runs, paddocks, vehicles, crates, bedding, bowls and buckets must all be cleaned. Handlers also spend time each day exercising their dogs, which can include running, swimming or bicycling, to keep them in top shape.
But a handler isn’t often home for long stretches; professional handlers travel for 100 to 200 shows annually. And the dogs aren’t the only ones getting a workout: Handlers load and unload dogs and gear from their vans or RVs; lift dogs on and off grooming tables; and shampoo, blow dry, clip and trim their charges to perfection.
“I limit the number of dogs I show," Reeves says, "so a normal day will have us showing 10, at most 15, dogs between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m." But her day isn’t over at 2 p.m. "Normally, group judging begins around that time," Reeves explains, "and we will show anywhere from one to six dogs in their respective groups, depending on how our day of ‘best of breed’ winners went.”
That grueling schedule repeats as many as five days a week, and even at home, there’s little downtime. In addition to caring for and training the dogs, professional handlers are running a business, and that means that there are judges to research for upcoming shows, travel and schedule planning to attend to (including deciding which dogs to enter in which shows) and client communication and billing.
A True Partnership
While it takes a lot of hard work to succeed as a professional dog handler, nothing is as important as the relationship between the dog and the handler. Successful handlers build a bond of trust, confidence and respect with the dogs they work with, and living with them day in and day out is one way to make sure they can work together.
Not every handler is a fit for every dog or every breed. Certain breeds require specialized skills, whether in grooming or motivation. People who handle Poodles, Bichons Frise, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apsos and the various terriers, for instance, must have an artistic eye and hand to present the dogs in their full glory. Breeds such as Bloodhounds or Greyhounds, which don’t always have the flash or pizzazz of Poodles, Pointers or Pekingese, need skilled handlers to motivate them to move properly, hold their heads up and look focused.
Some handlers specialize in particular breeds or groups, while others are all-rounders who will show anything from a Yorkshire Terrier to an Irish Wolfhound. Reeves focuses primarily on the sporting, working and hound breeds, but she has shown dogs in all seven groups — sporting, hound, terrier, working, toy, non-sporting and herding — and has won each of those groups. She has also taken Best in Show with sporting, hound and toy dogs.
Being able to show a variety of breeds requires creativity and flexibility. Junior handler Karissa Samuelson, 17, says a professional handler once told her that a great handler can be defined as a person who doesn’t show every breed the same way. The successful handler knows the different temperaments of certain breeds, like the occasionally standoffish Australian Cattle Dogs and laidback Collies, and can work with them according to their individual needs and personalities.
Many handlers begin as juniors, in 4-H or American Kennel Club junior showmanship classes. Laura Reeves got interested in handling in elementary school. “Mom enrolled me in dog care 4-H when I was 9 years old because I was ‘shy and retiring and lacked people skills,’" Reeves says. From there, she moved on to AKC junior showmanship and continued handling as a hobby when she became an adult. She soon found that she was making money showing dogs for other people and apprenticed with more experienced professional handlers, eventually going full time. “I am the living embodiment of the success of the 4-H program,” she jokes.
Young handlers often learn on the job, apprenticing with breeders or handlers to learn how to groom and present different breeds. Juniors, who must be at least 9 years old and younger than 18, are judged on how well they groom and present their dogs. They must know how to move the dog around the ring, present him correctly to the judge, show his bite, answer questions about the breed or the dog’s anatomy and converse respectfully and confidently with the judge.
Karissa Samuelson, who lives in Black Forest, Colorado, began junior handling when she was 11, working with her family’s first Redbone Coonhound, Abby. She also showed a diverse group of breeds while working as an assistant to a professional handler who owned and showed Collies. “I would occasionally show some of her younger or more inexperienced dogs,” Samuelson says.
Not all professional handlers start as juniors; some begin showing as adults, mostly as a hobby. Michael F. Blanchard, of Parker, Colorado, made the move from showing his own dogs to working for clients after winning Best in Show with Ch. Silverdawn’s Mushka, a Siberian Husky of his own breeding. His advice for dog owners interested in getting into handling: “Attend dog shows, watch how professionals present dogs, ask them questions, take a dog-handling class and inquire about working for a good professional handler either as a volunteer or a paid apprentice."
Working as a dog handler, either as an amateur or a professional, has many rewards. For Karissa Samuelson, the greatest of these is in her own personal growth. “The most enjoyable aspect about dog handling is taking a dog I have worked with for months and feeling utterly confident with him in the show ring," she says. "Whenever I show a dog who has made significant progress during training, I think it gives us both a jolt of confidence that everyone can see.”
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