In the Ring: The Life of a Dog Handler
North America is home to some of the world's best professional dog handlers. Some, with earnings in the six-figure bracket, are more respected than even the show judges they compete in front of. What makes these handlers so special? Why do people hire them? And is it really as glamorous as portrayed in the televised airing of the Westminster Kennel Club show?
Handlers with clout have been known to make a judge change his or her mind after awarding the "wrong" dog a ribbon. The presence of a known handler at ringside can cause some competitors to simply turn on their heels and head home without ever stepping into the ring. Some say it's politics. Others say it's skill and the ability to attract the best quality dogs as clients. However it is viewed, professional handling is a tough job that is not without its rewards. But while it can be glamorous, it can also be incredibly humbling. Scott Price's day starts at 4:00 A.M. One of the Pacific Northwest's most successful handlers, he can afford to be choosy, and he may have as few as five or as many as ten dogs on a given circuit. Today, he is on the I-5 highway traveling to southern Oregon for a four-day show. He will be driving for much of the day.
Once at the show site, he will begin setting up exercise pens, grooming tables, dog crates and chairs. All the dogs will need to be exercised. Then the grooming will begin. "Every dog gets groomed," declares Price. Regardless of whether it is a long-haired breed or not, each dog will enter the ring looking its very best.
He will return home in five days to Mt. Vernon, Washington to drop off three dogs, pick up five more and get back on the road for another 400-mile journey and four more days of shows. He will see his wife only briefly in the next two weeks.
Price is a tall, lanky redhead who some rivals would argue has looks in his favour, giving him an added advantage as a handler. But for his clients, such as breeder Kathryn Tominey of Richland, Washington, it is how he treats her dogs that is important. "I hired a few handlers before Scott, but he really got along well with my dogs and he always followed through," she says.
For clients such as Tominey, the professional handler plays a vital role in showing their dogs. "I'm inept," she confesses. Knee surgery prevents Tominey from keeping up with her fast-moving Rhodesian Ridgebacks in the ring. "Even if I could move well, I never knew what was going on in the ring. I had no situational awareness and had enough trouble being aware of what the dog was doing, let alone the judge. No amount of practice made any difference. I just didn't have any talent for it."
For other clients, the issue is time. Many owners can't afford to be away from their homes, jobs, families, or other dogs to attain a conformation championship on one individual. For those owners who live in remote areas, getting to shows can be costly and inconvenient. Hiring a professional handler can actually be less expensive than finishing a championship on the dog oneself.
On the Canadian side of the border, Beth Hilborn is also preparing to leave for a show. She has been showing dogs since she was a teen and is a well-known fixture at British Columbia's top shows. Dogs love her and it is evident in the ring. This seems to be the common element with the really successful pros.
Hilborn recalls going, after many years, to visit a dog that she used to show. "He greeted me hysterically," she remembers, "then jumped in the truck and assumed he was going to
the show." It's these moments that make the job so rewarding.
Price similarly recalls one of his favourite stories: "I have a Boston Terrier client. The owners are retired. She's in a mechanical wheel chair and is in ill health. This last week at the Boston Terrier Specialty, we won Best of Winners. These clients were so happy-you could see them light up for the entire weekend and I know that win made their month. I turned to my assistant and said, ‘This is why I do this.' It's those kinds of clients that make it worthwhile."
A dog owner can expect to pay between $60 and $100 per day plus expenses. But a handler can make up to $2,500 in one shot if the dog they're showing wins Best in Show at, say, Westminster, the most prestigious dog show in North America.
Price admits that while readers may be surprised at the six figure incomes of some of the big names, the pay is hardearned. These are full-time handlers and many also run boarding facilities. The work is mentally and physically exhausting. "It's hard on your body," Price says. "Nothing in dog shows is light or easy. Even with a little Brussels Griffon, you put in miles every week on concrete; you have to move quickly and you're in charge of people's love, joy and possessions."
These six-figure incomes, however, are not the rule but the exception. Some clients can afford top dollar. Some dogs are so pampered, they are chartered on private planes between top shows. It's difficult for the average owner-handler to compete with these odds. The dog that is relaxed, more experienced, and more expertly presented will have an advantage in the ring. These are the dogs that go on to demand top stud fees and premium prices for puppies. Owning or breeding a top dog also boosts the credibility of a kennel. For others, it is just about the sport of it and there is no financial reward of any sort.
Dog owners should be aware that the lure of the Best in Show ribbon has cost some fanciers to sink their entire life savings into campaigning a dog. Campaigning is when the dog enters every show possible with the goal of winning Best in Show or achieving top ten status. In those instances, the fame is never worth it.
On the positive side, a good professional handler such as Price or Hilborn will work together with their client on a strategy. They care about the dogs' happiness and both handlers agree that the ideal place for a dog is at home. They work hard to make sure that their clients' dogs are at home as much as possible. In some instances it's not feasible, but knowing that the dogs are in competent, caring hands makes the separation a little easier.
And what did these professionals have to say about the movie Best In Show? Hilborn, who actually appears in the film, thinks it's a great spoof, that it has "a strong grain of truth running through it." Price says that it is "exactly a dog show. ... Every character exists." When asked which character he is, Scott Price laughs from his cell phone on the I-5: "All of them." ■
Barb McClarty, based in Langley, B.C., breeds and shows champion Rhodesian Ridgebacks. She is a third-generation breeder at Of Course kennels, widely known for its Whippets. Barb has ten years' communications and public relations experience and her writing has appeared in a variety of popular and trade publications. She has been known to employ the services of a professional handler now and then.
For more information on professional dog handling, visit the following websites:
Professional Handlers' Association, Inc., www.infodog.com/misc/pha/phainfo.htm Canadian Professional Handlers Association, www.angelfire.com/bc/cpha/