Breeders and handlers are a study in contrasts. Breeders are big-picture and behind-the-scenes, planning and studying for the future. Handlers, meanwhile, are front and center, focused on the competition at hand and those split-second moments that can make or break a win. And of course, we all know what dog owners do. Sometimes, those three roles intersect in that rarest of all breeds, the breeder-owner-handler.
At the 2019 AKC National Championship presented by Royal Canin in Orlando, Florida, all four of the Best in Show ribbons went to one of those marvelous multi-faceted fanciers.
The most high-profile winners were 20-month-old Pekingese GCh. Pequest’s Wasabi (“Wasabi”) and breeder-owner-handler David Fitzpatrick. Wasabi came out on top in an entry of 5,284 dogs to earn Best In Show and become 2019’s AKC National Champion under judge Dorothy Collier. Besides Wasabi, three other breeder-owner-handlers also triumphed at the show’s special conformation competitions.
Bred By Exhibitor Best In Show went to American Staffordshire Terrier GCh. Alpine’s Highwayman, CGC, RATI, RATN (“Pancho”) and breeder-owner-handler Ed Thomason of Alpine Falls American Staffordshire Terriers.
Becoming a Breeder-Owner-Handler
While the quality of the dog matters most, regardless of who is handling it, “obviously these dogs need to come from somewhere, and they come from a breeder,” says Fitzpatrick, who has been breeding his Pequest Pekingese for more than three decades. “It’s gratifying that breeders can do it themselves.”
While Fitzpatrick first made his living as a professional handler, he soon decided he would be his own best customer
“I learned early on in my career that if I wanted to be successful, I was probably going to have to breed most of my own dogs,” he says. “I handled for a lot of good clients. But I wanted to have more consistency and try to have the kind of dogs that I thought fit the standard.”
Of the four 2019 Best In Show winners, three were piloted by professional handlers who are also well-regarded breeders in their respective breeds. Arguably, that pro status might give them a bit of an edge, if only because they show full-time and so might have more recognition. But Coile – the only amateur in the group – says she believes a well-presented dog and breeder-owner-handler duo sometimes has an advantage over a professionally shown client dog of equal quality under judges who are breeders themselves.
“These judges are aware that without breeders, there will be no dogs to judge. They realize that good breeders present their best dogs to them,” says Coile, who triumphed over 790 other owner-handlers — the largest entry in the competition’s history. “A talented breeder-owner-handler knows their dog inside and out. They know exactly how to present each one at its best – something an all-rounder professional may not do as well. I’ve been showing Salukis for 49 years now – I’d better be good at it!”
Evolving Roles of Breeder-Owner-Handlers
Thomason points out that the contours of the sport of dogs have changed dramatically over the years. So too has the role of professional handlers. Through the 20th century, wealthy fanciers underwrote large kennels, paying full-time staff to manage, breed, and show their dogs. Much has changed in the world of conformation today.
“Those big kennels are gone,” says Thomason. “And it’s easier to get the quality if you control your own breeding program. As a result, there are probably more handlers who are breeding at a high level than not.”
Thomason also spent two hours at the show’s Meet the Breeds event. There, Pancho greeted the curious families and ardent dog lovers who stopped by the AmStaff booth.
Longtime terrier handler Robert Carusi bred Irish Terriers for a quarter-century. That included selecting sires, whelping and raising puppies, and choosing keepers for his clients. But, because he did not own any of the females, he was not listed as a breeder of record.
Six years ago, Carusi decided that he wanted some of the credit, and began started breeding Wire Fox Terriers, with three generations finishing their championships at national specialties.
To avoid any conflicts with clients’ dogs, his puppy Pierce was not shown at the National Championship – only at the Puppy and Junior Stakes, where he bested more than 1,300 competitors. Still, Carusi counts that special competition among the “coolest things I’ve ever done,” because he could truly enjoy the moment, and not stress over the outcome.
“I put a significant amount of pressure on myself to succeed for my clients,” he says. “I’ve believed in this puppy since he was four months old. He’s special, his pedigree’s special. It was tremendously fulfilling and super fun.”
Bygone Days & Dogs
Coile understands the special feeling of being a breeder-owner-handler. Success is all the sweeter when the dog at the end of your lead is one you brought into existence. One that arrived in the palm of your hand, full of wetness and wonder. Her Ponzi traces back to her very first Saluki, Baha, born in 1975. Baha provided the foundation for the unbroken succession of generations that connects the two. Coile describes the feeling of that mystical Saluki pack that no one else could see, but that she keenly felt.
“Though long gone, those dogs who were so very special to me decades ago were gaiting alongside me that night,” says Coile. “And so, in a way, they also shared in the win.”
The sentiments shared by 2019’s Best In Show breeder-owner-handlers underscores the importance of the multifaceted role. The overall tapestry of all their dogs throughout time always looms large. This experience and expertise helps these multi-talented individuals succeed in such monumental ways. Big picture, indeed.