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Junior Carolyn Kellerman and her golden retriever

For baseball, it’s Little League. For gymnastics, it’s tumbling class. For football, pee-wees. Athletes in all sports don’t just make it to the big leagues right away. They have to start somewhere. The same goes for dog shows, and that’s where Junior Showmanship comes in. Aspiring handlers ages 9 to 18 compete in the Junior Showmanship category before they can compete as adults. They develop their skills and work toward becoming the best in the game.

This year, Juniors from all over the country will flock to New York City to compete in Junior Showmanship at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show presented by Purina® Pro Plan®, hoping to prove they have what it takes to be the best of the best handlers.

Carolyn Kellerman, a 17-year-old from Lawtons, New York, knows just what it takes to become a successful junior handler.

Her passion for showmanship began at just 3 years old, an age that most kids are learning the alphabet or riding tricycles. Showing dogs was in her blood. She would watch her mother, Heidi Kellerman, and her mother’s friend Jolene Benzinger train, prepare, and show the Kellermans’ Labradors, and she immediately decided that she wanted to follow in their footsteps and show dogs too. She started by practicing with every dog she could get her hands on.

“It didn’t matter if I was in the living room, my friends house, or at a show,” Carolyn says. “If they had a dog, I tried to practice showing it.”

That wasn’t limited to just real dogs, either. Carolyn started collecting stuffed dogs, but not ones with pink, glittery fur or big bulging eyes. She’d only get stuffed animals that were true to each dog’s breed standard. She would put on shows for her family in their living room, setting the toys on the coffee table and pretending to stack them, which is to get them to stand in a way that showcases their best traits. She even tried to get her friends in on the plush dog show action, inviting them to her dog show-themed birthday party. Guests brought their own stuffed dogs and put on a mock competition.

The Kellermans have always had Labrador Retrievers, so naturally they were Carolyn’s first show dogs, but when she turned 9 and began to show in Juniors, she wanted to try a new breed. She fell in love with Golden Retrievers, mostly because she loved grooming them. It was her therapy. At 11, she became the youngest handler to win back-to-back Best in Specialty shows.

Her first Golden Retriever was a female named Addie, a gift from family friends Rusty and Jen Howard. Next came Patrick, who she used exclusively for shows. She finished him, or won enough points to earn a Champion of Record title, when he was 10 months old. Izzy was next, and Carolyn led her to championship and Rally titles. She and her mother currently breed Golden Retrieves and Labs under their Harbor Run kennel name.

Carolyn age 11 Junior Showmanship
Carolyn in her early days of Junior Showmanship. Photo: Heidi Kellerman.

While Labs and Golden Retrievers are definitely her favorites, Carolyn certainly doesn’t discriminate when it comes to handling other dogs.

“When I was younger, I took every chance I could get to be in the ring,” she says. “Big dogs, little dogs, trained dogs, and unruly dogs. No matter what breed of dog or how trained the dog was, I wanted to be showing.”

Before a show, Carolyn gets focused by playing music. She has her headphones in while she grooms and prepares her dogs, and she doesn’t take them out until it is time to step into the ring. She has a routine, but she says she’s not superstitious.

“I try not to let any bad energy come in,” she says. “Another day, another dog show. Keeping a positive attitude and being a good sport about winning and losing is a must. Juniors should be fun.”

Carolyn age 7 at a show
Carolyn enjoying herself at a show. Photo: Heidi Kellerman.

While an outstanding pedigree and a great diet such as Purina® Pro Plan® help make a great show dog, the best dog in the world still can’t compete without a great handler. That involves training, grooming, and conditioning before the show and showcasing a dog’s breed characteristics to its best ability during the show, of course, but even more so than that, Carolyn says, is the relationship a handler has with his or her four-legged friend.

“The bond you have with your dog makes a world of difference,” she says. “That bond outside the ring is equally important, too. Just having quite alone time or fun obedience school, plus lots of praise, helps them bond with you. It’s all about the connection.”

Carolyn admits that being so involved in the show world takes a toll on her social life, even joking, “What social life?” She spends lots of her time traveling for shows, so she misses a lot of school, but her teachers have always made sure to keep her on track. They allow her to miss class as long as she keeps her grades up throughout the school year, which she does. Even with her busy schedule, she finds time to squeeze her assignments and homework in, even if it’s late at night or in the car on longs drives to shows.

Carolyn after winning ribbons at a show
Carolyn is all smiles after picking up some ribbons at a show. Photo: Heidi Kellerman.

Though she does spend most of her time working with her dogs or away at shows, she doesn’t necessarily lead an “all work, no play” kind of lifestyle. She loves being outside, especially in the winter when she can ski and snowboard throughout the season. She enjoys running, painting, drawing, and spending time with her family. The dogs get their fair share of down time too. Carolyn says they enjoy napping on the couch and going for long walks on the trails on the Kellermans’ property.

Despite her success, Carolyn has chosen to end her Junior Showmanship career last year so she can focus on her senior year of high school. She’ll be attending Hilbert College in upstate New York in the fall, where she plans to double major in psychology and forensic science. She hopes to continue breeding Labs and Golden Retrievers in the future. Her own Juniors career may be over, but she is very encouraging of young kids who are interested in becoming handlers. Her best advice is for kids to start going to dog shows and just observe; watch the breeds and the handlers to see how it’s done. Talk to breeders about finding a breed that works for your family’s lifestyle, as different breeds certainly have different needs and personalities. She also can’t emphasize practicing enough.

“It’s about you and your dog, who is your friend, and how well you work together as a team,” she says. “Always remember, you leave with the same dog you came with. They’re your friend and companion. Every dog is your Best In Show dog.”

Blake Hansen of Merritt Island, Florida, and Karen Mammano of Webster, New York, are judging this year’s Junior Showmanship preliminary rounds, while Dr. Wyatt Delfino of New York City will judge Junior Showmanship finals at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Feb. 16. The winner will receive a $6,000 scholarship to the college or tech school of his or her choice, and second through eighth places will receive scholarships from $500 to $5,000.

Read more of AKC’s Westminster coverage here.

Header image via Heidi Kellerman.

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