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Stephanie Hayes ©American Kennel Club

To be an owner-handler as a Junior Showmanship competitor is already a big feat. To win the AKC National Owner-Handled Series (NOHS), part of the AKC National Championship Week, is another. But to win the AKC NOHS as a Junior is monumental – and 14-year-old Adam Kucera did just that this past December.

At the AKC NOHS competition in Orlando, Florida, which announced Best in Show on December 16, 2023, saw a total of 874 dogs from 209 breeds. The top 10 dog-handler teams from each breed went on to compete in the finals, where they competed for best of breed, group, and ultimately, Best in Show. Kucera and his 2-year-old Irish Setter, “Stryker” GCHB CH Kinloch So There!, took home the top prize. Reserve Best in Show also went to a Junior Handler, 15-year-old Savanna Michalak and her Australian Shepherd, “Hawk” GCHS CH Serendipity Collinswood Kestrel CGCA CGCU TKN ATT. It’s the first time in history that Juniors took home both NOHS top spots, but these young handlers aren’t slowing down anytime soon.

Kucera’s First Show Dog

Kucera, who was 14 at the time of his NOHS win, had only started showing two years prior. When he was 12, his grandmother, who also shows dogs, purchased Stryker for him. Stryker is Kucera’s second Irish Setter, and he says he loves that the breed is so happy and energetic. Originally, Kucera was looking for an obedience dog, and got into Conformation almost by accident. “We were getting him as an obedience dog, and then he came under a show contract,” Kucera said. “So, we decided to show him.”

Impressively, Stryker is Kucera’s first show dog, making their NOHS Best in Show win even more notable. His favorite part about conformation? The NOHS. “It’s a fun competition and there is a lot of very nice people in the ring,” he says, noting that the atmosphere since he’s started has been particularly encouraging.

Stephanie Hayes ©American Kennel Club

Conformation Training and Mentorship

Kucera is homeschooled, which gives him extra time to focus on Stryker and their training, which centers around weekly handling classes to work on show skills. The pair also practice daily at home. It also allows Kucera more time to do Stryker’s grooming routine, which takes some time. Stryker’s coat needs to be combed and conditioned, and once a week, he gets bathed, blow-dried, thinned, cut, and clipped to keep him looking his best.

Mentorship has been key for Kucera’s success with Stryker. He’s been mentored by Patty and Mike Fanelli, who are also Stryker’s breeders. Kucera says he’s especially grateful for the support and mentorship he’s received from them.

Life With Stryker

Kucera says he’s worked hard with Stryker to turn him into the show dog that he is today. Despite their big wins, training Stryker has come with its challenges. “It has been hard,” Kucera says, noting that Stryker hadn’t always been the most well-behaved dog. Sometimes, especially when they started out, this translated into the conformation ring. “He likes to stretch in the ring,” Kucera says. “He likes to roll in the ring, he likes to gallop.”

Stryker has his own opinions and Kucera confesses that he even used to like to jump on judges. But it’s his commitment to training that allowed Kucera to teach Stryker to be an ideal show dog, helping to lead to their success. “Most of the time he behaves now, so I don’t have to worry as much,” Kucera says. “I mostly just focused on what we’re doing.”

Stryker is not only a special show dog. He’s also been a wonderful dog for Kucera, teaching him a lot about training, the breed, and being a successful handler. “He’s fun, he really just wants to have fun,” Kucera explains. Stryker’s favorite thing to do is to play ball in the backyard with Kucera, and it’s safe to say that after bringing home the NOHS win, Stryker’s gotten lots of playtime as a reward.

The Winning Team

Despite Kucera’s initial desire to start Stryker in obedience, he says that so far, they’ve been too busy in the ring. They haven’t yet begun their obedience training, but Kucera says that they still intend to pursue that sport along with conformation.

Owner-Handled Best In Show, Owner-Handled Group First, and Owner-Handled Best of Breed: GCHB CH Kinloch So There! (Stryker), Irish Setter, and Adam Kucera.
2023 National Owner-Handled Series Finals, Orlando, FL.
Photo by Vicki Holloway

Even so, their teamwork in the conformation ring is already very impressive for their two years together. Kucera says that his NOHS Best in Show win made him feel incredibly grateful, but filled him with disbelief. “We didn’t think it would happen,” Kucera says. The 2023 AKC National Championship was Kucera’s second. They competed for their first year on that stage in 2022, when Stryker was still a puppy, and won Sporting Group Third.

Going into the competition in 2023, Kucera was mainly excited about the AKC NOHS and the Irish Setter Breed Specialty. Impressively, they won both. Despite being shocked by his NOHS win, his win at the Irish Setter Specialty was extra meaningful to him, too. There was a large entry of Irish Setters, and they went up against the top winning dogs in the breed, and Kucera says it was a wonderful surprise for them.

After their big wins in Orlando, Kucera has his sights set on competing with Stryker at the Irish Setter National Specialty later in 2024 and continuing their conformation journey together.