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For many dog lovers, dog shows can be equal parts magic and mystery. Ever wonder how the top dogs get to the top? And just who is that human on the other end of the lead? Quite often, it’s a breeder or an owner who lovingly presents his or her dog to the judges. In other cases, a professional dog handler fills that role.

The work of a professional handler is less often described in words than witnessed in the beautiful conditioning and impeccable training of the dogs admired in the show ring. As scores of dog lovers will soon turn their attention to the fabled Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show presented by Purina® Pro Plan®, we turned to AKC Director of Dog Show Judges Tim Thomas for an inside look at what pro handling is all about.

AKC: Describe the role a pro handler plays in a show dog’s life. What’s he or she responsible for, what are the goals?

Thomas: The professional handler is essential to the health, safety, and welfare of the dog, first and foremost. Being entrusted with an individual’s or family’s pet is a tremendous responsibility. The professional must have the knowledge and experience to evaluate the dog to determine if: 1. It truly should be shown, and 2. How to maximize its potential through nutrition, conditioning, and training. The goals in many cases are achievement focused on items such as rankings, best in shows or titles. The true goal should always be to deal with the client with honesty and integrity, as you represent his or her breeding program and/or investment.

What is the hardest part about being a pro handler?

The schedule and travel. Unfortunately, many professionals sacrifice their own health due to the extraordinary hours. If you conduct your business properly, there is no down time. From the moment you arrive in your driveway from one set of shows, preparation begins for the next. If I were to name another challenge, it would be unreasonable clients. When one’s priorities focus solely on the color of the ribbon, the true purpose of our sport is lost. No dog is perfect, and all can be defeated on any day.

What is the most fun part of being a pro handler?

The relationships built with fellow exhibitors, and the personal satisfaction attained from recognizing and maximizing the potential within a dog.
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How did you get into the business?

Like many, I started in junior showmanship, albeit I was not born into the sport. My family started showing dogs as I was just entering my teens. We joined the local kennel club, met people within the sport, built relationships, and went to matches, before ever exhibiting at our first point show. After participating in juniors, I worked for a local professional handler for more than six years. At the end of that time, I had obtained a few clients. My clientele grew over the years to where I eventually left my real job to handle full time.

What’s one accomplishment you are most proud of from your days of pro handling?

I don’t really have one accomplishment that stands out above others. All of the clients and their dogs were just as important as the others. I will say that I was extremely proud to be a member of two handler organizations – the AKC Registered Handlers Program and the Professional Handlers Association (PHA). I believe very strongly in the purpose of handlers’ organizations in providing a resource for those seeking to hire a professional, where the clients know the handlers meet certain criteria based on experience and facilities. In addition, professional handlers have a tremendous opportunity to help educate and mentor our newest generation of fanciers, which many are more than happy to do.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a pro handler?

Learn your craft first. Take the time to work under a qualified professional to learn proper care and conditioning. Most of all, study the breed standards. To properly show a dog by maximizing its positive and minimizing the negative attributes, you must understand what is at the end of the lead.
sheepdog westminster

What’s one pro secret you would share that you think pet owners would want to know (and you can share).

Every dog is not meant to be a show dog.
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