Caleigh Novak from Castle Rock, Colorado, has already done big things in the dog world, and knows how to keep herself busy. In her Junior Showmanship career, the 16-year-old has qualified for the AKC National Championship in Orlando seven times, and qualified for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show four times. Last year at the AKC National Championship she took Best of Breed, winning a scholarship and winning two Best Junior awards, and a Reserve win with over 100 entries. An active competitor, Novak regularly shows her dogs River (English Springer Spaniel)- CH Journey Dartek Eldamar Reign Into the River CGC, Rubble (English Springer Spaniel)- CH Journey Dartek Eldamar The Big Apple @ Reign CGC TKN RN, and Blair (Australian Shepard)- Monarch’s Don’t Tarnish My Tiara. Her awards aren’t the extent of her accomplishments though — she also currentyl splits her time between her home in Colorado and Minnesota, where she works and learns from a professional handler. So how did Novak get started?
A Decade-Long Career at 16
Novak was just six years old when she first started showing dogs. She started by showing her family Boxer, who has since passed away. “I always loved practicing with her,” Novak says. “If it wasn’t at a show, it was at home, or conformation class. I still love doing all the training behind the scenes so every time I walk in the ring I know my dog will do their best.”
Getting involved with dog sports came naturally for Novak as a third-generation handler. Her grandmother bred Tibetan Terriers for many years, and her mother had English Springer Spaniels and Dobermans. Surrounded by dogs and handlers her whole life, her family was what got her started in the Conformation world. Novak credits coming from a multi-generational show family with her love for the sport. Because of them, she was able to get started as soon as she was, and learn directly from her grandmother and her parents. Her family’s understanding of the sport has supported her hard work and aspirations in the show world.
When she turned nine, she began competing in Junior Showmanship. The early drive for the sport and her commitment to consistently working and practicing with her dogs translated to her many accolades at only 16. She has a deep connection with her dogs because of the time she takes to train them, and says that that helps lead to success in the ring.
But success isn’t the most important thing for her: she says that the best part of showing dogs is the dogs themselves. “I have been around so many amazing dogs that I will always remember. They are what makes showing fun. You get to do so much with them from the grooming, training, showing, and most of all having the best pet.”
From Overcoming Nerves to Winning Big
Novak has collected a lot of impressive wins over the years, but one of her proudest moments came from winning Best Junior at the Springer National (ESSFTA) 3 years in a row with her English Spinger Spaniel, “River” (CH Journey Dartek Eldamar Reign Into The River CGC). “It means so much to get recognized at my national with a breed I love and do so much with,” says Novak.
She’s also especially proud of winning Best Junior in Cluster at the 2022 AKC National Championship in Orlando at the pre-shows. “Etta the Doberman and I went Reserve Best Junior, and back-to-back Best Juniors in entries over 115 each day,” Novak remembers. These wins came as a big surprise for Novak. She went into the Orlando competition not expecting much, just aiming to make the cut in her class. “I never expected to do that well,” she says.
Novak has worked hard to build her skills and has been very successful the dogs she handles. She’s qualified seven times to compete at the AKC National Championships, and has qualified four times for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In 2022 and 2023 at Westminster, she made it down to the last cut of 6 Junior Handlers in her group.
Despite her success, the wins haven’t always come easy. “The biggest challenge for me is [that] I stress myself out before the ring, especially at big shows,” Novak says. Working through the nerves going into the ring is something she’s worked hard to overcome. She says it helps to remind herself that she just needs to have fun and focus on showing her dog the best that she can.
She’s grateful for all the support she’s had from her family since she stepped into the ring for the first time, which helps. “If I get nervous or too worked up before going into the ring, I can always call my parents or grandparents and they will calm my nerves. I remember calling them before I went in the ring every day in Orlando 2022, and they said the same thing each time: ‘have fun and no matter what just know you did your best.'” Novak knows that her family is always cheering her on, from the biggest shows to the smallest, even when they can’t physically be there.
Working Hard Both in and Out of the Ring
In addition to showing her own dogs, Novak apprentices under professional handlers that help her polish her handling skills. “My mom actually worked for a professional handler and I grew up around them, also helping. I always wanted to be helping in some way at a show,” she recalls. That was how she got her first job, and she says she loves working. Now, she lives part-time with a professional handler in Minnesota, where she continues to learn from them and grow her skills.
“There are people I looked up to for a very long time and have had the amazing opportunity to learn from,” she explains. For her, one of the big benefits of working with and for professional handlers is opportunity to gain experience learning about handling a wide range of breeds. Even past her experience with her family’s tiny Tibetan Terriers and larger English Springer Spaniels, she’s able to meet and work with breeds that she’s never shown before, always learning something new.
Since she spends her time between Colorado and Minnesota and travels to dog shows often, she’s switched to online school to finish high school. This allows her to accommodate school with her busy dog show schedule and live part-time with the professional handlers that she works under. “[Online school] has given me the opportunity to be able to work for a handler and do shows while still getting my education,” she says, which is important to her. “I’ve learned what’s best for me to manage [school] and do shows.”
After graduating high school at the end of this school year, Novak plans to attend college with the end goal of earning her master’s in psychology. She knows that she won’t be able to do shows every weekend while in college, but she hopes to remain as involved in dog shows as she can be, when time allows.
Continuing to Support the Junior Handler Program
Novak is going to be aging out of Junior Showmanship soon, and hopes to support the next generations of Junior handlers. Though she knows that without the background of having a dog show family, it can be daunting, but she urges that getting started is easier than they’d think. “Do it!” Novak urges. “Find a local dog club or a breeder/mentor in the breed that you’re interested in. So many people are willing to help you get into the sport, even willing to lend a dog to a Junior.”
She feels that Juniors are the future of dog sports, and urges them to chase their dreams. Finding a mentor can be a great step in the direction of getting involved. “Many handlers need assistance on the weekends and they want to teach you. Find someone you’re comfortable with and is willing to teach you the ins and outs. You will learn a lot,” she advises.
Novak also underscores the importance of adults supporting Junior Handlers. “The best thing an adult can do to support Juniors is make them feel welcomed in the breed and help them learn more about the breed.” She also hopes that adults will make an effort to share their connections and resources with Juniors. “If a Junior asks for help to learn more, help them find a mentor in their area to help them.” Novak reminds adults that making sure that Juniors feel welcome in a breed will continue to open up the opportunity for more Junior Handlers to want to join, which will only help the sport grow.
Her time so far as a Junior Handler has helped Novak to have a vision for her future, and set big goals for dog shows and beyond. “I remember having goals for Junior Showmanship a few years ago, but now I have goals for my future and know what I want to do,” Novak explains. Before aging out of Junior Showmanship and going to college, she’s looking forward to competing at competitions, including Westminster, a few more times as a Junior. In addition to continuing to show dogs in college, Novak wants to keep advocating for new juniors, even when she ages out.