At age 15, Samantha Abels currently ranks No. 4 Junior Handler in the country. Most weekends, you can find the Plainfield, Illinois resident at dog shows with her Havanese, GCH CH Luv Bug N Brylee’s Conspiracy Theory (“Mason”) and GCHB CH Brylee’s Walk The Plank (“Patch”). Her rankings speak for themselves: Abels’ hard work and dedication have her ranked as the No. 2 Junior Handler for toy breeds and No. 1 Havanese Junior Handler.
Personal Passion Following Family Tradition
Love for the Havanese breed runs in the family. Along with the Abels’ family kennel, Brylee’s Angels Havanese, her family has bred and showed dogs for 15 years. So far, they’ve produced 35 champion Conformation dogs. Abels has shown their dogs in the breed ring since she was 5 years old, with the guidance of her mom, Michelle. “I begged my mom to let me show, and as soon as I was able to reach the table, I was in the ring doing what I love.”
Despite her family’s involvement in the dog world, picking up a leash was something that Abels chose for herself. “I always had a choice on whether or not I wanted to participate, but I believe I fell in love with the sport at my very first dog show. She began competing in Junior Showmanship in April 2022, and has since qualified for the AKC National Championship presented by Royal Canin and Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and progressed to the Master Class.
Even after years of showing, she loves any opportunity to step into the ring with her dogs. “My favorite part of showing dogs is the bond you create with the dog,” she says. “It makes the experience so much better when you and your dog are having fun inside and outside of the ring.”
Support and Mentorship From Family and Friends
Abels credits her mom as one of her biggest supporters. Her mom has guided her through her early years of showing, and passed along her knowledge of the dog world to her daughter. She continues to encourage her and teach her throughout her career, both specific to Havanese and in the sport itself.
Melissa Papke of Langpur Shih Tzu & Lhasa Apsos is another mentor that Abels looks up to. “I’ve known her all my life,” Abels says. “She’s taught me countless invaluable lessons about showing and dogs in general. She has given me the opportunity to work with, show, and finish multiple Lhasas and Shih Tzus, which has helped me build my handling skills by expanding my breed experience.” These different breeds have allowed Abels to broaden her horizons in Conformation, and transfer new skills to her showing strategy.
Aside from spending time in the ring, Abels is also a busy high school student involved in choir and musical theater. She usually shows on the weekends, but when she does have to miss some days of school, her teachers help her make up any missed work. Her family is very supportive of her busy schedule and help her balance it all. “Almost everyone in the dog show community is very supportive, especially of Junior Handlers,” she says. “I have met so many kind people that just want to see the juniors succeed.”
Their support is what taught her how to care properly for a dog and how to succeed in the ring. “You have to put work into what you want,” she says, “and if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.”
Embracing All Aspects of Conformation
One of Abels’s proudest moments came when she won a regional Junior Handler competition in Louisville, Kentucky, and received a college scholarship. “The judge, Mrs. Katie Campbell, is a very well-respected Juniors judge,” she explains. “She talked about how she loves to judge Juniors and that this group of Juniors was the best group she has ever judged.” Abels felt that to win under Campbell, as well as within that group, made it especially meaningful for her.
“To be the winner from such a hugely talented group under an amazing judge was truly an honor,” she says. “Ringside, there were people watching and cheering that I have looked up to my whole life. And when I came out of that ring with the ribbon, the amount of support and happiness from everyone was amazing.”
Now that she’s ranking top five in multiple different categories of Junior Handlers and showing at big events like Westminster, she reflects on her dedication to the sport. “My mom always told us, ‘If you want to do the fun part of stepping into the ring, you have to do all the hard work to get there,” she says. “My sister and I have always groomed, trained, and taken care of the dogs we’ve shown since we were old enough and capable of doing so.”
The outcome of a successful event is a great feeling for Abels, but she says that the most important thing is her relationship with her dogs. “Win or lose, it is just fun to be in the ring with your dog. But when you win, it validates all of the hard work you put into your dog and the sport.”
Sportsmanship in Dog Sports
Like everything in life, it’s not all positive. Abels grew up in a family that emphasized good sportsmanship, so seeing negativity firsthand came as a shock to her. “Not everyone has a good attitude. I have had to deal with overhearing negative comments about me when I have won, or dirty looks, or just simply not saying congratulations,” she explains. “My mom taught us to always say congratulations to anyone who wins, always be kind and courteous to everyone, and never talk badly about someone because you never know who’s listening and whose feelings you could hurt.”
Experiences like this have made Abels realize that she can’t control how other people act, so she tries not to it affect her. “I just smile and move along because other people’s words have no effect on the person you are.”
She also encourages adults to support and uplift Juniors. “Because Juniors are just kids trying their best and having fun, one mean or negative word can ruin it for them. Please just be kind, supportive, and respectful,” she says. “Sportsmanship is a huge part of dog shows, especially in Juniors.”
She encourages interested kids and teens to try Junior Showmanship. “Dog shows are such an amazing thing to do with your dog to create a bond and teach you so many lessons at the same time.” She has found met many welcoming and kind people in the dog show community, and it’s allowed her to really bond with her dogs in a unique way.
Higher in the Rankings
Abels and her dogs show almost every weekend, and she hopes to continue to win. “No matter what, we will be having fun doing our favorite thing in the world,” she says. Thought she’s top five across multiple rankings, she hopes that her continued dedication will pay off and rank her even higher across the board.
Her ambitions don’t end with her Junior Handler rankings. Currently, she says her goal is to win Best Junior Handler at Westminster. “Maybe when I’m older, Best in Show,” she adds. No matter where the shows take her and what ribbons and awards she brings home, Abels has one goal front of mind: “Most importantly, my goal in my dog show career is to continue growing, learning, and having fun!”