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Junior Handler showing a Belgian Malinois
Courtesy of Connor Wooton

Sometimes a hobby can become a lifelong passion. Now 18 years old, Connor Wooton, from Bel Air, Maryland, has just aged out of Junior Showmanship but credits his junior handler experience helping him develop his love of dog training. For Wooton, who is autistic, the dog world has been an opportunity to come out of his shell and make friends, which previously hasn’t always been easy for him.

Getting Started

Wooton’s first exposure to dog shows was through watching dog sports on TV. Seeing dogs dash down a Fast CAT track or strut their stuff doing Conformation at Westminster on the screen helped ignite a passion that led him to get involved with showing dogs himself. Wooton began by joining dog groups on Facebook where he eventually found his first mentor Bekki Pina. Pina was willing to give Wooton a chance and allowed him to co-own her Pharaoh Hound named Olive. Wooton credits this support, and Olive, with helping him get his start showing dogs.

Connor now shows and competes with several dogs: Lynyrd, a Belgian Malinois puppy; Chase, a mixed-breed; Olive; Prin, a Cardigan Welsh Corgi; and Trillian, a Cardigan Welsh Corgi puppy that Wooton bred himself.

Wooton’s passion for dog training led him to want to get involved in pretty much whatever possible. “I will pretty much do everything,” he says. He and his dogs have competed in Junior Showmanship, Scent Work, Trick Dog, Rally, Dock Diving, Fast CAT, and Tracking. Wooton also noted that once his Malinois is old enough, he wants to get involved with Agility, Herding, and Barn Hunt.

Building Friendships and Mentorship

Wooton only got involved in showing dogs in early 2021 as he was looking for a way to find friends and make connections with peers. As an autistic person, this is something that hasn’t always been easy for Wooton, and dog shows have since become a wonderful social outlet for him.

Training and showing dogs have been a way that Wooten can prioritize what he loves to do and build relationships with other people who share his passions. Being a Junior Handler helped bring him out of his shell and make those life-long connections, including his best friend Allison Chism. “She is a fellow show person and junior and she really supports me all the time,” he says.

Belgian Malinois competing in Dock Diving.
Courtesy of Connor Wooton

Wooton didn’t come from a dog show family either, which meant he needed to build relationships with mentors in the dog world. He credits breeders, like Anne Baxter with Creekside Belgians and Tasha Mesina with Element Belgians, as well as Billy Huntington, a handler he worked with, and Jules Kitchen, who he co-owns two Cardigan Corgis with, one of which he showed as a Junior Handler. Wooton also says that Pina, “is still incredibly supportive.”

Not only did they provide him the resources to get or co-own dogs, but also helped Wooton to develop handling skills. Although his parents aren’t involved with showing dogs, they have been extremely supportive of Wooton’s passions. Pursuing his show dreams wouldn’t have been possible without their support and willingness to “drive me everywhere.”

Finding Success in Dog Sports

Although Wooton enjoys all the sports he and his dogs participate in, Rally and Fast CAT are his favorite. “They have the nicest people, and it is just a fun environment,” he says. His proudest moment to date was the first point he got with his Malinois puppy. “I was really happy, and we also got Best of Breed Owner Handler, which was exciting because we beat a top-ranked dog, but I was just excited to get our first points,” he says.

Training and showing dogs have opened up Wooton’s world and given him a robust group of friends and mentors, though it does come with his fair share of challenges, such as training his young Malinois. Working with a puppy has been a steep learning curve, but a good challenge as he trains and competes.

Although Wooton has only been involved in dog sports for a couple of years, his dedication and passion have not gone unnoticed. Wooton is now even mentoring Junior Handler. “The one thing I tell him is to never give up and ignore people who say mean things,” he says. “Also, find exceptionally good mentors that will really help.” This is the same advice that Wooton offers to any kids who want to get involved in dog sports.

For adults in the dog show world, Wooton encourages them to be supportive of prospective Junior Handlers. Wooton remembers that when he first got started, he didn’t have any experience with sports or showing and his mentors gave him the opportunity to learn and grow. “Do not give up on that one kid that comes to you clueless,” he says. “They just need some mentoring and some love. I am glad my breeders took a chance on that random kid who wanted a high-drive Malinois for sports and shows.”

Looking Towards the Future

Wooton turned 18 after graduating from high school this summer and has big goals as he enters the ring as an adult. He is hoping to get Lynyrd his Rally Champion (RACH) title by the beginning of next year and continue competing in more sports.

Wooton is also dedicated to supporting other Junior Handlers to get involved in training, sports, and showing. For those aspiring to be Junior Handlers, Wooton offers the encouragement to “never give up no matter how hard it is.”

Getting Started in AKC Juniors

Teens and children under 18 have the chance to learn about good sportsmanship, dogs, and dog shows, and develop their handling skills with the AKC Juniors Program.

Juniors are eligible to compete in Showmanship, Obedience, Agility, Rally, Tracking, Hunt Tests, Herding, Field Trials, Earthdog, Lure Coursing, Coursing Ability, and Coonhound Events. There is no minimum age requirement for sports other than Showmanship (where you must be nine).

If your child is interested in becoming a junior, they should first watch a show and sign up for a class. Juniors under 18 years old can sign up for a Junior Handler number here. This number will let them both take classes and compete.

Junior participation in AKC sports will be recognized through the AKC Junior Recognition Program and at the end of the year, AKC will award the Junior Versatility Awards and Scholarships. You can go to this link to learn more about the AKC Junior Recognition Program.

Related article: Junior Handler Spotlight: Sarah Trachtenbroit
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