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Many junior handlers hope to make working with dogs their job when they grow up. Getting paid to spend every weekend at dog shows as a professional handler sounds like a dream job, but how do you make that a reality? Unlike most other sports, one of the unique aspects of AKC events is that amateur dog owners are competing head-to-head with professional handlers. Nobody needs to be or have a professional handler for their dog to be successful but if you’re a junior handler and showing dogs is your passion, you might wonder about how to go from participating in dog shows as a hobby to showing dogs as a career. To help demystify the process, we talked with two professional handlers who got their starts as junior handlers.

What Is a Professional Handler?

Professional handlers are paid to handle other people’s dogs in the ring. Frequently, professional handlers will live with the dogs they show while they’re on the road at shows. Therefore, handlers are responsible for all the care and feeding, as well as training, conditioning, and grooming of dogs in their care. Being a professional handler is a tremendous amount of work and responsibility.

Joseph Cirincione JC Photography

Bree Ardizzone-Sulewski is a third-generation Collie breeder, dating back to her grandparents’ involvement with dogs in the 1960s. Her mom would bring her to shows in a stroller, and she began showing herself when she was just 4 years old. Blake Hansen started as a junior handler at age 10. He first fell in love with dog sports as a child when his mother was in dog grooming college and got an assignment to attend a dog show and brought Hansen with her. “I remember walking by the Juniors ring. It sparked my interest, and the rest is history,” Hansen explains. He now shows all-breeds but specializes in terriers and breeds Kerry Blue Terriers and Brussels Griffons with his mother.

How Do You Become a Professional Handler?

Unlike some careers where you go to school, get a degree, and step into a career, with professional handling you need to learn the skills on the job while apprenticing for established handlers. Ardizzone-Sulewski advises that junior handlers should try to start as young as they can. By getting involved with local handling classes and meeting all-breed handlers, you can start to build connections. Hansen echoes this and encourages junior handlers to be active in their local breed and all-breed clubs. “Volunteer every chance you get. The clubs need our help and welcome young people. Without the clubs, there would be no dog shows,” he explains. “Even if you can’t attend every meeting, go volunteer to help [with] a show setup, organize grooming, and tape. These days, many clubs [use] Zoom, as well, to attend meetings and stay involved.”

By being involved in your local clubs, you’ll get an up-close look at how dog shows work and meet a variety of handlers. This is a chance for you to see how different handlers work, their approaches to working with dogs, and how they treat their assistants. “It’s important to work for handlers who value juniors and see their potential to be professionals someday,” Hansen adds. Mentorship is key for making the jump to handling professionally, and most handlers are happy to support aspiring juniors. Once you find a handler whose work you admire, Ardizzone-Sulewski encourages juniors to be bold and walk up and say, “Hey, I’m interested in trying to apprentice or have an assistant job to learn the ropes, would you be willing to take me on?” The worst they can say is no, but it’s the best way to find a handler to help you achieve your goals.

Managing a Business

Being a professional handler isn’t just about being skilled at handling dogs. Professional handlers are also small business owners. Although it can be fun to be your own boss, there are also a lot of responsibilities that come along with it. When you work for a company, they withold taxes out of your income and likely providing you with benefits like health insurance. If you’re a professional handler, you’re running a small business and have to handle all of that yourself. This means you’ll need to set aside money to be able to file and pay your taxes on your own or hire a tax professional to help you prepare taxes.

Jessica Saunders

Self-employed professionals, like dog trainers and professional handlers, also need to carry a variety of insurance policies for their business. This will include business liability insurance, health insurance, disability insurance, as well as insurance for any vehicles they have for work, as well as insurance for their home and kennel area. If you’re a professional handler who has employees, you’ll also need to be covering payroll for your employees, which includes paying your employees, as well as withholding and paying social security and other taxes as required by law.

Getting an Education

Even if you’re certain that all you want to do is show dogs for the rest of your life, it’s still important to get an education. This will ensure that you have a career to fall back on if your dreams of being a professional handler don’t work out. In that case, you’ll need a career to financially support yourself and of course, fund showing your dogs. Even if you become a professional handler, it’s still important to get a formal education. Not only does higher education help make you more well-rounded, but it can also help provide you with skills that will help you as a handler. In addition to working with dogs, professional handlers need to be savvy businesspeople with strong communication skills. These are all skills which can be learned and developed through formal education.

Not everyone who falls in love with showing dogs as a junior handler will be able to (or want to) make the jump to handling professionally, so Ardizzone-Sulewski encourages junior handlers to stay in school and have a backup plan. While she has worked as a professional handler, she ultimately decided she didn’t want it to be her career and went to school to become a pharmacist. This career allows her to fund her dog hobby, which includes being a breeder, owner, handler, and judge. She says she’s committed to the emphasizing the importance of education for the next generation of handlers and encourages breed clubs to offer college scholarships to support junior handlers, even if they’re sure being a professional handler is the job for them. Ardizzone-Sulewski notes that being a professional handler involves being your own boss and running a business which requires different skills from working with dogs. “If handling is the thing you want to do, still go to school and do your business classes,” she encourages.

Joseph Cirincione JC Photography

Putting In the Work

Professional handlers don’t just show up at dog shows, compete, and go home. It’s important for everyone involved in dog sports to be active members of the AKC community. Many professional handlers also participate as breeders or active club members. This involvement isn’t about advertising their services. Rather, it’s about supporting the fancy, and ensuring the clubs have the support they need. In this sport, the way you treat people is going to have a direct impact on your success. It’s all about connecting with people, including dog owners, breeders, fellow handlers, and, of course, judges. Hansen encourages anyone who wants to handle their job to “learn the AKC Code of Sportsmanship and live by it, in and out of dog shows.” But he says the key to success in this profession is being kind to people and putting in the work.

He traces his passion for showing to his junior handler days, when he would watch top handlers arriving at shows in time to listen to the national anthem and stay until after the Best in Show prize was awarded. Those long days are now a part of daily life for handlers, whose days start early with getting dogs ready and extend late into the night caring for dogs. “Like any other profession, it doesn’t feel like work if you love what you do,” says Hansen. “The beauty of dogs is you learn something new every day.” Being a professional handler is hard work, but the skills you’re learning as a Junior Handler are putting you on the right path to follow your dreams.