A third-generation handler from South Carolina, Ryley Kirkland first experienced the thrill of entering the ring at three years old. Now 15, Kirkland ended 2020 as the #1 Junior Handler in the country and has been in the top 4 Junior Handlers for 2021. Her dogs are Bullet, a Treeing Walker Coonhound (Ch Stackem Up Lutras .38 Special), Simon, a Wire Fox Terrier (CH Hampton Court El Liberatador In Sanherpinc), and Polo an English Setter (Festivity BJS American Dreamer).
Kirkland’s parents and grandparents show and breed dogs, so it’s only natural that she got involved too. “I’ve always looked forward to shows since I was little,” she says. “Being raised in it, everyone knew me as that little obnoxious kid, so it’s great to have people who have known me since I was little in a sport I love so much.” Being the #1 Junior is a huge accomplishment and not one that Kirkland takes lightly. “I’m always in shock to see how many talented juniors there are,” she says. “To think that I’m number one out of all of them is insane—it’s everyone’s dream and I was so honored to hold that spot.”
From Puppies to Champions
Kirkland’s mother and stepfather are both professional handlers. Following in her family’s footsteps, she has so far finished three champions by herself, and she and her Treeing Walker Coonhound Bullet have been particularly successful together. “Being number one overall, number one hound, and number one in his breed in juniors, we’ve made it to finals at the AKC National Championship and gotten Reserve Best Junior there, as well as won our class every day but one there last year, ” Kirkland explains. She’s also particularly proud of starting every Juniors dog she’s had as a puppy and working with them from day one herself through all their big wins.
In her spare time, Kirkland competes in grooming competitions, where she has received two Best In Show wins in her division. Grooming is another activity that runs in the family. “My mom is June Beckwith—she’s been on groom team USA for I believe three years in a row, meaning she’s been in the top ten groomers in the country,” she says proudly.
While working with dogs is a family affair, the most important thing for Kirkland is the dogs. “My favorite part of showing dogs is the bond I get to create with each one,” she says. “I love the feeling of having a dog that only shows for me because you see the relationship we have and how much dedication I’ve put in! I always have a tight bond with every single dog in our truck.”
Hard Work Pays Off
Having a family legacy of showing dogs has many advantages — Kirkland notes that growing up around dogs “helps me to have a better eye and just kind of naturally notice things.” She also learned the importance of focusing on the relationship you have with your dog.
“Advice I would give to a young adult, or even a little kid getting involved in the sport, would be to never focus on the fame aspect of showing dogs,” she says. “For example, don’t try to go help the biggest handlers just to be noticed. You have to work very hard in order to accomplish the goals you would like to accomplish. But, then again, don’t focus on setting goals as soon as you start. Focus on bonding with your dog and, most importantly, focus on gaining respect.”
Kirkland adds that the best way for you and your dog to stand out is by working hard, respecting peers in and outside the ring, and never sacrificing sportsmanship. This is what will help future mentors notice you. “Always be respectful no matter what,” she advises.
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t had a big impact on Kirkland’s show schedule in the way it has for some of her peers. “My parents are handlers so we have to go to shows regardless, so it hasn’t limited my showing that much,” she says. “It’s actually benefited me in a way of being able to have more connections and bonding time with my dogs.”
The 15-year-old always strives to help uplift others in the sport. “Being a junior has made me realize it’s not all about what you accomplish—it’s about how others see you. It’s shaped my perspective to see that you’ll never accomplish your goals unless you applaud others for accomplishing theirs.”
Versatility in breeds and activities is key to Kirkland’s future plans, which include branching out into training and competing in different performance sports, as well as breeding her first litter. And because she cares so much about her dogs, she’s also looking forward to letting them “live more in life rather than always focusing on the looks.”
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 to 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.
For more information, email your questions to Juniors@akc.org.