Let’s just admit it: Getting started in showing purebred dogs can be intimidating.
For newbies, it can seem like the other exhibitors have been given the steps to a choreographed dance that they execute with fluidity and flair, while you are left to lurch around the ring with two left feet.
And if you happen to show Terriers – with their highly competitive handlers and time-consuming grooming demands – the pressure can increase exponentially.
But none of that phased Philip Lemieux of Warwick, Rhode Island.
Getting Started With Terriers
Lemieux and his partner, Jose C. Benavidez, acquired their first Lakeland Terrier about 15 years ago, and immediately became involved with companion events such as Obedience and Rally. Intrigued by the trimming and stripping of these striking earthdogs, Lemieux began to attend grooming competitions, which is where he fell in love with the Kerry Blue Terrier. And after three years on a waiting list for just the right foundation female, one of those Irish dogs joined their household.
Fast-forward to today. After diligently learning, studying, and “asking a million questions,” Lemieux now grooms and shows all the couple’s dogs. That long-awaited Kerry produced their first champion, who finished his title at the world-famous Montgomery County Kennel Club show under respected breeder-judge Anne Katona.
“I probably have a strange philosophy,” Lemieux admits. “I’m not necessarily out to get a ribbon. My number-one objective is to go out there and have fun. I know we want to present the perfect dog with perfect grooming, but if you’re not in sync with your dog and not having fun, I really don’t see the point of it.”
To be sure, Lemieux is no slouch in the “regular” group ring: He has won Best of Breeds with his Lakeland and placed in the Terrier Group multiple times with both Lakelands and Kerry Blues, sometimes even beating blue-chip handlers.
Becoming an Owner-Handler
But for him, the amateur-focused National Owner Handled Series, or NOHS, is an important venue for competing and showing off his dogs:
His Lakeland bitch, GCh. Keslake’s Riding In The Front CGC, is not only number one in her breed in the NOHS rankings, but is also the top-ranked lifetime Lakeland in NOHS history. And his Kerry, Ch. BluLake’s Did My Heart Love Till Now CGC, is the number three in his breed in the NOHS rankings.
“It’s a more relaxed environment,” says Lemieux of the NOHS ring. “And you can still have your name in lights.”
The Owner-Handled competition welcomes handlers of all levels but there is one major advantage: Most have one, or a few dogs, to focus on and have the time and inclination to perfect their presentation. Newer handlers, who are still learning the terminology and traditions of the sport, can build their confidence with a dog they are familiar with.
But no matter what one’s level of experience, the NOHS ring provides additional opportunities for owner-handlers to work on building their bond with their dog.
“It does give you exposure and it does help boost your confidence,” Lemieux says. “It allows you to work different approaches. And I think sometimes folks who are not breed winners get exposure in a group environment so they can hone their skills. It’s sort of like a second bite of the apple.”
Similarly for judges, the experience of judging NOHS in a breed or group they otherwise are not approved for gives them an invaluable hands-on introduction—and, sometimes, the impetus for deeper learning.
For example, Lemieux says that after NOHS Terrier Group judging at some shows, newer judges will ask about, say, the bluing of a young Kerry’s coat—an opportunity for education that might not otherwise have existed without the NOHS.
Helping Expand NOHS Recognition
Lemieux adds that clubs are starting to appreciate the hard work exhibitors put into their NOHS competition, and in turn are wanting to give them special recognition: At the Montgomery County Kennel Club show last year, for example, the Lakeland club announced that it would award its number-one NOHS handler with a plaque or certificate.
For his part, Lemieux thinks that there is a “different kind of spotlight” trained on the NOHS ring—one that illuminates its ample reserves of camaraderie and sportsmanship.
Lemieux says at some shows, he has heard decibel levels much higher than at the Owner-Handled ring compared to the regular one. “Owner-handlers generally support other owner-handlers, and you can feel it when you’re out there,” he says. “It’s a completely different vibe.”
Those little asterisks in a judge’s book or show catalog that denote an owner-handler aren’t just typography. They’re a reminder to amateur exhibitors in an increasingly homogenized sport that they’re part of a very large and vibrant community within the sport that celebrates those who strive to show what they own and own what they show.
“We’re a proud people,” says Lemieux of his fellow owner-handlers. “These are the dogs that sit on our laps when we’re watching TV. They’re our companions and pets. I think that drives the passion because it’s not about the ribbon necessarily—it’s that someone acknowledged the love of your life at the other end of the lead.”
For Lemieux and many other owner-handlers like him, the National Owner-Handled Series offers a platform where the “heart and soul” they have invested can be incredibly rewarding. “It’s a passion,” he says.