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If your dog-loving kids have seen a dog show on television or even just heard about dog shows, they might be asking you if they can get started. Luckily, dog shows are very welcoming to newcomers. Though getting involved in new activities can feel daunting, kids don’t have to come from a dog show family to jump into this fun sport. Kids have been part of dog shows since the 1920s, and to this day, it remains a fun character-building and learning activity for kids of all ages.

Getting Started

One of the best ways to get your family started in Junior Showmanship is to attend events as spectators. You can search for events in your local area so you and your family can see shows in person and learn more about the sport. At shows, you can talk with other parents of Junior Handlers to find information about local training classes. In addition to competing in Junior Showmanship, Junior Handlers can train, handle, and compete with their dogs in performance sports, including Agility, AKC Rally, AKC Scent Work, and AKC Trick Dog.

Junior Showmanship Finals winners at the 2018 AKC National Championship presented by Royal Canin.
David Woo ©American Kennel Club

Pre-Junior Showmanship Programs

To begin officially competing in Junior Showmanship, kids need to be between the ages of 9 and 18 years old. If you have a dog-loving kid at home who is younger than 9, that doesn’t mean they can’t start getting involved. Many training classes will allow younger children to participate in classes to learn how to handle dogs. Dog shows can submit to hold a special attraction to hold Pee Wee Classes, which is a pre-Junior Showmanship program. In Pee Wee, kids between the ages of 5 and 9 can compete with their dogs. It isn’t a competitive class. Instead, it serves as a fun learning experience for young children to help build their love of the sport. For safety, only one child enters the ring at a time, and an adult must be present with the child and dog inside the ring.

For children under the age of 5, dog show organizers can host special attractions, often called “Plush Puppy,” where young children “show” their stuffed animal in the ring. This adorable competition is a fun way to involve the youngest kids interested in showing dogs. Pamela Norman and Diana Smith were co-chairs of the Border Collie Society of America (BCSA) 2023 Nationals Specialty, which puts an emphasis on encouraging children to get involved by hosting a variety of events for Juniors at nationals, including Plush Puppy. Norman’s own daughter, Sophia Norman, is a Junior Handler. They explain that plush puppy events are important because it’s a chance for kids under 6 years old to get a chance to “show like the big kids.” The co-chairs say it provides a safe and fun opportunity for youngsters to learn how to show a dog using a stuffed animal to learn the skills prior to handling a wiggly dog. The BCSA offers Plush Puppy competitions at their national show to help young kids fall in love with their breed, and each child entered will get a stuffed Border Collie to take home with its very own show lead.

David Woo ©American Kennel Club

Dog shows are a great family activity for kids of all ages and help to build character and confidence. Pee Wee and Plush Puppy may be non-competitive classes, but they’re essential for the youngest of Juniors building an interest in showing dogs. Norman and Smith explain that they see these young classes as valuable for young kids because “they get the encouragement of spectators, parents, and friends to build their confidence and love for the sport of showing dogs. The opportunity to go in the ring and show what they can do encourages their love for dog sports.” They also note that these pre-Junior opportunities are a terrific opportunity for parents to bond with their kids through a shared love of dogs.

Finding Training Classes

Junior Showmanship handling classes are an excellent way for your child to prepare to enter Junior Showmanship classes with your family dog. Most dog trainers who are teaching handler classes are more than happy to have Junior Handlers involved. If you live in an area with many Junior Handlers, many instructors also offer classes specifically to help children prepare to compete in Junior Showmanship. To find classes in your area, reach out to local training centers and clubs near you. 4H groups in your area may also offer handling classes for kids and teens. You can also attend shows in your area and ask parents of Junior Handlers where their kids train. If your family is more interested in performance sports, most trainers are happy to have Junior Handlers involved in any of their sports training classes.

Supporting Junior Handlers

Stephanie Hayes ©American Kennel Club

A phrase you’ll often hear is “Junior Handlers are the future of our sports.” If you’re a parent of a child interested in showing dogs, now is the perfect time to get them involved. Local, regional, and national breed and training clubs can find ways to encourage participation and build the skill sets of current and prospective Junior Handlers. These can include handling and training seminars aimed specifically at kids and teens. Encouraging kids and teens to get involved also brings parents into the shows. “We want to encourage the youth and parents to be involved with the sport. It is difficult to get volunteers to keep the sport going. By reaching out to the younger adults (parents) and giving opportunities for them to involve their children and see that families are welcome we hope to build the love of the sport and a family atmosphere.” Norman and Smith explained.

Clubs can also support Junior Handlers by hosting clothing swaps at club events. These events allow Junior Handlers to get appropriate clothing for Junior Showmanship, helping to reduce the financial burden on parents, and help build a sense of community amongst families and Junior Handlers. Many experienced breeders and handlers will also be willing to lend dogs to Juniors in their local clubs to show if they don’t have their own. Clubs, trainers, and other competitors are happy to mentor Junior Handlers and their families in getting involved.
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