The Road to Eukanuba: Meet the Future of the Dog Fancy

by Susi on December 5, 2011

in Bedlington, Boykin Spaniel, Eukanuba National Dog Show, Junior Handling, junior showmanship, Whippet

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In a couple of weeks, I’ll be heading to the AKC/Eukanuba dog show in Orlando where I intend to check in on the future of my sport.

I won’t be visiting a high tech booth demonstrating robotic handlers capable of performing a flawless triangle.

I won’t be consulting with geneticists on track to construct the perfect dog.

And I won’t be learning about a microchip that, once implanted in the brain stem of a judge, renders that judge incapable of error.

I’ll be watching kids.

Jackie Kennedy and her dog, "Hootchie" at the East Hampton Show, her first dog show

For those of you already in the sport, skip ahead, you already know this next part. But for the benefit of you newer to the dog fancy, I want to you meet the junior handler.

He or she is a kid between the ages of nine and eighteen. They, or someone in their family, owns the dog they show (they have to). To qualify at Eukanuba, they’ll have had to have maintained a 3.0 grade average for two semesters before entries closed and earned five first place wins in an Open class. And when they’re in the show ring, it’s not their dog that’s being judged, it’s them.

Walk by a junior showmanship ring and you’ll see a ring filled with different breeds handled by youngsters or teenagers. The procedure they must follow is the same as it is in conformation competition. The ring patterns are the same, the individual examination of each dog is the same.

What a judge sees, however, is the quality of a junior’s presentation of their dog. Are they showing their dog in a manner appropriate for that breed? Is the dog groomed and presented well? Do they show “a hand” for the dog when presenting it, or are they over or under handling it. Does does the junior handler address the judge with respect, eye contact and a pleasing posture that showcases their dog? Does the junior know their breed, know ring procedure, know ring etiquette or what to do if there’s a gaffe in the ring? (a dog relieving himself, for example).

While a judge DOES watch the dog, it’s only to further assess the dog’s handler: Is the dog responsive to its handler? Do dog and handler work as a team? Is the dog being moved to the best of its ability? Does the handler know not to put himself between the judge and his dog? Is the handler adroitly accentuating the dog’s strengths while minimizing its faults? And how is the junior handler dealing with the other dogs and handlers in the ring?

It’s a lot to remember for anyone, let alone a kid. Harder to see are the intangibles: Lessons learned about sportsmanship, winning and losing, developing a work ethic while learning to balance homework, sports, chores and family with dog shows and the preparation that goes into it.

Another intangible: Children learning how to navigate in the world of adults. If it’s true that showing dog is the only sport in which amateurs compete with professionals. then it’s also the only sport in which children can compete against adults. Undertand that Junior Showmanship is competition among juniors, but these same kids often compete in regular breed classes against the grown ups.

I won’t go into the times I’ve been bested by a ten year old in the group ring. Nope. let’s not go there.

Junior handling is no less competitive than adult competition. Junior handlers are terrific kids and by and large, are good sports. The few that aren’t have either been influenced by a pushy adult, or they’ve lost sight of what’s important. Sometimes, witnessing a competitor’s loss and subsequent tears is enough to bring them around. Sometimes, being sensitive to a tragedy in the life of a competitor or in a community trumps grandiose dreams of winning. Back in my daughter’s own junior handling days, a couple of her fellow competitors were students at Columbine High School when the shootings occurred. We adults were humbled by what we saw in and outside the junior handling ring at the first dog show following that horrible day. There were tears, there were hugs, and the supportive bond between former arch rivals gives me goosebumps to this day. Now in their late 20s,these kids still stay in touch.

8 year old Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy with her Great Dane, 'King Phar,' during the 35th annual dog show at the Long Island Kennel Club, Seawane Club, Hewlett Harbor, New York. (Photo by Morgan Collection/Getty Images)

Statistically, I don’t know how many junior handlers will stick with the sport into adulthood, but the lessons they learn will serve them into their adult lives. For some, a spectacular future may await: Last year’s Best in Show winning Scottish Deerhound at Westminster was handled by Angela Lloyd, the first Best Junior Handler at Westminster (1998) to go Best in Show there. Others who stay in the fancy will most assuredly be the future of the sport, if not the breeds with which they’re associated. They’ll grow up to be breeders, professional handlers (many juniors apprentice under professional handlers), show judges, AKC reps, club officers or simply continue to show their dogs. Those that leave the sport will still be touched by what they learned as they become parents,legislators, business people, or even First Lady of the United States.

I’ve been following a few junior handlers over the last few months who have qualified to show at Eukanuba, and I’ll report on how they do at the show. I start at one end of the spectrum with a handler who is about to “age out” of the sport and finish with a handler who’s been in it a short time. I’d like you to meet them.

Ryan and "Kate"

Ryan, 18, qualified for Eukanuba in the Bred-By class and by getting a Grand Championship on his Whippet puppy. When I first corresponded with Ryan, he was juggling AP classes, the SAT/ACTs and college applications. He’d just returned from Purdue University for a college visit and was about to visit Case Western, Carnegie Mellon,and Princeton with an eye on their engineering programs. He plays soccer, lacrosse, golf or whatever the “challenge of the day” is, and has been a varsity football and baseball player (though Ryan was nursing a surgical repair on a shoulder football injury when we e-chatted). His favorite author is Ayn Rand (Fountainhead, his favorite of her books so far) and is working his way through her other writings. He’s also an Eagle Scout.

Ryan will be showing his two and a half year old Whippet bitch, “Kate” (GCh. Wildbriar’s Whimsical of Longlesson) of whom he is the breeder/owner/handler. Should “Kate” come into season during Eukanuba (it’s forbidden to show a bitch in season in Junior Showmanship), he’ll show her father, “Briar” (GCh. Longlesson Run for the Roses). Ryan says, “I see it [Eukanuba] as a last shot at glory, so to speak. After making the finals last year, I definitely want to take the extra step and win, especially as it will most likely be my last time in the Juniors ring. Either way, Eukanuba is so much fun as a celebration of dogs, breeders, handlers and juniors that just being at the show is exciting.”

Hagen and "Paisley"

When twelve year old ‘Hagen‘ wanted a different kind of dog, she scoured the Internet for some ideas and decided upon a Boykin Spaniel. After initial enthusiasm, the Boykin breeder they approached for a dog felt some trepidation; The “little brown dog,” as the Boykin is sometimes known, is a rare and very energetic breed still somewhat new to the AKC. As a junior handler’s dog, a Boykin would be a challenge. Undaunted, Hagen, knew this was the breed for her.

Hagen and “Paisley”qualified for Eukanuba both in Breed and in Juniors and they’ve already won three more shows to qualify for next year’s Eukanuba. Not only will Hagen become the first Junior Handler to show a Boykin Spaniel at Eukanuba, it will be the first time in Boykin Spaniel history for a junior to go to Eukanuba. “Paisley” will go into the show ranked as the #16 Boykin Spaniel with approximately twenty Best of Breed wins, and very recently, Hagen and “Dogwood’s Inspired Journey” (Paisley’s show name) were invited to participate at “Meet the Breed” at the large Denver dog shows in February. Showing an unusual dog hasn’t always been easy when, along the way, one or two judges not entirely familiar with the breed haven’t understood the appropriate way to exhibit it. Still, as Hagen says, “Having a rare breed makes it harder, but not impossible.” She credits the help of some highly respected handlers who see something in her and have encouraged her on.

Lindsey and "Mia"

Lindsey is handling one of the more daunting breeds to groom, a Bedlington Terrier. Inspired to show dogs by her mother when Lindsey was nine years old, she’s now eleven and will be handling “Jack,” also known as Ch. Stoney Lake Jack of All Trades. Lindsey’s mother does much of the blade work and scissoring for now, but Lindsey is learning the ropes of grooming a Bedlington. Like Hagen, Lindsey finds it challenging when a judge may know less about her breed than she does. “I find that sometimes judges don’t know how the Bedlington is stacked, that their front feet are together at the bottom, or even that a Bedlington goes on the table. One of the judges who thought a Bedlington went on the ground was a Scottie breeder who should have known better.”

Karissa, the last junior I’m following, had her very first show in the fall of 2010 where she won Best of Variety over a two day weekend, a first place in Novice Juniors and a Group 2 in the Hound group. Three months later, she completed Novice Junior. By the summer of 2011, Karissa was ranked by “Today’s Best Junior” as the #6 Junior Handler showing a Dachshund, the #30 handler (all hounds) among the entire United States, and her dog, a Miniature Wirehaired Dachshund named “Sherman,” was ranked by Canine Chronicle as #18 in breed and #16 all breed under her handling.

Karissa and "Sherman"

Introduced to the sport by her grandmother, Marlene, Karissa says, “”Junior Showmanship helps me be more comfortable and confident. It has helped me speak and communicate better with adults.” Her big goal was to qualify for Eukanuba which she ultimately did by earning eight first place wins in her class (only five are needed). She’d eventually like to show her grandmother’s Bloodhounds but recognizes that she has a wee bit of growing to do first. Until then, she enjoys gymnastics, dance classes – and of course, the dog shows. Karissa thinks about becoming a professional handler some day, and already has gotten the attention of a few well known handlers who have taken her aside to offer encouragement and the odd tip. Karissa will be showing GCH CH Tievoli Rumor’s I Am M4 (or, as she affectionately calls him, “Shwerm”) at Eukanuba.

Sadly, a judge’s unfamiliarity with a breed can work against a Junior who is, after all, a child, and knows that it’s not only ill advised to instruct a judge otherwise, but may be disrespectful. Surely we’ve all found ourselves in similar sitations with a boss. Like I said. Life lessons.

More than 200 Juniors Handlers will be competing at Eukanuba (this includes conformation, obedience and Agility), and after having chatted with these kids and their parents, I not only feel pretty good about the future of my sport, I like these kids’ chances at Eukanuba.

I hope you’ll check back to see how they did.

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