Why We Hire Handlers

We are about six weeks away from the start of the show season in Colorado.  There are shows elsewhere, of course, but they seem so far away and hard to get to.  Sure the weather now is cold, but there is very little snow.  If we head out for a show in any direction from our house we are sure to run into closed roads and more wind, ice and blowing snow than we, and our aging van, can deal with.  So we stay at home, waiting not so patiently for the start of the 2010 show season.

This year is a rebuilding year for us.  There is no pressure to attain rankings or do much winning.  I will show Danny, our young male, and maybe anybody else we can press into service will take their turn with him.  I’m actually looking forward to showing him.  Well….kind of.  Dog showing is the only sport I know of where rank amateurs, some more rank than others, can compete side by side with professionals, for the price of the entry.  There are no qualifying rounds like in golf, and no formal training is necessary.  All you have to bring to the ring is the hapless animal and your wholly unrealistic expectations that you can actually get the dog around and back to the judge without hurting yourself or somebody else.  

Nobody is more in love with dog shows than I am.  I would show every day.  And like most love, it is purely emotional with no grounding in reality. I have been told I’m aggressive and rather grim with my dog.  I never attain that serene look affected by so many pros and savvy amateurs.  And I have been known to stare down a judge or two.  Believing the judge would rather look at the dog than me, I enter the ring with a lot of confidence, some say bordering on arrogance, and set my dog up.  Never big on control, you can recognize me instantly.  I am the one whose dog is facing the wrong way or standing on two legs instead of four. 

If there was a contest for the most sweating person in the ring I would always be in contention.  In fact, one summer in Chicago, we actually had an informal contest in the Bedlington ring.  It came down to a friend of ours and me for the award.  The humidity was intense and neither one of us was used to it.  We were both a little fatter than we should have been, and we had one of those judges who couldn’t make up her mind by just going over the dogs.  These types believe that the decision can best be made by a modified endurance contest.  Running on adrenaline, we trotted round and round the ring, for what seemed like thirty minutes.  The dogs were more than up to the task, but my friend and I were drowning in our own juices!  By the time she picked her winners, nobody cared.   We were all so happy we could retire to our setups and suck down some water and strip off our clothing that ribbons seemed secondary. It was then that most of the Bedlington people in the midwest learned that I have more than a dozen tattoos decorating my copious flesh underneath my show jacket.  What you learn about your competition at a show!  By the way, it was later determined I would be awarded first prize for most sweating person at the fairgrounds.  At least I won something.

During my time showing dogs I’ve experienced nearly every disaster, short of falling down, that can happen to a handler.  Of course most dog show purists put the blame for various mishaps squarely on the handler.  These finger pointers have clearly never shown a dog.  W.C. Fields said, “Never work with animals or children.”  Now there’s somebody who’s been to a dog show.  Showing your own dog is a romantic notion, but after a few times actually competing you begin to see why people hire handlers.  Just because you have taken your young dog to conformation class, where he undoubtedly showed like a rock star, you and he are not necessarily ready for the real thing.  A few years ago, we made the two-day trip to Louisville, KY, to one of the biggest cluster shows in the country.  These shows in mid-March are well-run and offer the exciting opportunity to receive Award of Merit medallions in your breed.  We had brought Honour, our new special, and Eva, the nine month old puppy.  Fresh from two Best of Breed wins with Honour, over a ranked bitch special and a group placement, I eagerly anticipated victory with both dogs.  We even scouted out a back up handler for Eva when we surely would have to go in for Best of Breed with both dogs.   Showing a puppy is dicey at best, but Eva was the exception.  Or so we thought.  My first time around the ring with her and I knew it was all downhill.  My plans to conquer Louisville that weekend evaporated as she reared up on her hind legs and lunged and roared at the other puppies in her class.  Eva also delighted in charging the crated dogs ringside, barking furiously.  She would stand quivering outside the ring, under control and alert, but when we crossed the ring gate it was game on.  By the third day of the cluster, we pulled her. The look of horror on the faces of the people ringside was unforgettable.   After a month in traction my left arm was no longer numb.   

The Bible says, “pride goeth before the fall” and I can attest to how true this is.  I once showed a dog for some friends.  Throughout the season we showed him, he was an inveterate pacer and I learned to correct that in no time.  He was rough, and loved to bite at hands and clothing.  Patiently I worked this out of him and feeling great about my new-found abilities as a handler, we took this dog to a small show in the mountains.  He had a perfect coat and was a snap to groom.  It was a rather large entry for our breed, and when the judge bent over for the exam, she whispered to me, “at last a dog with substance.”  I held my breath as she began her exam.  When she came to his body and her hands nearly crossed in the middle, she looked up and instructed me to take my dog to the end of the line and stay there.  There I stood, throughout the entire entry, greeting everyone who came after me, and gesturing for them to go in front, like some Wal-Mart greeter.

Maybe the worst experience I’ve every had in a ring came at some shows in Cheyenne, WY.  This mid-sized show is very folksy and people often help one another with dogs. I had been unusually successful with one of our dogs, and a bright, young man approached me outside the toy ring and asked me to show one of his Maltese for him.  He said he’d seen me show one of our dogs and thought I was just the person for his second entry.  I was so flattered, I nearly bowled him over getting to my new charge.  I did have the sense to practice tabling the little heathen outside the ring and was surprised to discover how light weight these little dogs were.  It also seemed so much easier to illicit compliance from them.  I was also painfully slow to realize how little I actually knew about handling.  It all looks so easy.  When I entered the ring, the little fluff ball began to spin.  He spun and spun and spun and spun.  There was no way to make him stop.  When I went to table him for the judge, what was left of my confidence  was shattered by the realization that I had lost track of which end was which.  I had actually presented him backwards to the judge!  Toy dogs are some of the most competitive of exhibits.  Their handlers are generally very adept and nobody had any patience for the idiot with the whirling dervish. I slunk from the ring wishing I was invisible.  That was the last time I thought I had some skill at this game.

As I sit reminiscing about my one or two successes and one or two dozen failures in the ring, I begin to dread the coming season.  Maybe it’s not too late to start that diet to cut down on the sweating and maybe a few more training classes wouldn’t hurt.  Better still, I’ll just save the money I was going to spend on new tires and hire a handler.

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