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When to Hire a Handler?

At the End of the Leash
by Richard Mason Terry
Copyright© 1995-1996
This article appeared in The Texas Dogs Jun./Jul. 1995 issue.

As most of you know by now, I began my career in dogs as an owner-handler. Since I now finance my doggy activities as a professional, what I am about to say might seem strange. The greatest joy that you can have in the show arena is to title your own dog.

More than high scores or group honors, ROM or OTCh points, becoming one with your dog through the hours of preparation, then confidently strutting your stuff in the breed or obedience ring is a thrill beyond compare. It is a joy that should be experienced by everyone involved in dogs at some point in your career, just for the experience.

I come from a breed that is passionate about owner-handling, and I feel that a lot of good things about my breed are engendered and maintained because our breeders are so conscientious about selecting new owners that are interested in showing and competing with their dogs. A number of years ago, the American Belgian Tervuren Club published an article on when to hire a professional handler to handle your dog in the ring. I think the rules bear some considerable thought by anyone who owns a dog and is contemplating showing it in a competitive format.

It is permissible to hire a professional handler for the purposes of showing your dog when:

1. You are physically unable to show your dog.

2. You are physically unable to attend a show or shows that are critical to finishing your dog.

3. Your dog is a Special who is being actively campaigned over a large geographical area.

That's it. There are only three reasons to not show your own dog. Lest there be any confusion, let's examine each of them in context of the normal reasons for hiring a handler. You are physically unable to show your dog.

The AKC has become increasingly open and supportive of physically challenged people participating in the sport. Blind, deaf, and physically handicapped people are competing successfully and titling their dogs in both breed and obedience trials. I have personally known and witnessed a number of wheelchair bound handlers excel at presenting their dogs during top competition. People with artificial or missing limbs have been a fixture in competitions since the war years ago brought so many amputees home to us. I have seen top performances in both breed and obedience by people who range from pre-teen to octogenarian. In view of these facts, who among you is physically unable to show?

You are physically unable to attend a show or shows that are critical to finishing your dog.

In many breeds, major wins are difficult to find and major entries under judges that you like may be even more difficult to arrange. Last year, I showed a Bearded Collie to a major win and was later told that it was the first major win by a Beardie in Texas in over 18 months. Most handlers travel extensively, so it is often easier for them to be at a particular show than for you to make last minute arrangements to try to attend the 19th show that you entered Fluffy in that finally attracted a major entry. However, in this day of easy communications and high speed travel, it is not too difficult to cooperate with owners from other areas in building major entries at certain shows. Also, certain shows tend to have major entries every year. A little research can determine which shows are good for your breed, and a little more will allow you to find the people that are responsible for these entries. Communication and cooperation will allow you to produce those major entries. We recently participated in making major entries in Borzoi at 8 out of 9 shows over a 4 weekend circuit. We were able to finish a lot of good dogs who needed only major wins due to the cooperative efforts of everyone involved.

Your dog is a Special who is being actively campaigned over a large geographical area.

This is probably the most valid of reasons not to show your own dog. The world of campaigned Specials competing to be the #1 dog in their breed is a completely different world than the average owner-handler normally sees. I am currently showing a very young Borzoi Champion who, through a bizarre series of events, is now nationally ranked. The critical attention and pressure focused on this young dog is a different experience. His career was intended to build slowly over the next year while he matured, then he was to be shown extensively. His early success as a Special has prompted us to move him along a lot faster than we would have thought possible. Professional handlers are better equipped to handle the pressure of showing every weekend on this level and the dog needs the stability that a professional can provide in this high pressure environment.

But, professionals have no lock on the Top Ten dogs of every breed. A very significant portion of Top 10 dogs are owner-handled and shown extensively or selectively. Some of the best dogs of all time never saw a professional handler. It only requires dedication and commitment to do it all yourself.

Okay, we have covered the owner-handler credo on When; now, let's get on to Why. Professional handlers have a number of advantages over the average owner-handler. Any or all of these advantages may influence your decision whether to hire a handler.

Professionals are often cheaper than you could do it yourself. This is often overlooked by the owner-handler, but it is a fact. Let's take the example of a mature, well trained and socialized dog that is ready to win all of his points in ten straight shows and that the entries have accommodated this plan. If you go to all ten shows to show one dog, your expenses (other than entry fees, which would be the same in both cases) would run something like $400 for hotels, $250 for meals, $250 (or more) for gas, and $50 for incidentals. This totals $950 and does not include grooming supplies and equipment, crates, and wear on your vehicle. There are a number of handlers that can be hired for considerably less than $95 per show. When you discuss costs with a handler, remember that it is customary to pay a handling fee, a grooming fee, a daily board fee, and a pro rate portion of travel expenses. The handler should itemize all of this for you before you agree to allow him to show your dog. Deposits or payments in advance of a major circuit are also normal procedures.

Professionals do all the work. The worst part of dog shows is the part that the spectator never sees. Loading and unloading the vehicle, lugging crates, grooming tables, and grooming equipment into and out of show sites, pottying dogs, cleaning up after dogs, exercising and conditioning dogs, feeding, watering, and medicating dogs, grooming dogs, and transporting dogs all take place before the dog and the handler step into the ring. You are paying for much more than the handler's ring expertise. Your desire and ability to perform all these tasks should be considered when you make the decision to hire a handler instead of doing it yourself.

Professionals often do a better job. They may not show your dog the same way you would, but a professional's reputation is on the line every time that he steps into the ring. They are going to do their very best to win with your dog every time they go into the ring because not only are you judging their performance but there may be a potential client standing outside the ring watching. If you select a handler with a lot of experience in your breed, you should get superior conditioning, grooming, and ring presentation. Not because you are paying for it, but because the handler has years of experience performing those tasks on hundreds of individual dogs in your breed.

Professionals are at a lot more shows. The ability to travel every weekend is often critical to finishing a dog. Coats come and go, conditioning comes and goes, temperaments are better or worse, and entries often happen at awkward times. You need to show your dog when he is ready to win, whether or not you can make the shows. To not do so can lengthen the time and expense it takes to finish your dog.

Now let's discuss the negatives of hiring a professional handler. Not counting the pride of finishing your dog by yourself, which is the best reason in my book, there are a number of negatives about using a professional handler that you should be aware of.

The handler you hire may not always be who shows your dog. Ring conflicts are a way of life and one of the biggest irritations to a handler. Most handlers have assistants that can either start a dog in a large class for the handler to take before the individual examination, or who might show the dog all the way through in the case of a conflict. Barring a specific agreement between you and your handler to the contrary, this is the handler's decision and a common practice. Often, if an assistant handles your dog, you will receive a price cut on your handling fee, though all other charges should remain the same. In my case, I have a handling partner and we are hired as a team. I will not necessarily guarantee you that I will personally show your dog, but I will guarantee that your dog will be presented professionally by a member of my team. In any case, you should be informed on a timely basis of who presented your dog and the results of that show.

The handler usually has lots of dogs. Unless you travel to the show with your dog, he must travel in a vehicle with all of the handler's other client dogs. The more dogs that your handler carries, the less time that he can spend with each one. Pottying your dog may be by way of exercise pen instead of being walked on leash like you would. Your dog will probably sleep in a crate in a vehicle or at the show site with all of the handler's other dogs.

Your dog will probably be gone for a period of time. Most handlers would prefer to take a dog on an entire circuit when it is ready to compete. It allows them to build up some rapport with the dog and gives them the opportunity to find enough judges who will like this particular dog enough to finish it. Missing your pet is a real consideration that you need to think about. I had a client who boarded a dog with me while they went on vacation, then cut their vacation short by four days because they missed her so much.

Now, for the question every novice wants to have answered: How do I go about hiring a handler for my dog? For those of you who have already read some of my articles, you probably are quite prepared for the answer. In dog showing , as in most other arenas of activity, there is no substitute for proper research, careful consideration of the facts, and judicious questioning of the alternatives. Also, patience is very important. Don't hire the first professional you meet without doing your homework.

In most cases, an all-breed handler can do a respectable job showing your dog. But for those breeds with unusual conformation showing requirements, or extensive grooming and conditioning requirements, you may need to consider a specialist in that breed. Handlers are listed in the catalogs at most shows and that is probably where you should start. Watch your breed being shown. Pick out the handlers that seem to be doing the best job of presenting their dogs; observe the grooming and conditioning of their dogs.

If you see a handler whose style and talents match up with what you expect for your dog, approach him and ask if they have time to talk with you. Go to their set-up and observe the activity. Are the dogs all clean and properly cared for? Is all equipment in good working condition? Are the handlers, groomers, and assistants organized? Are ring assignments being made?

Consider all of these things before you hire this person to take your dog. Talk with several handlers and check their references before you finalize your decision. Question your friends in the breed about their experiences with handlers. And remember, the biggest handler may not be the best for your situation. Also, while the PHA (Professional Handler Association) does some regulatory work, membership is no guarantee of quality.

Most handlers will evaluate your dog for you. If they are willing to campaign your dog without seeing it first, be wary. There are handlers who will show poor quality dogs until you run out of money with no expectations of finishing your dog. That is unconscionable in my opinion. I have shown unfinishable dogs, but never without apprising the owners of their dog's relative lack of merit.

When you have selected your handler, work closely with them. Listen to their counsel about diet, conditioning, grooming, and show scheduling. You are paying for his expertise, so use it. By the same token, you are the client. If you are not satisfied with your dog's progress, condition, or the handler, do not hesitate to tell him about it. Most handlers welcome input. Always remember that this is a three way partnership between you, your dog, and the handler. And all three parties need to work together to achieve the success that you want.

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