The term "dog handler" can refer to anyone who works with a dog trained for a particular purpose, such as military or police work, search and rescue, or therapy. In the dog show world, it means someone who grooms, cares for and exhibits purebred dogs in the show ring. A dog handler may be an unpaid hobbyist, but many choose to make it their profession, with a few achieving six-figure earnings. At first glance, showing dogs may seem to be a simple job, but don't be fooled: It takes years of hard work to master the skills required to handle a dog in the ring, emphasizing his best qualities while simultaneously trying not to interfere with the judge's ability to observe him.
Take stock of your nature and personality. A dog handler must enjoy traveling. Expect long periods of time away from your home, your family and your own dogs. Dog shows are held all over the globe. You'll probably begin your career locally, but the more successful you are, the farther you'll have to travel. You must be exceptionally well-organized, because you'll be negotiating contracts with clients, filling out and filing all the forms required to participate in various dog shows, and coordinating travel schedules, show dates and exhibition times. Professionalism and strong interpersonal skills are needed, as you'll be interacting with many people and functioning as your clients' representative, both in the ring and out.
Educate yourself. Learn all you can about the sport of showing dogs. Know what is required to achieve a championship. Become familiar with every aspect of the dog show process. Visit the American Kennel Club website, where you'll find comprehensive explanations of dog breeds, dog shows and the sport of showing dogs. Read books by respected professionals in the industry. "The Winning Edge: Show Ring Secrets," by George Alston, and "New Secrets of Successful Show Dog Handling," by Peter Green and Mario Migliorini, are highly regarded books.
Finally, of course, attend dog shows. There, you'll have the opportunity to observe the entire dog show experience and gain a valuable sense of what judges and competitors do.
Study the breed or breeds you intend to show. You must know the standards and traits the judges will look for in a champion, and what is required of the dog in the show ring. You must also know how to groom and present the dog.
Join a local AKC club, either breed-specific or all-breed. There, you'll meet and learn from others in the sport. It's easy to ask questions and to network in the collegial atmosphere of a local club. Use the AKC website's "Club Search" function to find a club that offers the training, competition or services you think would benefit you the most.
Attend handling classes and seminars. Many local clubs offer handling classes, where you can learn and practice handling skills in a relaxed and informal setting before heading to an actual show. Professional handlers and owner-handlers hold handling seminars throughout the country. Seminars may last only a few hours or an entire weekend. A seminar might be intended for beginner, intermediate or advanced handlers. Activities may consist of lectures, lessons and tips, hands-on training with dogs, or practice competitions. Visit the AKC website to look for handling seminars in your area.
Find ways to gain experience. Talk to handlers about how you might become a handler's assistant. In that role, you'll acquire practical experience in preparing dogs for shows, helping the handler with grooming, conditioning, and a certain amount of training. You also get the opportunity to acquire knowledge of the sport from someone with experience. If you're between the ages of 9 and 18, consider entering AKC Junior Showmanship classes, where your handling skills -- not the dog -- will be judged. Watch the Junior Showmanship classes at a dog show and ask those involved about the sport.
Apply for membership to a professional handlers' group once you're eligible. There are three such organizations in the U.S.: the Professional Handlers' Association, the Dog Handlers Guild and the AKC Registered Handlers Program. These organizations have stringent criteria and standards for membership. While not every professional handler feels the need to belong to such an organization, membership helps convey your professionalism and integrity to your clients.
When approaching a handler at a dog show, it's important to remember to not bother him until after he has completed his work. Handlers are often busy with preparations, and tensions are high before a show. It is unlikely a handler will want to chat and answer questions at that time.
- The Winning Edge: Show Ring Secrets; George Alston
- New Secrets of Successful Show Dog Handling; Peter Green and Mario Migliorini
- American Kennel Club: Club Search
- American Kennel Club: Seminars by Seminar Type
- Professional Handlers' Association
- The Dog Handlers Guild
- American Kennel Club: AKC Registered Handlers Program