Makin' It Look Easy - The All-Breed Handler
The mark of a gifted professional is the art of making it look easy, no matter the field of endeavor. Proficient skill is a combination of innate talent, practice and long-term study, coupled with an intense focus on achieving success.
The sport of dogs is unique among other competitive venues in that it is made up of two distinct groups of people. The first are the hobbyists; breeder/owners who devote expendable time and income doing what they enjoy apart and aside from their money-earning professions and second, the professional who is “in his office” once setting foot on the show grounds. Within the second group are two subdivisions of pros - specialists and all-breed handlers. The specialist channels his background and area of expertise into a more limited scope of breeds normally within a unique group. Some specialize in breeds such as Poodles where expertise in grooming and presentation is extremely specific, allowing minimal time for other breeds within the scheduling constraints of a show day. Terrier handlers face similar challenges but with a very different skill requirement in grooming and presentation, technique and style.
The all-breed handler is the equivalent of the medical field’s general practitioner. Whether an M.D.’s medical journal or the all-breed pro’s AKC Book of Breed Standards, a continual review and research of the textbook is a mandatory practice. Professional handlers are often times AKC’s future judges. It follows that those handlers who through the years have spent a significant amount of time studying standards and observing the really good dogs whether they have been shown by them or not, develop into the most qualified judges.
Breed-specific presentation is the stock-in-trade skill of an accomplished all-breed handler. A one-fits-all generic presentation regardless of the breed is the bane of the all-breed handling profession. A studied familiarity with the AKC’s breed standard’s description of the ideal is how a qualified professional accurately assesses how closely a dog fits that picture and how he goes about creating the “choreography” for the most effective ring presentation.
During the course of the evaluation process, a judge is looking for the salient characteristics that make the breed what it is in both physicality and temperament. The presenter’s ability to enhance the positive features while drawing attention away from the negative is what ultimately leads to the win. A clever handler knows that no two dogs respond the same way. Individual dogs have their own quirks and triggers. Understanding a dog’s limit for hand-stacking and posing and at what speed he can maintain for full body extension is incumbent on the handler to determine. The knack for getting into a dog’s head and establishing a rapport with each as an individual is a talent only a proficient handler is able to effectively accomplish.
A judge’s initial impression in a class is identifying the correct silhouette for the breed. The handler’s job is to make that dog’s outline look the part “on the line” from the first look by the judge to the last. For example, a dog that may be a little long in body according to the standard can be stacked on the line at a slight enough angle that it creates the illusion of less body length. Being aware of what the standard calls for in the primary characteristics of the breed is the professional’s staple skill. As a judge goes about his task of finding and awarding the best in the class, he is visualizing the breed’s ideal and how closely each exhibit comes to that mark. Accomplished handling skill facilitates that process for the judge whether it’s a cleverly-crafted illusion or the real deal. Minimizing errors and learning how to optimize your ring time to full advantage when the judge’s attention is on your dog is critical. Timing is everything; knowing when and how to grab the eye is a big part of presentation.
Grooming, trimming and conditioning is a large part of a handler’s bag of tricks. The right combination makes a good dog stand out. Mentoring sessions with breed experts is the obvious and most effective path in obtaining these valuable tools. Observing a great groomer through all phases of the process combined with continual practice is essential.
To summarize the 5 skills essential to an all-breed handler:
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