In the American Kennel Club (AKC) National Owner-Handled Series, dog owners and their pets work as pairs to compete in conformation trials. “Conformation,” the official name for “dog shows,” according to the AKC, is held for the sole purpose of evaluating breeding stock. The dog’s conformation—his overall appearance and structure—is an indication of the dog’s ability to produce quality purebred puppies, and that is what is being judged in the ring.
Local owner/handler Lori Weiner has been training and handling her own dogs in conformation trials for 16 years. She shows Mojito, a four-year-old Afghan and two Borzois, Daytona, one year, and Katy, four years old, respectively. Weiner has to be one of the busiest owner/handlers you’ll ever meet—she operates Barkingham Pet Hotel California, rescues dogs of all breeds and recently obtained her certification as a clinical pet nutritionist. But she makes time for competition, she says, because she loves “the fun and excitement of the challenge.”
The amateur-owner-handler class is reserved for dogs that are at least six months of age who are not champions. Dogs must be handled in the class by the registered owner of the dog. This class is restricted to exhibitors who have not, at any point in time, been a professional dog handler, AKC-approved conformation judge, or employed as an assistant to a professional handler. As defined in Chapter 11, Section 13: “Professional handlers are defined as any person that belongs or has belonged to a professional handlers’ organization, distributed rate cards, or otherwise advertised or represented themselves as handling dogs for pay.”
“I began showing dogs in the year 2000, when I purchased my first Borzoi, Adonis,” explains Weiner, who was initially only looking for a pet, not a show dog. “The breeder told me she had a nice show-quality dog and asked if I would consider showing the dog. This intrigued me and led me to my first experience with showing.”
Mojito, her Afghan, had a big win in Santa Barbara this year, beating all of the finished specials and taking Best of Breed and a Group 3 in the Hound group. She will continue to show Mojito this year, as “he needs two points to finish,” says Weiner, but not every weekend—her business keeps her way too busy for that. She competes when she can and limits her handling to her own dogs, although she did once show a Greyhound out of Canada for another owner. The dog had never been shown in the U.S., and he and Weiner finished the competition taking a Hound Group 1 and 2. It remains one of her favorite wins.
Attending handling classes early on with Adonis, Weiner began to learn what it means to be a good owner/handler. “Confirmation is all about meeting the standard of each breed. There is no perfect representation of a breed, but a good handler can present their dog to the best of its abilities.”
The Owner Handler Association of America offers these tips for succeeding as an owner/handler:
• Know your breed standard. A good handler typically knows not only the good and bad points of the dog at the end of his own lead, but of the one at the end of the other leads as well. If you know your dog’s good points, you can present him to the judge in a manner that highlights those assets. Similarly, when you know where your dog is lacking, you can present him in a manner that downplays his weaknesses.
• Know structure. As with breed-specific requirements called for by the breed standard, you must learn basic canine structure and movement to bring out the best in your dog. There are ways to both present and groom your dogs that will enhance where they are structurally correct and minimize where they could be improved.
• Build strong relationships. Much of your success in dogs will depend on the relationships you develop and maintain in the sport. You can learn a lot from those who have had success in your breed, and that includes professional handlers!
• Stay at the dog show. When you’re finished showing your dog, stick around and watch. Don’t just watch your own breed—watch other breeds as well. Observing the judging of breeds other than your own will certainly broaden your dog experience.
Weiner knows the value of educating yourself on your breed before becoming an owner/handler:
“A good show dog should have the characteristics of their breed standard. A good temperament helps and having fun showing is always an asset. Some of the important things to know before getting into competition is that it takes time, training, grooming and work, and listening to your breeder is very important.”
A job not to be undertaken lightly, Weiner advises, “Being an owner/handler can be even more challenging than being a professional handler, so it takes perseverance and dedication.” For her and her dogs, the challenge is one worth rising to.