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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

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Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers headed to Westminster this year about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. THE DOGS HAVE TREADMILLS.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” says Mammano. 

Some doggy treadmills cost, at minimum, more than $1000. Keep in mind that you can buy a human treadmill on Sears.com for about $600. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. SOUP CANS MIGHT BE A HANDLER’S BEST FRIEND. 

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart. “Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.” 

3. THE DOGS HAVE RIDICULOUSLY LONG NAMES.

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word ‘veritas’ in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. CARS MUST BE INSPECTED.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a “registered handler.” What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.” 

5. SHOWS AREN’T NATURAL.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” says Mammano. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. THERE’S ONE QUICK WAY TO GET DISQUALIFIED.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” says Rives. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.” 

7. YOU’RE NOT A REAL HANDLER UNTIL …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” says Rives. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.” 

8. HANDLERS’ WARDROBE CHOICES ARE STRATEGIC.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” says Rives. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says. 

9. IT’S HARD ON THE BODY.

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating. 

10. THEY HAVE LUCKY LEASHES, TOYS, AND RUBBER BANDS.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. THE DOGS EAT WHATEVER THEY WANT.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. CHALK AND DRYER SHEETS KEEP THE DOGS LOOKING SHARP.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” says Rives. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, says Fitzpatrick. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.” 

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. BEST IN SHOW DOESN’T COME WITH A CASH PRIZE.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

All photos courtesy iStock. 

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8 Tricks to Help Your Cat and Dog to Get Along
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When people aren’t debating whether cats or dogs are more intelligent, they’re equating them as mortal foes. That’s a stereotype that both cat expert Jackson Galaxy, host of the Animal Planet show My Cat From Hell, and certified dog trainer Zoe Sandor want to break.

Typically, cats are aloof and easily startled, while dogs are gregarious and territorial. This doesn't mean, however, that they can't share the same space—they're just going to need your help. “If cats and dogs are brought up together in a positive, loving, encouraging environment, they’re going to be friends,” Galaxy tells Mental Floss. “Or at the very least, they’ll tolerate each other.”

The duo has teamed up in a new Animal Planet series, Cat Vs. Dog, which airs on Saturdays at 10 p.m. The show chronicles their efforts to help pet owners establish long-lasting peace—if not perfect harmony—among cats and dogs. (Yes, it’s possible.) Gleaned from both TV and off-camera experiences, here are eight tips Galaxy and Sandor say will help improve household relations between Fido and Fluffy.

1. TAKE PERSONALITY—NOT BREED—INTO ACCOUNT.

Contrary to popular belief, certain breeds of cats and dogs don't typically get along better than others. According to Galaxy and Sandor, it’s more important to take their personalities and energy levels into account. If a dog is aggressive and territorial, it won’t be a good fit in a household with a skittish cat. In contrast, an aging dog would hate sharing his space with a rambunctious kitten.

If two animals don’t end up being a personality match, have a backup plan, or consider setting up a household arrangement that keeps them separated for the long term. And if you’re adopting a pet, do your homework and ask its previous owners or shelter if it’s lived with other animals before, or gets along with them.

2. TRAIN YOUR DOG.

To set your dog up for success with cats, teach it to control its impulses, Sandor says. Does it leap across the kitchen when someone drops a cookie, or go on high alert when it sees a squeaky toy? If so, it probably won’t be great with cats right off the bat, since it will likely jump up whenever it spots a feline.

Hold off Fido's face time with Fluffy until the former is trained to stay put. And even then, keep a leash handy during the first several cat-dog meetings.

3. GIVE A CAT ITS OWN TERRITORY BEFORE IT MEETS A DOG.

Cats need a protected space—a “base camp” of sorts—that’s just theirs, Galaxy says. Make this refuge off-limits to the dog, but create safe spaces around the house, too. This way, the cat can confidently navigate shared territory without trouble from its canine sibling.

Since cats are natural climbers, Galaxy recommends taking advantage of your home’s vertical space. Buy tall cat trees, install shelves, or place a cat bed atop a bookcase. This allows your cat to observe the dog from a safe distance, or cross a room without touching the floor.

And while you’re at it, keep dogs away from the litter box. Cats should feel safe while doing their business, plus dogs sometimes (ew) like to snack on cat feces, a bad habit that can cause your pooch to contract intestinal parasites. These worms can cause a slew of health problems, including vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and anemia.

Baby gates work in a pinch, but since some dogs are escape artists, prepare for worst-case scenarios by keeping the litter box uncovered and in an open space. That way, the cat won’t be cornered and trapped mid-squat.

4. EXERCISE YOUR DOG'S BODY AND MIND.

“People exercise their dogs probably 20 percent of what they should really be doing,” Sandor says. “It’s really important that their energy is released somewhere else so that they have the ability to slow down their brains and really control themselves when they’re around kitties.”

Dogs also need lots of stimulation. Receiving it in a controlled manner makes them less likely to satisfy it by, say, chasing a cat. For this, Sandor recommends toys, herding-type activities, lure coursing, and high-intensity trick training.

“Instead of just taking a walk, stop and do a sit five times on every block,” she says. “And do direction changes three times on every block, or speed changes two times. It’s about unleashing their herding instincts and prey drive in an appropriate way.”

If you don’t have time for any of these activities, Zoe recommends hiring a dog walker, or enrolling in doggy daycare.

5. LET CATS AND DOGS FOLLOW THEIR NOSES.

In Galaxy's new book, Total Cat Mojo, he says it’s a smart idea to let cats and dogs sniff each other’s bedding and toys before a face-to-face introduction. This way, they can satisfy their curiosity and avoid potential turf battles.

6. PLAN THE FIRST CAT/DOG MEETING CAREFULLY.

Just like humans, cats and dogs have just one good chance to make a great first impression. Luckily, they both love food, which might ultimately help them love each other.

Schedule the first cat-dog meeting during mealtime, but keep the dog on a leash and both animals on opposite sides of a closed door. They won’t see each other, but they will smell each other while chowing down on their respective foods. They’ll begin to associate this smell with food, thus “making it a good thing,” Galaxy says.

Do this every mealtime for several weeks, before slowly introducing visual simulation. Continue feeding the cat and dog separately, but on either side of a dog gate or screen, before finally removing it all together. By this point, “they’re eating side-by-side, pretty much ignoring each other,” Galaxy says. For safety’s sake, continue keeping the dog on a leash until you’re confident it’s safe to take it off (and even then, exercise caution).

7. KEEP THEIR FOOD AND TOYS SEPARATE.

After you've successfully ingratiated the cat and dog using feeding exercises, keep their food bowls separate. “A cat will walk up to the dog bowl—either while the dog’s eating, or in the vicinity—and try to eat out of it,” Galaxy says. “The dog just goes to town on them. You can’t assume that your dog isn’t food-protective or resource-protective.”

To prevent these disastrous mealtime encounters, schedule regular mealtimes for your pets (no free feeding!) and place the bowls in separate areas of the house, or the cat’s dish up on a table or another high spot.

Also, keep a close eye on the cat’s toys—competition over toys can also prompt fighting. “Dogs tend to get really into catnip,” Galaxy says. “My dog loves catnip a whole lot more than my cats do.”

8. CONSIDER RAISING A DOG AND CAT TOGETHER (IF YOU CAN).

Socializing these animals at a young age can be easier than introducing them as adults—pups are easily trainable “sponges” that soak up new information and situations, Sandor says. Plus, dogs are less confident and smaller at this stage in life, allowing the cat to “assume its rightful position at the top of the hierarchy,” she adds.

Remain watchful, though, to ensure everything goes smoothly—especially when the dog hits its rambunctious “teenage” stage before becoming a full-grown dog.

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Animals
10 Juicy Facts About Sea Apples

They're both gorgeous and grotesque. Sea apples, a type of marine invertebrate, have dazzling purple, yellow, and blue color schemes streaking across their bodies. But some of their habits are rather R-rated. Here’s what you should know about these weird little creatures.

1. THEY’RE SEA CUCUMBERS.

The world’s oceans are home to more than 1200 species of sea cucumber. Like sand dollars and starfish, sea cucumbers are echinoderms: brainless, spineless marine animals with skin-covered shells and a complex network of internal hydraulics that enables them to get around. Sea cucumbers can thrive in a range of oceanic habitats, from Arctic depths to tropical reefs. They're a fascinating group with colorful popular names, like the “burnt hot dog sea cucumber” (Holothuria edulis) and the sea pig (Scotoplanes globosa), a scavenger that’s been described as a “living vacuum cleaner.”

2. THEY'RE NATIVE TO THE WESTERN PACIFIC OCEAN.

Sea apples have oval-shaped bodies and belong to the genus Pseudocolochirus and genus Paracacumaria. The animals are indigenous to the western Pacific, where they can be found shuffling across the ocean floor in shallow, coastal waters. Many different types are kept in captivity, but two species, Pseudocolochirus violaceus and Pseudocolochirus axiologus, have proven especially popular with aquarium hobbyists. Both species reside along the coastlines of Australia and Southeast Asia.

3. THEY EAT WITH MUCUS-COVERED TENTACLES.

Sea cucumbers, the ocean's sanitation crew, eat by swallowing plankton, algae, and sandy detritus at one end of their bodies and then expelling clean, fresh sand out their other end. Sea apples use a different technique. A ring of mucus-covered tentacles around a sea apple's mouth snares floating bits of food, popping each bit into its mouth one at a time. In the process, the tentacles are covered with a fresh coat of sticky mucus, and the whole cycle repeats.

4. THEY’RE ACTIVE AT NIGHT.

Sea apples' waving appendages can look delicious to predatory fish, so the echinoderms minimize the risk of attracting unwanted attention by doing most of their feeding at night. When those tentacles aren’t in use, they’re retracted into the body.

5. THE MOVE ON TUBULAR FEET.

The rows of yellow protuberances running along the sides of this specimen are its feet. They allow sea apples to latch onto rocks and other hard surfaces while feeding. And if one of these feet gets severed, it can grow back.

6. SOME FISH HANG OUT IN SEA APPLES' BUTTS.

Sea apples are poisonous, but a few marine freeloaders capitalize on this very quality. Some small fish have evolved to live inside the invertebrates' digestive tracts, mooching off the sea apples' meals and using their bodies for shelter. In a gross twist of evolution, fish gain entry through the back door, an orifice called the cloaca. In addition expelling waste, the cloaca absorbs fresh oxygen, meaning that sea apples/cucumbers essentially breathe through their anuses.

7. WHEN THREATENED, SEA APPLES CAN EXPAND.

Most full-grown adult sea apples are around 3 to 8 inches long, but they can make themselves look twice as big if they need to escape a threat. By pulling extra water into their bodies, some can grow to the size of a volleyball, according to Advanced Aquarist. After puffing up, they can float on the current and away from danger. Some aquarists might mistake the robust display as a sign of optimum health, but it's usually a reaction to stress.

8. THEY CAN EXPEL THEIR OWN GUTS.

Sea apples use their vibrant appearance to broadcast that they’re packing a dangerous toxin. But to really scare off predators, they puke up some of their own innards. When an attacker gets too close, sea apples can expel various organs through their orifices, and some simultaneously unleash a cloud of the poison holothurin. In an aquarium, the holothurin doesn’t disperse as widely as it would in the sea, and it's been known to wipe out entire fish tanks.

9. SEA APPLES LAY TOXIC EGGS.

These invertebrates reproduce sexually; females release eggs that are later fertilized by clouds of sperm emitted by the males. As many saltwater aquarium keepers know all too well, sea apple eggs are not suitable fish snacks—because they’re poisonous. Scientists have observed that, in Pseudocolochirus violaceus at least, the eggs develop into small, barrel-shaped larvae within two weeks of fertilization.

10. THEY'RE NOT EASILY CONFUSED WITH THIS TREE SPECIES.

Syzgium grande is a coastal tree native to Southeast Asia whose informal name is "sea apple." When fully grown, they can stand more than 140 feet tall. Once a year, it produces attractive clusters of fuzzy white flowers and round green fruits, perhaps prompting its comparison to an apple tree.

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