13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers
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 who have been at Westminster 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,” Mammano says.
Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. 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 dog 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. Handler 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. Dog 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,” Mammano says. “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,” Rives says. “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,” Rives says. “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,” Rives says. “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,” Rives says. “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, Fitzpatrick says. “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.”
This list first ran in 2016.