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Dog Show Handler

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Dog in competition being examined by judge
Apple Tree House/Photodisc/Getty Images

Dog show handlers are well versed in the arts of showmanship and presentation. These professionals travel the country as they seek championship honors for their client’s dogs.

Duties

A dog show handler is responsible for presenting their canine charges to their best advantage during competition. To accomplish this goal, the handler must know the detailed protocols for the breed(s) that they show. Varied paces and poses may be required. An experienced dog show handler may be familiar with particular judges and what they look for, which can be an advantage.

The dog show handler is generally responsible for arranging transportation for the dogs, daily exercise and conditioning, obedience training, and grooming. Dog show handlers often provide routine care for the dog for extended periods during its career; some dogs spend several years in the primary care of their handler.

Handlers should have a solid working knowledge of canine first aid, the ability to administer various forms of medication, and a good eye for identifying health concerns before they become serious. They work in conjunction with veterinarians to ensure all medical and dietary needs are met.

Dog show handlers must maintain an intense schedule of travel and competition. A handler usually spends most weekends at shows, often out of town or out of state. Handlers have to start very early in the morning to get the dogs ready to compete, as grooming and preparation can take several hours.

Career Options

Dog show handlers are generally self-employed independent contractors. Other opportunities for handlers include offering training seminars for aspiring handlers, working with young show dogs, judging classes at shows, or offering boarding kennel services.

Some handlers specialize in conformation classes for a specific breed. Others work with several breeds that represent a particular group (such as terriers, sporting dogs, working dogs, toy dogs, etc). Another option is specialization in obedience or agility trial handling.

Education and Training

No formal training or licensing is mandatory for dog show handlers, but many learn the requisite skills from an apprenticeship with an experienced handler. There are also “junior” classes for young handlers, and many of these juniors go on to compete in the show arena as adults. Dog shows are a great place to network with owners, breeders, and handlers if you are looking for an apprenticeship opportunity.

Useful prior experience for those entering the field can include work as a dog trainer, dog groomer, or animal behaviorist.

There are many professional organizations for dog handlers, but two of the most prestigious membership groups are the AKC Registered Handlers Program and the Professional Handlers Association.

The American Kennel Club Registered Handlers Program (RHP) recognizes professionals who have high standards regarding dog care and business ethics. RHP handlers must have at least seven years of experience and sign a code of ethics. They also offer an apprenticeship program, which allows every year completed as an apprentice to count at an accelerated rate towards their years of experience qualification for full membership (i.e. one year in the apprenticeship counts as two).

Professional Handlers Association (PHA) members must have ten years of active involvement with show dogs, including five years as a professional handler. They offer a highly regarded apprentice program which lasts for at least four years. Apprentices work under the supervision of their PHA sponsor/employer during their training period.

Salary

A show dog handler’s salary varies widely based on their reputation, level of experience, number of classes they compete in, and the number of shows they are able to attend. Elite handlers may even earn six-figure salaries, though this is the exception rather than the rule. Simplyhired.com cites an average salary of $61,000 for dog show handlers.

A handler generally charges between $50 and $100 per class, per dog. Additional fees may be earned for grooming services, boarding, and travel costs. There also may be a bonus structure for wins at various levels such as best of breed and best in show.

Dog show handlers must also factor in additional costs such as travel expenses, having client/handler contracts drafted, and maintaining insurance policies.

Many professional handlers invest in a large trailer or recreational vehicle if they tend to have multiple dogs with them at each show. These vehicles are equipped with travel crates on the interior and portable runs that can be set up upon arrival at the destination.

Job Outlook

The dog show industry is a healthy one, as purebred dogs from top lines are always in demand for breeding purposes. While it may take a significant investment of time and funds to become an established handler, there is a very positive outlook for this profession.

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