Junior Showmanship and Dog Shows

Insider Info

If you've ever watched a dog show, you may have wondered how people get started showing dogs. Some of them probably began as children by competing in something called junior showmanship (also called junior handling).

In junior showmanship, judges rate the handler's ability, not the dog itself. So while the dog must be a registered purebred, it does not have to be of show quality. It can also be spayed or neutered, while show dogs in regular classes cannot.

In the U.S., competitors must be aged nine to 17. Girls and boys compete together, with girls tending to dominate the sport. Competitors must have a basic degree of fitness, as they are required to move around the show ring with their dogs. In the case of larger breeds that move quickly, this can leave many handlers out of breath!

Regardless of age, gender or physical fitness, many former juniors confirm that getting involved offers numerous benefits.

"I would encourage people to get involved because as a young child of 11, I learned how to handle myself as an adult," says Christine Tochor. Tochor is now a university student who still participates in dog shows. "It taught me how to clear my mind and strive to reach my goals, and that I was not going to get everything that I wanted. I was going to have to work for it."

Gail Miller placed second at the junior showmanship finals in Westminster, NY with her bearded collie. She also gained valuable experience as a junior.

"It gave me an opportunity to be successful at a young age, which helped my self-esteem," she says. "And I learned many other lessons by competing with adults. These types of foundational lessons helped me tackle other situations that I encountered as I grew up."

Today, Miller is the director of brand development for the American Kennel Club (AKC).

Junior showmanship competitions are generally held on one day of a regular dog show. These shows take place all over North America, and may be staged indoors or outside.

Classes are divided by age and the number of first place wins achieved. For example, once a handler wins a certain number of first-place prizes, he or she must move from novice to open class. This structure allows newer handlers to compete with others that are closer to their skill level.

Not only do juniors gain experience with their dogs, they also learn lessons and forge relationships that can last a lifetime.

"Junior handling can engage young people when they are in one of the most difficult periods of their lives," explains Cassandra Armsworthy. She competed as a junior and is now a university student and co-owner of a kennel. "Most start young, but it is as a teenager that they tend to stay most involved with the sport.

"For me, and for many of my handling mates, it was an escape from the inevitable peer pressure that comes with that age. It also teaches a sense of pride in your accomplishments, duty and responsibility. These are important skills that I worry are perhaps not being stressed enough today."

Marsha Clamp, an AKC junior showmanship judge, agrees that the sport can make a lasting impression on young people.

"I think the juniors sometimes strike up great friendships that last forever," she says. "It also teaches them some important lessons in life, like how to be a gracious loser at times."

The number of young people involved in this sport seems to change over the years. Today, more people are aware of dog shows, thanks to television coverage. This exposure could help junior showmanship grow. Young people also realize that the activity can lead to part-time work as they continue their education.

They find positions assisting professional handlers or handling other people's dogs, grooming, teaching classes, dog walking or sitting, and in a multitude of other areas. The sport also serves as a good base for any career involving animals, and many juniors stay involved in it past their 18th birthday.

"My involvement now is teaching young people how to handle and train their own dog," says Steven Caton, a former junior handler. "It gives me satisfaction to pass on the knowledge I learned, and I soon hope to be a junior judge so that I can reward a young person who has worked hard to get where they are."

Getting Started

So how can you get started? While many juniors are the children of people already involved in dog shows, anyone can participate. Go to a few shows and get to know some juniors. Chances are good that there is a juniors club in your region that offers advice and classes.

It helps if your family supports you in this activity, as you will need to get to and from shows. You must also purchase some basic equipment and the dog, if necessary. In the U.S., you or someone in your immediate family must own the dog that you will show.

Start-up costs range from minimal if you already have a purebred dog, up to $1,000 or more if you purchase a purebred and the basic equipment to go with it. This equipment includes a crate, possibly a grooming table and some grooming tools. You must also pay entry fees for each show, which vary according to the classes being entered.

"It's not free," Armsworthy points out. "At some point or another you will need to look into buying your own dog. Buying from a reputable breeder who knows you want to do juniors and is willing to help can be your entry point into the dog show world.

"Many juniors are fortunate enough to get in with a breeder and adopt an older dog. These retirees make great starter juniors dogs, and are considerably less expensive."

Do some homework before approaching breeders. Know the basics about showing dogs and especially about the breed you are interested in.

"The best advice I can give anyone who is interested in the sport is to find someone, whether it is a family member, a friend or even a stranger they've met at a show," says Clamp. "There are many people out there willing to help out a potential junior handler by co-owning a dog with them or placing a retired show dog with them.

"They should not be afraid to ask questions of handlers, owner-handlers and other juniors," she adds. "Watch the big handlers in the ring, in the grooming of the dogs, etc. One can learn a lot just by watching and paying attention! There are books about showing dogs, and juniors should read as much as possible to learn about the breed they intend to show."


American Kennel Club


American Kennel Club: Careers
Offers descriptions of multiple careers related to dogs and animals in general

NetVet: Dogs
Information on just about any breed you can imagine

Dog Owner's Guide: Dogs at Work and Play
Articles on obedience trials, conformation shows, agility, sled racing and more

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