Young handlers take grown-up dog show in stride

Jennifer Peltz
Associated Press

New York – Fenric Towell isn’t nervous about his first time competing at the nation’s top dog show. After all, he’s heading to the Westminster Kennel Club ring this week with 100-plus shows under his belt, a record of wins and a champion Lakeland terrier.

So what if he’s only 11?

“I’m going to try to think of it as a normal show,” the Oklahoma City boy says. “I just try to focus on the highest place that I can get.”

Judging began Monday, and Westminster is best known for the dog who will be crowned best in show Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. But it’s also a showcase for youngsters.

Eleven-year-old Fenric Towell kneels with his Lakeland terrier, Missy, on lead, at Purina Farms in Grey Summit, Missouri.

While there’s a special contest for junior handlers, many also exhibit their dogs in the breed judging that goes toward best in show. They go up against adults in an atmosphere that prizes poise and formality.

“It’s hard because they’re top people, and we’re just kids,” says Faith Rogers, 14, of Bordentown, New Jersey, who’s handling a Doberman pinscher at her fourth Westminster. But when she started showing dogs at age 9, she decided: “This is what I love, and I didn’t really care if there were older people or not.”

Or, as twin sister Emma puts it, “Let’s just show ‘em what we got.”

Beagles lineup in the judging area during Day One of competition at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in New York on February 12, 2018.

About 5,000 junior handlers nationwide are registered with the American Kennel Club, a governing body for Westminster and other dog shows. Young handlers can compete through 4-H and other kennel clubs.

AKC “junior showmanship” competitions are open to youngsters ages 9 to 18. They’re judged on their presentation, not their dogs’ particulars.

But there’s no age minimum for handlers in the breed rings, a point driven home to Thanksgiving Day TV watchers who saw (emphasis on the “awwww”) 6-year-old Mackenzie Huston and her long-coat Chihuahua in a semifinal round at the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s National Dog Show.

Candace Chien plays with a Chow Chow in the benching area at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in New York.

Mackenzie sometimes feels scared as she waits to show. But “when I get in the ring, I don’t feel nervous,” says the now 7-year-old girl from Bellmawr, New Jersey.

Westminster’s 95 junior invitees are “very competitive, they’re very talented and very, very good,” show chairman David Helming said. Westminster is boosting its top juniors’ prize, a scholarship, from $6,000 to $10,000 this year. The eight finalists all get some education money.

Dog showing requires an investment of money and, particularly, time. Junior handlers can spend hours per week training, grooming and exercising their dogs, weekends traveling to shows and years balancing it all with school, other activities and friends.

All that to don dress clothes and notch accomplishments many of their peers can’t quite understand. (“You’re running around in a circle with dogs?”)

But young handlers say it’s worth it for the bond they develop with their animals.

“You go and spend time with your best friend,” says Emma Rogers, who’s returning to Westminster as a 2016 juniors finalist.