Junior Showmanship: Lessons from our Junior Handlers
by Laura Reeves, PHA
Many of our top handlers, breeders and judges today started in the AKC junior showmanship ring. This sport is specifically targeted for children ages 9 to 18. The classes are designed to judge the child’s skill and teamwork with the dog, rather than the dog’s adherence to a breed standard.
In researching a PureDogTalk podcast, I recently asked a simple question of a handful of current and former junior handlers which turned into a tremendously powerful discussion. The following is included as written by the participants, in their words and often direct interaction with one another. It is deeply impressive to see these young people support one another, discuss hard subjects without rancor and freely offer guidance to those who follow.
All current and future Junior Showmanship judges, exhibitors and parents, please take a moment to read and consider the input from these wise-beyond-their-years members of our fancy.
Question to our Juniors
When showing in both Juniors and in regular conformation… Do you show your dog differently? If so, what’s different and what’s the same?
“Honestly I show my dog the same in the breed as in jrs. I don’t feel a need to change my handling style because of the ring in weather that be the confirmation or jrs ring. I think that I should present my dog to the best of its ability in either ring.”
Gillian McKim, Long Haired Dachshund, Staffordshire Bull Terrier
“I personally show very similar between breed and juniors, because I show according to the standard the best I can, but I always love to learn. Also I try to get expression and make my dog as happy as possible, while trying to be invisible behind my dog in juniors. In breed, I also like to make my special stand out more by for example free stacking on the ramp (she’s a staffordshire bull terrier) and letting the judge go over her with me touching her minimally, by holding the collar and showing muscle tone. With my Longhaired dachshund I try to be very articulate in juniors and in breed I subtly show great topline and fronts while in juniors I try to not fuss with my dog. Overall it depends with the dog I am showing, my goal in juniors as well as breed to show my dog according to breed standard the best I can, but small skills I vary with in breed from juniors by showing better parts of the dog more than in breed than juniors.”
Taylor Marshall, Dachsunds, German Wirehaired Pointers
“I handled both my dachshunds and GWPs in Jrs and breed classes… more differences that I recall with the dachshunds, i.e. table placement, more hard stacking in jrs, more attention getting in jrs since we were always at the end of the line! lol I didn’t have to literally run to the end of the line up after my final go-around to get there before the judge was done looking. I know I was always a little more relaxed in the breed ring, more playing with the dogs. I’ve been aged out a handful of years now though.”
“I felt like it was different in Cairns – most juniors judges wanted me to string up my dogs when we moved and handstacking was expected a lot more.
Kelly Schur, Pug
“It’s been a while since I competed in juniors, but I feel as though I handled my pugs similarly whether I was in the juniors ring or the breed ring. The only difference that really stands out in my mind would be moving around the dog if the judge was walking around so that I never got in between the judge and the dog in juniors. I wouldn’t literally walk circles around my dogs in the breed ring like I would in juniors…
“I think so much is dependent upon your goals, though. I always viewed juniors as a chance to practice with my dog and improve my handling of my breed. It wasn’t about winning, although that was always a nice cherry on top. Things like showing the bite was always tough, as juniors judges expect everyone to open the mouth and show teeth which, as you know, is completely incorrect for pugs. I lost more placements and even excused myself from the ring once because I refused to open the mouth and instead insisted on running my thumb along the jawline as is proper for the breed.
“I know it’s tough to be a juniors judge, but I wish some of them were more well-versed in idiosyncrasies of breeds like the bite in pugs. At a judges education seminar once, mom had a judge comment to her as she was going over the proper procedure for a bite and say that she ‘wouldn’t expect a pug Junior to show the bite any differently than a Doberman Junior. Showing the bite means show me the teeth.’ Judges like that do a disservice to young people trying to perfect their craft in my opinion.
“It also bothers me when people say that they feel the need to hand stack breeds in juniors that would traditionally be free stack only in the breed ring. My frustration is twofold: that some judges do truly require this against what’s proper for the breed and that there are more ways to show showmanship other than hand stacking.
“I personally don’t like seeing pugs having all four legs screwed into the ground. As a breeder, that tells me there’s something structurally wrong with the dog that it can’t do it on its own. However, I don’t mind seeing a handler kneel next to the dog to arch the neck more or get more head expression. The latter are examples of showmanship without needing to touch legs.
“My perspective was also shaped, I imagine, by the fact that I was also campaigning my juniors dogs as specials especially later in my juniors career.
I’ll never forget a judge stopping me on the way out after not giving me a placement to tell me that I should return to her Junior’s ring after I learned how to properly present a pug. That same weekend I won back to back toy groups on the same dog…”
“Personally I showed exactly the same in breed and juniors (according to my breed standard)… With that said, I know there are a lot of kids that don’t/didn’t, because certain breeds are shown in a way that don’t stand out as much in juniors. I’m sure I am not the only junior that was taught to change your “pose” with your dog often. This makes kids with dogs that show, for example, free stacking only breeds to feel obligated to hand stack or show their dog in a way that they wouldn’t in the breed ring.”
Kendyl Schultze, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
“I would say when I was in Jrs and in the breed ring I showed a little bit differently. When in Jrs I feel I showed more neat and organized, meaning I was very cautious or my lead work, not letting it fall to the ground. More aware of my posture and eye contact and little things like that.
“For example I show in a breed where i was the only jr showing in the breed ring so I needed to show as professional as I possibly could to get my dog noticed and looked at I felt, and I think some hrs will agree with me on that. So Logistically I showed the same in both rings, made sure i was always showing off my dog the best he or she could look, stacked the same, moved the same in both rings. However when in the breed ring I didn’t freak out if i let my lead touch the ground or if it wasn’t balled up nice and neat in my hand, or if the lead was coming out the top of my hand versus the bottom. Also if my dog wasn’t standing like a statue it didn’t make my heart stop, because I wasn’t getting “graded” on it. I always felt more relaxed in the breed ring then i did in jrs, I also think the dogs know it to for some reason. It is a different atmosphere in the hrs ring then in the breed ring so i think for jrs there is just a little extra edge felt.
“I think jrs tend to be more aware of themselves and more critical of themselves in the jrs ring over the breed ring.”
“Not “recently” aged out… but the one thing I noticed then and now is that the juniors must wait for the judge to have them stack for individual exam so the judge can watch them stack the dog. While I definitely think this is beneficial from a judge’s standpoint to see how the junior works with the dog, rarely or never does a judge wait for a dog to be stacked by a junior or any exhibitor. Ready or not here comes the judge. I have seen some juniors struggle with this in the breed rings as well.”
“I did handle my collies different in juniors than breed due to the showmanship judges wanted more hands on but my breed called for free stacking…
“It was very difficult trying to determine who to show my dog to based on breed standard or “generic” show standards…as a junior showmanship judge now, I pride myself on judging the kids by the way they show their dogs to THEIR BREED STANDARD.”
Shahntae Martinez, Field Spaniel
“I feel more stressed out walking into the juniors ring. I’m going against people my own age and competing to go to National Championship and Westminster. We all are focused on the same goal and we all try to out shine each other sometimes no matter the cost sadly… Breed is more of a walking in and if you lose you lose there’s tomorrow. The environment for juniors is way more stressful while breed is more of a fun thing to participate in.
“I think it’s also hard though to let your dog relax in juniors. Judges are getting stricter and are starting to not place you if they see you having your dog sitting, laying down, or just standing there without being in perfect position. A lot of us older juniors do get stressed out the closer we are to aging out. I for one am stressed right now lol”
Cassie Noe, Australian Shepherd
“I showed my dogs the way I showed them in the breed ring since that is how I was taught junior handlers should show.”
Abbie Marsh, Irish Setter, English Cocker Spaniel
“With Setters, Cockers and now Papillons I show them to their standard in both juniors and breed. The only thing different I do from juniors to breed is that when I self stack in juniors my dog will most likely be on a loose lead. And I know most people frown upon it, but in juniors I take the collar off the Cocker when I stack them just like in breed. My lead work is more neat in juniors.”
“With all the breeds that I have shown they are all different but i show them the way the breed stander is and I like showing in breed more because it’s fun and there is not that much stress but when I in juniors and fell like the I’m not getting lost ok at I try to keep my dog happy and not stress out.”
Hannah Layne Hunyady, Pointer
“My aunt threw me in the confirmation ring without any guidance at all. That sparked my interest in showing dogs. I do not show my dogs the same in confirmation that juniors because every dog is an individual. In the juniors ring I’m more concerned about the way my breed should be handled. In the conformation ring it’s a lot different because I’m not so much concerned about having fun. I must present the dog and be done. In the juniors ring I feel more thrilled to be showing my dog because that’s what it’s about. And in confirmation I hold my dog when he is stacked and in juniors, I stand in front of him and make him stand until I let him move. I make him move without physically touching him.”
“I felt like I showed the exact same in breed and in jr’s because I wanted both the wins equally as bad. I was very cautious about every little detail and always did 75% stacked and 25% free bait because of the breeds I showed.”
“Junior handling, while supposed to be judged breed specific, that tends to not be the case for me. Showing in the breed and showing in juniors are done in two completely different ways when it comes to boxers. Being a handlers daughter I have been exposed to many different breeds and the different styles that come with that however when showing in all breed junior handling you have to sadly be a lot more generic. While many people disagree with me, I have left the juniors ring and been told by the judge that “I showed my dog too boxery.” After that I started showing my juniors dogs in a way I would never show them in the breed and have been much more successful. However when showing in specialties I have been able to show my dog how I was always taught. I think it depends on the breed you are showing but in the case of my breed it is very different.
“Shahntae Martinez is right about judges not placing you for letting your dogs relax, having a wet coat on them, or not having your dog look anything but perfect every time they glance your way. You just need to remember that when you’re showing a dog, the animals care should always be your first priority, not winning.”
“I would say I show the same in breed as I did in juniors … but I also didn’t. In juniors I showed my dog the best I could according to my breed standard, which makes sense that the dog would be shown the same way as it would be in the breed. However, I show every dog I handle differently. My bitch I showed in juniors has different attributes I showcased vs my breed special. There’s no ‘one way’ to show a dog imho. As someone who only showed one breed in juniors my view is different than people who didn’t, but I noticed a LOT of juniors who tend to be more ‘flashy’ in the juniors ring than they would in breed.”
“As a junior handler showing a smooth fox terrier, I had to make the decision between showing Percy according to his breed standard and the “juniors way.” Time and time again juniors judges asked me why I never hand-stacked Percy and why I never got down on the ground with him. It was frustrating that judges didn’t want to see me show according to my breed, but more to be flashy and showy. When I made the decision to stick to the breed standard, I also made the decision that I cared more about showing for myself and my dog and less for the judge’s liking and a win. This adjustment in mentality helped Percy and I have even more fun in the ring with each other, and made the successes that much sweeter since we stayed true to ourselves.”
“I went through a period of about a year where I tried being flashy to a degree that surpassed how I would show in conformation. It worked, but only if you are evaluating success entirely on winning. Juniors is supposed to teach the youth of the sport skills to carry on for the larger majority of their life in the ring. When a junior places the win above learning, that’s when you start seeing flamboyant (improper) handling, acquiring trained champions (when there is not need), and engaging in any manner that is not proactive. … That being said, I have to place some blame on the judges. Of course juniors are competitive- that’s a trait necessary to succeed in the sport, they’re likely going to place the importance of a win over education. I was in a junior judging seminar and every participant agreed that a breed should be shown according to the standard, but that’s not what I saw winning in the ring. There’s even a clear desire for juniors to be judged as such, because myself and a handful of other junior attendees were very vocal on this point.”
Caleb Campbell, Border Terrier
“There are clear distinctions between juniors and conformation despite people showing or having shown their dogs differently, similarity, or identically in each.
“I think biggest difference being that you’re obviously judged quite differently. Juniors typically takes more time and the judge is paying more attention to the handling techniques and styles rather than than putting the emphasis strictly on the dog. When I was in juniors, I showed my dogs the same I always showed them regardless of breed or juniors. You’re required to show more skills the more a judge challenges you.
The other major difference I see is overall mantra and body language between the two. Of course it’s not true for everyone, but the majority I’ve noticed get stiffer and more intense, often times rushed, before heading into juniors. Especially closer to aging out, I was frequently the only one in the juniors ring who actually took my dog to the corner using my body to block the dog allowing him to rest. Most juniors focus on their dogs being perfect the entire time. This is present in the breed ring too, but it’s in a different sense. I think often times it changes the overall performance the more someone overthinks and overemphasizes things in juniors.”
Kelly Schur Responds:
“Caleb’s point about giving his dog a break is interesting. One thing I’ve observed and commented on recently (last few years) in juniors is that there is so little camaraderie compared to when I aged out just a decade ago. Perhaps it’s related to the smaller entries, I’m not sure. But when my group was competing, we were all business when it was time to be and then when it wasn’t our turn for the exam, we relaxed with our dogs while we waited. We talked, we laughed, we enjoyed ourselves – never disruptive or disrespectful, but much of what you see around group rings and at many specialties. We’d run water bottles and cool coats for one another, share bait, etc. and I haven’t observed that to the degree I used to as of late.
“Which I find interesting, particularly because the juniors of my generation were no slouches. At one point, I think the Midwest held 15 or so of the top 20 juniors nationwide, and almost every top junior in their group. We had an incredibly talented and competitive group, but we never let that stop us from being friends (or at least being friendly). A sign of the times, perhaps…
“I’m also alarmed by the number of kids who prioritize junior showmanship, rankings, etc. above school (and I’m gobsmacked the parents who allow it). I’m far more impressed by a kid who is working hard to be a student and learn their craft than by a kid who has perfected handling but dropped out of school. I think the emphasis on rankings and wins in that regard is really unfortunate.
“You know my mom. You know her parameters for me being allowed to show – nothing under a B! Showing is a privilege and not a right.”
Kim Bullard, English Springer Spaniel
“I don’t feel the kids are as good of friends as our age group was. I do feel it’s become even more pushed towards rankings and being famous then it used to be as well.”
“As someone who as a junior didn’t take school nearly seriously enough because I focused too much on showing, I hope nobody makes the same mistakes I did. I’ve been working harder than I did on anything to make up for my many, many mistakes and my work isn’t even near completion. I’ve seemed to find the right path for myself, but hope all parents and kids seriously think about the capability if they can truly handle it and just tone it back at least a bit.”
Kim Bullard Responds
“Caleb, I did the same thing. We all live and learn and it’s part of our journey. But no one was able to change my mind at the time.”
“I think early on in juniors I was told to watch and see what the judge was looking for and try to be that. Later and as I became more knowledgable and confident I just went in with im showing my dog to the best of my ability and they’ll like it or they won’t. I cared less about doing what I thought the judge was looking for and more trying to Perfect how I felt they should be shown. And I won a heck of a lot more once I just did my thing. But either way, I showed them the way I would i breed. Though I learned quite early on who to NOT take my leash/collar off under and I won’t in breed to them either.”
Terri Brennan-Weiss, Norwegian Elkhound
“I have been out of juniors for decades!!!! Back then I would say it was WAY different…but less so today. While I don’t have the opportunity to judge juniors very often anymore, I tell people I look for the junior that I would be most likely to ask to take a dog in for me. That is the person who presents their dog the best. So I would say it is like judging for the most/best attributes rather than fault judging.”
“Yes, when I was showing my Min Pin in the conformation ring I would never kneel also never really hand stacked. In Jrs I spent about half the time kneeling and would hand stack when kneeling. Also my Min pin was trained to free stack and then stay while I went out to the end of the 6′ leash. Used that in Jrs all the time rarely used it in the breed ring. I aged out 4 yrs.”
Mallary Ross, Doberman Pinscher
“I feel like for the most part in juniors I showed the same as I do now in breed. Except in juniors I was trying to always “mix it up” and have a different pose whenever the judge would look. Whereas in the breed ring I usually stick to the same poses depending on the dogs faults/qualities (standing next to the dog if it has a bad topline, etc.)
I also don’t put as much importance on things like standing up straight and keeping my leash rolled up, although I do try to do those things still.”
Chloe Auld, Tibetan Terrier
“I think it depends on the breed if I’m honest. I show Tibetan terriers and I’ve always shown them in the same with he exception to Jess Pearsons comment about the preparation of stacking. Recently I’ve taken on the challenge of showing a miniature poodle and if I’m honest I’m focusing more her coat in the ring ensuring her top not is up etc. I have always been taught to never drop the show lead as you have no control which I do in handling but in breed I often do it to help present my dog to its fullest.”
Marlene Groves (for Karissa… ), Bloodhound
“I show my bloodhound in juniors as I do in breed – because my handling job (in either ring) is to showcase my dog(s) to their best… also showing a bloodhound requires certain things that are already different from many other breeds (in juniors), if you don’t do it you are not showing the breed properly (of course not all judges understand how the breed is presented)… one thing in particular I do is I hand stack my dog or finish a stack, where most juniors work their dog for a free stack, but watch the bloodhound breed ring and you will see the best handlers stack and present their dogs to judges… I do probably snuggle and kiss my bloodhound more in juniors because the classes are longer/larger and I want to keep my dog focused and knowing he is loved in between working”
“I always aimed to show in juniors just as I showed my dog in both the breed and group rings.
In my final 3 years as a junior I was able to both show in juniors almost every weekend- and special my Clumber, MBISS GCHG Clumons Ragin Cajun at Breakaway, “Dirk”. Having this opportunity and constantly competing with the top dogs in my breed made my handling constantly improve to my breed specific handling.
I always had Judges who gave me Best Juniors, compliment me on this fact: I wasn’t focused on putting on a “performance” in the Juniors ring, I was focused on showing my dog and presenting him to the best of my ability, and making him look his best. When I handle, I aim to be “invisible” the focus is always on my dog.
Isn’t that what this sport is all about? The dogs? So shouldn’t the focus be on them? Showing off their structure, and breed type. All the handling essentials that we focus on learning in juniors, is exactly what handlers do when they’re handling dogs at the top level. For example, when you sit back and watch Best in Show at Westminster Kennel Club, do you see the focus on the handler or the dog??? When you look at the team of handler and dog out there, all you see is the dog. No distractions- everything’s is smooth so that your eyes don’t leave the dog.
So you can argue that Juniors show differently in the juniors ring- but it all boils down to the fact that juniors are the future of this sport and what they should be doing is showing like they’re out there in the Best in Show ring at Westminster, showing to breed standard and hoping to take home that BIS title. No fluff, no “ballerina performances”, handle the dog, become so smooth that you are invisible and the focus is on the dog.
Everyone has their own opinion, but in mine, that is what juniors is all about. It always saddens me when judges fail to recognize true handlers over the performers in the juniors ring.”
Kelly Schur Responds
“Raina makes a phenomenal point about the “performers” versus the truly gifted handlers. I was always taught to do my best to be invisible as well, and I see so many juniors today trying to being the focus to THEM. Big hand movements, making a big show of playing with their dog, etc. just to make sure someone is looking. It draws attention, but to the handler and not the dog.”
Kaitlin Derosier Responds
“Things tend to go a lot more quickly in the breed ring then in the Jrs ring. In Jrs you wait to come out and stack your dog on the until the judge had finished with the previous dog, and examinations tend to take just a tad longer, again extending the time in the ring. There are also often a lot more dogs to examine since most breeds do not have 10 or often even more people per class like the Jrs ring often does (at least in our area). When you’re in the ring longer you have a lot more time to mix it up and do different things. It’s also extremely boring to stand in the same pose the entire time your in the Jrs ring. You’re in there for a while so changing positions makes things more comfortable and more fun.”
Thank you all for your insight and contributions to the sport.
According to the American Kennel Club,
“In the late 1920’s a group of dog show exhibitors led by Mr. Leonard Brumby, Sr., decided to develop a special competition for children. The purpose of the competition would be to introduce a new generation of fanciers to the sport and to give children the opportunity to measure their skills against those of their peers. The children would be judged by how well they presented their dogs with respect to the nuances of the breed being shown. The first Children’s Handling class was held at the Westbury Kennel Association show of 1932, and quickly became a popular feature at other AKC events.
“In 1949 the Professional Handlers Association donated a trophy in honor and memory of Mr. Brumby to the winner of the Children’s Handling Classes at the Westminster Kennel Club show. This trophy is still awarded to the winner of the Junior Handler competition at Westminster and is the most sought-after prize in the sport.
“…In 1971, the American Kennel Club recognized the virtues of Junior Handler competition and granted official recognition for these classes at AKC events.”
From “Auntie Laura”
As a corollary to this and mostly for the juniors, here are a few of my own recommendations, no matter *what* ring you’re in.
- The dog and the dog’s comfort come FIRST. No matter what, no matter why, no matter when, where or how. If it costs you a ribbon, then it is a small price to pay. Your dog comes first. If it’s hot and you are outside, keep the dog cool with a spray bottle, a cool coat, by shading the dog with your body if you have to. You *always* do whatever it takes to keep your dog comfortable.
- Don’t get frustrated with your dog. This is one I really worked hard on when I was a kid showing a Clumber Spaniel that didn’t want to be there. He fought with me every minute in the ring. I had to **really** practice staying calm. And I often failed miserably. So, my strong suggestion is, relax. The more you fight with the dog, the more he’ll fight back. And whatever you do, don’t take it out on your mom! It isn’t her fault and you’ll regret it later. (Yes, these are words of advice from my own life…)
- Pay attention to your spacing!!! This is a huge pet peeve of mine in ANY ring. Pay attention. Don’t run up on the dog in front of you. Give every dog at least three strides while moving in a group. Some folks or dogs move more slowly. Pay attention! Notice and pace yourself such that when you pass in front of the judge’s eye, your dog is moving at its best speed and you aren’t crowding the dog in front of you.
- Sportsmanship!!!! SAY CONGRATULATIONS!!!!! I know you’re bummed. I know you hate it when your sister beats you. I don’t care. Say congratulations and *mean* it! Work harder and next time maybe you’ll be the winner. Then say THANK YOU to those who congratulate you. It isn’t difficult. You can do it. In my set up, if a child doesn’t practice good sportsmanship, they don’t get to play. Period. So, do the right thing for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do.
- Proper attire. This includes young ladies who need to revisit the dressing room in regards to the length of their skirts, young men who need to consider stepping up their game a little and those older kids who take all of this a step too far. I’m not even sure how to address this except to reflect on the adages of Anne Rogers Clark. If she’d seen a girl in a Saint John knit show up in her juniors ring, she’d have pitched a fit. Or boys in $500 suits for that matter. Enjoy your youth. Don’t try so very hard to grow up so very fast. Neat, tidy, clean, ironed, attractive …. these are important.
Like so many other things in dogs, and in life, balance and symmetry are everything.
Laura Reeves is a member of Professional Handlers Association, host of “Pure Dog Talk” and a regular columnist for Best in Show Daily.