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I’m a Dog Handler—Here’s What It’s Like to Show at the Westminster Dog Show

Even with the stage moms and the security detail for some of the dogs, the big show is probably a lot different than you’ve imagined.

collie show time dog showCourtesy Ania Kelly

It’s showtime!

I’ve been to Madison Square Garden for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show a number of times since I was a child because my family’s in the business, but this will be the first official year of me being out on my own. It’s going to be exciting and nerve-racking all at the same time, I’m sure! But it definitely helps that I’ve been to the show so often that I know a few facts about Westminster, and some of the more surprising aspects of it aren’t surprises to me any longer. Here’s a little behind-the-scenes look at what it’s all really like.

westminster dog showCourtesy Ania Kelly

My life with dogs

I have attended Westminster every year since 2008 and competed in Junior Showmanship between 2008 and 2012, winning in 2012. Junior Showmanship is a separate competition, but it’s held at the same venue and is part of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. To compete in Juniors, you need to be within a certain age range and win your class ten times to qualify for Westminster. From 2012 to 2018, I attended while apprenticing under a professional handler, and 2019 was the first year I competed as a professional handler myself. This year will be my second as a professional handler at Westminster, and I will be presenting four dogs. I work with far more than four throughout the year, but only these select few attend this prestigious event. Check out these photos of adorable dogs and their quirky owners at Westminster.

mom daughter and grandmother westminsterCourtesy Ania Kelly

It runs in the family

My grandmother introduced my mom to showing dogs, and then, when I was old enough, my mom introduced me to it, so it’s a passion all of us share. My grandmother has bred Vizslas for 40 years now, and when my mom was a child, she helped out. Now, as adults, we all collectively breed dogs and make decisions on our breeding program together. It’s a family affair, for sure. By the way, these are the newest breeds at Westminster.

grandmother westminster dog showCourtesy Ania Kelly

Following in Grandma’s footsteps

My grandmother, Dot Romano, won Best of Breed at Westminster with a Vizsla in 1988. It would be a huge dream of mine to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps all these years later with the same breed—a breed that is obviously very near and dear to our hearts! And it’s not just us, by the way. I can think of several other people offhand who are also third-generation dog handlers at Westminster. But even if you’re not from a long line of breeders and handlers, you can still see a lot of family dynamics at play, as well as a lot of history. It’s a very cool sport that has a lot of nostalgia. If you love dogs, you’ll definitely want to check out these 50 cutest dog breeds as puppies.

boomer dog winner westminster dog showCourtesy Ania Kelly

Boomer

Let me introduce you to the dogs I’ll be showing this year. First up: Boomer. More formally known as GCHP CH Tradewind’s Ida Bomb JH CA, he’s the number one Vizsla in the country. We won the National Specialty title this past year. You’ll get a kick out of 13 of the funniest names of Westminster show dogs.

howie dog winner westminsterCourtesy Ania Kelly

Howie

I’m also working with Howie (full name: GCHB CH Paradise Island Breeze), who is the number two Clumber Spaniel in the country right now. Unfamiliar with Clumber Spaniels? Here are some other rare dog breeds you probably don’t know about.

collie maryland kennel club dog show winnerCourtesy Ania Kelly

Titan

There’s also Titan, the Top 10 Rough Collie whose full name is GCH Sylvan Argent Firework. Collies remain one of the best dogs for families with kids.

joey westminster dog winnerCourtesy Ania Kelly

Joey

And finally, there’s Joey, a young English Cocker Spaniel, who is just starting his career. Joey’s birth name is Ch. Winfree’s Future Legacy. In case you were wondering, these are the breeds with the most wins at Westminster.

howie dog winnerCourtesy Ania Kelly

Everyone knows the dogs’ quirks

Handlers at dog shows are definitely more “normal” than you would think. We are just regular people, but we all travel together and see each other week after week for work. Most of us have known each other for most of our lives, so we have a family-like bond. It’s nice to have people like that around, especially when it’s a big show and the pressure is on. They know you inside and out.

As for the dogs, we all know them by name, along with their little quirks, what their favorite toy is, or what their favorite cookie is. Things like that take the edge off a little bit. And we can joke around and not be so nervous and stressed out backstage or when it’s time to go in the ring. If you’ve got your own prized canine, you should know these 15 training secrets dog trainers won’t tell you for free.

dog show handlerCourtesy Ania Kelly

Hotel “pee fees”

It is expensive to compete in New York City. Most of the hotels—there are at least three—set up a whole potty area in the basement of the hotel, but because they know you have nowhere else to take them, they charge you an arm and a leg. So, the more dogs you take, the more they charge, and you basically end up paying $100 a dog to take them to go potty. That seriously ups the exact cost of owning a dog.

Courtesy Ania Kelly

Dog security

This is another thing that may seem kind of funny if you’re not used to seeing it. Because there are so many people spectating and walking around at Madison Square Garden, a lot of people will hire security guards to sit next to their dogs if they need to go get lunch or go to the bathroom. Like I said, we are all like a big family, so we watch out for each other and all that, but some people will go as far as getting a security guard just to ease their minds. I always have an assistant or someone else with me, so the dogs are always either in my care or being watched by someone who works for me. Here’s a theory on why 9 beloved breeds never win Westminster.

Courtesy Ania Kelly

Stage moms

While some people show their own dogs at competitions, many clients hire professional handlers to show their dogs. And the people who own the dogs but are hiring someone else to show them definitely get a little bit anxious during the competition, because it’s like their child—their fur child. They definitely get all, “Fluffy likes this kind of treat, and pat Fluffy on the head twice and he’ll do this, and tell Fluffy to sit, and do it this way.” Handlers who do this for a living and get this all the time will joke around with each other, like, “Oh, well, I’ve got to do this!” What’s at stake on the big day? This is how much money Westminster Dog Show winners earn.

Courtesy Ania Kelly

Friendly competition

It’s not a sport like football where everybody is watching and supporting it, so it’s something that we do all consider, too: If we are all against each other, then how are we going to join together and preserve our sport? Obviously, it’s a competition, but the end goal is the same for all of us. We love our sport, we love our dogs, we love breeding them, and we love preserving each of our breeds. Yes, it’s a competition, and of course on the day we are going to be competitive and want to win. But at the same time, all of us have this end goal of bringing home our dogs and loving them. In case this photo has you curious, here’s exactly what it means when a dog licks you.

westminster dog show Matthew Eisman /Getty Images

Everybody loves Madison Square Garden

It almost gives you goosebumps walking around the Garden, because you can just feel everyone’s energy. The dogs can feel that, too. And at all the big shows, the dogs usually show better because they can feel your excitement and they thrive off of that. We’re surrounded by people we’ve worked with to get where we are, and we’re all hoping for the same thing, so it’s a cool emotional energy going around the whole show. Next, get a look at some unforgettable images from Westminster Dog Shows past.