The first rule in handling: Always keep your dog on your left side.
Handling is dominated by the left. Your number, rubber-banded to your left arm, will be checked by the ring steward, who stands to the left of the entrance to the conformation ring, regulating the order and spacing of the competitors. The ring itself is in the shape of a square, marked off with thin white ropes looped through copper posts staked into the grass. When it is your turn to enter the ring, you must keep the leash in your left hand and the dog on your left side. You walk around the ring counterclockwise, turning smoothly to the left at each corner. Once you complete a lap, you stop and stand your dog, taking care to ensure she is stacked nicely and on alert.
One by one, each dog is examined by the judge. When it is your turn, you walk your dog to the center of the ring, where the judge will be kneeling on his/her left knee. The judge will be looking to see how well your dog maps to breed standards: inspecting her bite, spanning her chest, comparing leg flexibility, and running a hand through her coat, creating Mohawk-like ridges in the fur along her spine. After the judge finishes the physical examination of your dog, he/she will often have you walk your dog in a straight line out and back, or perhaps in a triangle, or maybe even a figure eight.
Once the judge has seen every dog, each handler-dog pair takes another lap, after which the judge lines up the dogs in the order of their placement. First place goes to the far left, sixth place goes to the far right. If there’s a tie, there will be a walk-off.
By this point, the judge will already have an opinion on the physicality of the dogs. What makes a difference now is how well the dog moves. The judge looks at the dog’s grace, power, and rhythm, and everything else fades away. Your heart pounds, blood roars in your ears and you don’t even notice the whispers of the crowd, or the heads turned in your direction. All that matters is your dog, and the sound of her paws swishing through the grass in a two-count cadence. Where you stand—on the left or the right—depends on this final walk.
Handling rule number two: When doing the walk-out, always keep your dog between you and the judge.
My parents got Deegan as a wedding present. He was predominantly white, like all Jack Russells, with chestnut-brown ears and matching spots above his tail. Deegan was my parents’ first child, and they took him everywhere: to work; on weekend hikes; and once, even into the movie theater. On a whim, they brought him to a dog show in Suffolk County and loved it so much that within six months, they were members of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America (JRTCA).
Mom, Dad and Deegan were a little family of three for several years, until three more additions came along: Annie and Duffy, a mother-son Jack Russell duo, and me. Deegan took to his role as big brother like a fish to water. He allowed Annie and Duffy to share his chew toys, he never snapped at them when they stole his treats, and he taught them the best way to jump onto the counter. He allowed me to dress him up in doll clothes, he never snapped when I tugged too hard on his leash, and he slept at the foot of my bed every night from the day I was born to the day he died.
Deegan was my protector and my playmate, but even his patience had its limits. One day, I was eating dinner, my plate filled with carrots, applesauce and dinosaur (aka chicken) nuggets. Deegan was at my feet and I was under strict instructions never to feed him from the table. But I was a bored and curious three-year-old, so I decided to see what would happen if I pretended to give him part of my meal. I picked up a chicken nugget and moved it up and down, side to side, near Deegan’s face; his eyes followed the nugget’s every move. Then I got more daring in my movements, adding zig-zags, stars and figure-eights to my repertoire. I was able to react fast enough to save the nugget from two close calls, but then my luck ran out. On Deegan’s third attempt, he captured the chicken nugget as well as part of my finger. My shrieks pierced the air as I stared at the bright red blood bubbling from the puncture marks, staining my skin and swirling down my finger.
Handling rule number three: Never bait your dog.
In the terrier group, when the judge examines your dog, he/she will consider a variety of aspects related to how fit your dog is to hunt, which is what Jack Russells were originally bred to do. Is your dog’s chest small and flexible enough to go underground? Does she have a scissor bite? How are her legs—are they parallel?
By the time I was old enough to show in Child Handler, Deegan was 10 and no longer had the energy needed to be a show dog for a five-year-old girl. So instead, I showed North Country Clementine. Clemmie, with her brown ears bordering on orange, came to live with us after Nonie, our close family friend, passed away. For the first few months we had her, Clemmie hardly ate and she never wagged her tail; all she did was sit by the door, howling and scratching at the screen, waiting for Nonie to come back for her.
After a few months, Clemmie finally adjusted to her new life with us, which is when we realized that she was actually quite the rebel. If Deegan was my big brother, Clemmie was my wild little sister. She never came when called; she jumped up on the kitchen counter and ate our dinner at least twice a week; and she always escaped our yard, which was especially awkward when she ran to our neighbors’ house.
Our neighbors owned one of the largest garbage companies on Long Island, and they were extremely wealthy. Their house had the only gated driveway on the entire street, and they tended to keep to themselves, choosing to skip block parties and other community events. Although they seemed nice enough, we were fairly certain that they were in the Mob.
Early one Saturday morning, Clemmie went pelting out of our yard, through the hedgerow and over to the neighbor’s house. My dad, sprinting as fast as he could, arrived just in time to see Clemmie and the neighbor’s dog barking at a raccoon. The neighbor dashed out of his back door, took one look at the scene, then reached into the pocket of his bathrobe and pulled out a handgun. He shot the raccoon dead in the eye. Needless to say, after this incident, we tried even harder to keep our distance.
Handling rule number four: If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.
You can show in child handler from ages 5 to 10, after which you move up to the Youth Division. While Child Handler involves only Conformation, Youth Handler also includes agility, go-to-ground and obedience. Clemmie was my Youth dog for nearly my entire career, from my first Child Handler class at five years old to my last regular season Youth Handler class at 15, and these 10 years of showing together resulted in an incredible partnership. We became so familiar with one another’s movements and so aware of each other’s presence that I never tripped over her leash in the Conformation ring and I never had to worry about her running off during agility, even when she went off-lead.
I was the one who crawled through tunnels to teach her how to do agility. I was the one who dug her out of a go-toground tunnel to save her from a skunk. And I was the one who helped her whelp her first litter of puppies after she went into labor when my parents were away. In return, Clemmie was with me as well. She was the one who memorized the agility course on the first run-through and picked up the slack when I forgot which element came next. She was the one who was with me when I won and when I lost. And she was the one who comforted me when Deegan died, curling up next to me on the couch with her head in my lap and offering silent companionship to replace the one I had lost.
The week before the 2010 U.S. National Trial, I got a text from my parents during school; they asked me to call Millie, our good family friend, to see if I could borrow her dog Intensity to show the following week. I didn’t bother responding. They thought Clemmie was too old and had been nagging me for weeks about finding another dog to show in Youth, but I wouldn’t hear of it. I had always shown Clemmie, and that was that.
Six days later, I became the Youth High Score National Champion, something Clemmie and I had worked for throughout our entire career.
But I didn’t win it with Clemmie.
The same day I received the text message from my parents, I found my dad waiting for me at the door when I got home from school—a rare thing, as he normally worked late into the evening. He told me to go into the living room because he needed to talk to me about something important.
My dad, a veterinarian, told me that not only had Clemmie thrown up her breakfast that morning, she had also thrown up blood. He was pretty sure she had Lyme disease, and thought there also could be an obstruction in her small intestine, so he took her into the vet hospital to pull bloods and get an X-ray. On the way, Clemmie had a seizure, but seemed to recover after my dad dosed her with phenobarbital and put her on fluids. However, a few hours later, she had another seizure.
This time, she didn’t make it.
Handling rule number five: If something out of the ordinary happens, prepare yourself for all possible outcomes.
I announced my retirement from the Youth Division a few weeks after the 2010 National Trial. I still had a few years of eligibility left, but wanted to end my career on a high note, and knew that my experience wouldn’t be the same without Clemmie. Finally winning the title I had worked so hard for was an incredible moment, but no matter how sweet the victory, nothing could offset the fact that Clemmie wasn’t there with me. Nothing, that is, except for a new dog.
That’s right. My parents got me a dog.
Ginny is unlike every other dog in our house, not only because she is the only brown-furred Border Terrier, but also because she is the only Terrier we’ve ever had who is solely a pet. We don’t show Ginny, nor will we ever. She goes on walks not because we need to leash-train her, but because we want to take her out, sometimes for a swim in the pond. She is groomed on a regular basis not to keep her coat in top shape, but because her fur grows so fast that it gets in her eyes. She is on a diet not because we want her to look fit in front of a judge, but because it’s in the best interest of her health, especially with all the treats I sneak her when my mom’s back is turned. She is much calmer than our Jack Russells, choosing to sit behind me when I’m cooking rather than bark at the stove.
Deegan was my childhood, Clemmie was my adolescence and Ginny is my now. She’ll never be with me in the Conformation ring nor in the agility tunnels, not even at a go-to-ground, but she will be there when I graduate from Villanova, when I get my first job, when I move out on my own. She has never known the handling part of my life, and never will, but she knows me today, she will know me tomorrow and she will know me for all of her days that follow. Ginny is not my Youth dog, but I no longer need one. I’m growing up, and Ginny will be there as I do it.
The last rule in handling: Always stand by your dog— after all, your dog will always stand by you.