The dog show family gathers each weekend to celebrate a shared passion for all things “dog.” Among its hardest-working members are the breeders and exhibitors who “grew up” in the sport as second- or third-generation fanciers.
Many of these committed competitors are the professional handlers that have combined parenthood with their passion for purebred dogs. Who says you can’t have it all? These busy moms and dads are discovering that although having children — as well as a kennel full of dogs — can be fraught with uncertainty, it nevertheless brings its own kind of reward.
Pro handler parents: Christian and Jenny Rangel
Based out of: Santa Ynez, Calif.
No. of dog shows a year: 160-180
No. of dogs in string: 15
Child: Everly, age 2
How Everly helps: She uses the brush and water to spray to groom (in her own way), walks dogs and helps feed the dogs at home.
Christian and Jenny Rangel keep busy. The Santa Ynez, Calif., couple attend between 160 and 180 shows a year with, on average, 15 dogs in tow. Although every dog they show is a treasured companion, the couple’s most cherished “special” is a 2-year-old with fair hair and sparkling eyes who goes by the name Everly. “She is a natural,” Christian boasts of the darling daughter that he and Jenny bring to most every event. “We are lucky enough to spend time with her at home during the week and also bring her with us on weekends.”
Since becoming a trio, the Rangels have found plenty of support from their extended family. “There are a lot of challenges, like caregiving while working or traveling to the shows with the baby,” Christian says. Showing dogs for a living may seem like a dream job to some, but it’s a 24/7 commitment and it’s not unlike parenting. “I think the biggest challenge is that sometimes we have to go to the show without her,” Christian says, noting that big weekends such as Montgomery County and Westminster find Everly keeping company at her grandmother’s home. “Also when she is at the show, we need to have someone with her all the time when we are at the rings. Luckily, we have a great group of people with us like her Uncle Shoe [Andrew Peel] and Titi [Yukari Haraguchi]. We all pitch in and make it work.” Although her presence adds to the workload, Everly gives back far more than she demands. As her father puts it, “No matter what, it’s all worth it in the end. Having Everly has been the greatest gift ever!”
Christian showed dogs as a junior. Jenny did too, of course. “My great grandmother was a very successful Wire Fox Terrier breeder and judge,” she says of her family’s long tradition of raising kids in a doggie household. “My parents show dogs and bred dogs, and my dad [Wood Wornall] was a professional handler for 40 some years and is now a judge.” Talk about a dog show pedigree. Little Everly has quality on both sides! Her dad’s father began showing his own dogs when his son was around 12 years old. Christian ultimately became a professional handler following his studies in architecture. “I’ve been [handling] professionally for around nine years and a few more as an assistant,” he says. Jenny worked for her father for approximately 15 years before joining forces with her husband.
Only time will tell if the couple’s daughter will take up the family business. “We will support her in whatever she wants to do,” Christian says, noting that Jenny hopes her daughter chooses a different path in life. Everly, however, may have the last word on the subject. “Her favorite thing is to help with the dogs,” Christian says. “She loves to help get them ready. She brushes them, dries them and walks them.” Her father adds that Everly started showing interest in the dogs right away. “She takes the brush and water spray and tries to help (in her own way). She loves to walk dogs and, at home, she loves to go to the kennel and help feed the dogs.” Everly, it seems, is already following in her mother’s footsteps!
Pro-handler parents: Evan and Stacy Threlfall
Based out of: Derry, N.H.
No. of dog shows a year: 135
No. of dogs in string: 20
Children: Kenneth, 2, and William, 1
How the kids help: Not much yet! Right now they help by leaving numerous Cheerios around for the dogs.
In many ways, Evan and Stacy Threlfall of Derry, N.H., are the prototypical dog show parents. The hardworking professional handlers travel to roughly 135 shows each year with anywhere between eight and 20 dogs — and two small boys. Two-year-old Kenneth and 1-year-old William have been spending most weekends on the road with their parents. “We have bringing them to the shows [down] to a fine science,” says Stacy. “Each has a Graco Pack ‘n Play Playard with toys, movies, etc. The hard part is finding a place to put all their stuff, which seems to outnumber the dog stuff!”
Evan grew up in the sport, and Stacy has been a professional handler for 17 years, so both understand the value of having trusted friends and family to help provide care for their two boys. “They have awesome grandparents that jump at every chance to have them for the weekend,” Stacy acknowledges. When the boys go along for a weekend, the couple factors in both travel time and the number of events entered. They can always count on colleagues to cover a dog in a pinch or provide a little childcare when necessary. “We have an amazing support system of friends and family that will always lend a hand with them at the shows,” Stacy says.
However, even with the best support system, managing a string of show dogs and a household with two small children is not without its challenges. “I think the hardest thing about being a dog handler with children is missing the kids when we can’t take them to shows with us,” Stacy laments. “With a little (or a lot of) help from relatives and friends, there are very few times that I have found the kids to be a hindrance.” Quite the contrary, the Threlfall boys have already invented their own way of helping with the dogs. As Stacy notes, “Right now they … help by leaving numerous Cheerios around for the dogs.”
The Threlfall boys also help by keeping their parents’ priorities grounded in reality. “Showing dogs professionally can be something that easily becomes all-consuming and overtakes every aspect of one’s life,” Stacy confesses. “One weekend runs into another, and before you know, it your self-worth has been revolving around the number of ribbons that you’ve won that prior weekend.”
Stacy says that having children has provided a completely different outlook on life. “They don’t care what you’ve won, how you look or how much money you’ve just made. They love you unconditionally and completely. Until you have had that feeling, it’s a hard one to explain to anyone.” Stacy is grateful that parenthood has had a positive impact on her professional life. “I have found that the kids brought a wake-up call to stop, think and enjoy my life and job, which makes me better at doing my job,” she says.
Stacy offers advice to handlers (amateur or professional) who may be considering the addition of two-legged kids to their four-legged family. “This is a wonderful family sport to have children grow up in,” she says. “What has surprised me most since becoming a parent is how many other exhibitors are great with kids. I have never found myself running off to show a dog without a responsible person willing to watch my kid(s). If you want kids, have them! It will be the best thing you have ever done. I can’t say enough about how wonderful our friends and family have been — and yours will be too.”
Pro-handler parents: Luke and Tammy Seidlitz
Based out of: Loomis, Calif.
No. of dog shows a year: 130+
No. of dogs in string: 12
Child: Asher, 1
How Asher helps: He makes his parents feel like they go Best in Show every day.
“Sleep is something I want more of,” says professional handler Luke Seidlitz of Loomis, Calif. Luke and his wife, Tammy, are both professional handlers and the proud parents of Asher, the couple’s 1-year-old son who arrived in June of last year. Things haven’t been quite the same since. “The challenge of working in the dog game for us so far is mostly that our job is exhausting at times and, with having a young child, we don’t get much sleep.”
Luke and Tammy stay busy attending more than 130 shows each year. They bring Asher to every show, with around 12 of their clients’ dogs. “We also have Tiffany Owens who works with us [and] who is like a third parent to Asher,” says Luke. “We have amazing friends and clients that help us watch him if we all are showing dogs.”
Although sleep deprivation may be a downside to having a toddler in tow, having an extended family of reliable babysitters on-hand is definitely a perk. “The best part of being a working parent at the dog shows is that we don’t have to put Asher in daycare, and we can take him with us everywhere,” says Luke. “Once he gets to school age, we will have to figure something else out, but by then I plan on winning the lotto, so we can be retired!”
Planning for the future is a big part of being a parent, of course, and Luke and Tammy are prepared to support Asher in whichever path he chooses to take in life. “We know that with our profession, he will more than likely always be around dogs, but we will encourage him to do whatever he chooses to do and will support him in that.”
Luke admits that he hopes that his son will always be involved in the sport of dogs for fun, but admits that he will understand if he ultimately chooses a different profession for himself. Luke explains, “Being a dog handler is something I love, but at the same time I would love to have the ability to not have to travel and be gone from home as much as is required.” Although having a child and being a handler is a lot of work, Luke has no regrets about becoming a parent in the dog world. “The best thing we ever did was having Asher,” he says. “Trying to win with every dog we show is what we always try to do, but — win or lose — we get to come out of the ring and see Asher smiling. [He] makes us feel like we go Best in Show every day!”
Pro-handler parents: Jesy and Roxanne Sutton
Based out of: Quakerstown, Pa.
No. of dog shows a year: 150
No. of dogs in string: 15-20
Child: Charlize, 7
How Charlize helps: She sits and has tea parties with the dogs, helping them with the stress of a new environment
Jessy and Roxanne Sutton of Quakertown, Pa., have been showing dogs since they were kids. “This is how we met,” Roxanne says. The couple attends more than 150 shows per year as professional handlers and typically carries 15 to 20 dogs at every show. “We may meet another five at the show,” Roxanne notes. Yet despite their heavy roster of show dogs, the couple has one charge that receives a little preferential treatment. “We have a beautiful daughter,” Roxanne says with pride. “Charlize is 7 and entered the first grade last September. Now that she is in school, we are blessed that she can stay with Jessy’s parents.”
“When Charlize was young, she traveled the country with us,” Roxanne says. During those early years, her parents would set up a small table where their daughter could read and color. “There was always an extra chair for a ‘ringside pickup’ of someone else’s kid,” Roxanne remembers. Many of their clients are like extended family, willing to watch Charlize while her parents are in a ring. Both parents are careful not to take advantage of this generosity, however. “Jessy and I feel strongly that Charlize is our priority and try not to impose upon clients for babysitting services,” she says.
As their daughter has grown, she’s been able to take on some responsibilities of her own. “Charlize brushes the smooth-coated dogs we have,” Roxanne says. “She sits and has tea parties with many of them, helping them with the stress of a new environment. Charlize also practices grooming on Plum, our retired BIS Norfolk. Recently, she has been showing her Toy Fox Terrier and has been awarded several Group placements.”
Roxanne is delighted that Charlize has picked up a show lead, but she’s even more pleased with how her little girl handles herself in the ring. “When she shows in the Group ring — after the placements have been made — Charlize will approach the winner and await her time to congratulate them. If she has already been excused, we go find that handler’s set-up, and she congratulates them privately. We are trying to instill in her that every exhibit that day tried its best.”
Now that their daughter is in school, Roxanne and Jessy have found creative solutions to parenting from the road. “When we are at a show … modern technology has allowed us to talk with Charlize every morning while she readies for school at Grandma’s. Roxanne says that she and Jessy are grateful to know that Charlize is in a safe and loving environment while they’re away. “We can also talk throughout the day and encourage — as well as discipline — her.”
Parenthood, like professional handling, is a 24/7 responsibility that requires absolute commitment and setting priorities. “We are proud of the care our dogs receive,” Roxanne says. That being said, Charlize will always come before their show careers and, now that she is older and can manage herself better, second in line for care. “We are very fortunate [that] our clients understand this. Jessy and I realize there will never be a second chance for her ‘firsts.’”
When Jessy and Roxanne were faced with choosing between attending a promising show circuit last summer or their daughter’s kindergarten graduation and first dance recital, the choice was simple. “There was no decision to make other than we would attend both,” Roxanne says. “I cannot tell you how proud we were of our daughter … the joy in her eyes when she looked into the audience seeing her mom and dad encouraging her. Our clients understood completely, and one even secretly arranging to present Charlize with roses backstage. I tell you, our clients are the best!”
Pro-handler parents: Colton and Heather Johnson
Based out of: Colorado Springs, Colo.
No. of dog shows a year: 40-100
No. of dogs in string: About 20
Children: Taylor, 8, Cameron, 6, and Dawson, 3
How the kids help: In addition to showing the dogs in the ring, the kids feed, clean and care for the dogs.
Colton and Heather Johnson know first-hand how to raise a family in the dog show world. The Colorado Springs couple has three children who accompany their parents to shows “all the time,” according to their professional handler father. Although a full-time sitter stays home with the kids on some weekends, daughters Taylor, 8, and Cameron, 6, and son Dawson, 3, have traveled with their parents to anywhere between 40 and 100 shows a year. With upward of 20 dogs entered at every event, the kids are depended upon to help with the chores. “Our children help with the dogs all the time,” Colton says of his brood’s participation in the family enterprise. “I believe animals are incredible emotional and confidence builders for kids.”
Colton has been a professional handler for 17 years. He is a second-generation dog man who followed in the footsteps of his parents, Doug and Michaelanne Johnson. As the child of breeder-exhibitors himself, Colton can appreciate the lessons learned by children who grow up in the sport. “Our two daughters help us show the Old English Sheepdogs, which keeps them pretty busy,” he says.
Colton sees to it that his children experience more than just the fun side of showing dogs in the ring. “Feeding, cleaning and caring [for the dogs] are the biggest part of having them,” he says. Proper care “teaches responsibility as well as reward for seeing work pay off with training and conditioning … It’s very important they learn all those responsibilities as well.”
Dog shows can provide many benefits to kids who grow up in the sport, but they can also expose kids to the more disagreeable side of the human character. “A lot of people act as if kids are an inconvenience at shows,” Colton regrets to say about some individuals and kennel clubs that seem less-than-welcoming to kids. “It is a very small group, but still a discouraging one,” he adds. Nonetheless, Colton feels that dog shows are a wonderful environment in which kids can grow up.
“Although there are negative people, the positive ones make it worth it,” he says, referring to those fanciers who have come over to support his kids or watch over them as if they were their own. Colton is the first to acknowledge that a lifetime of involvement in purebred dogs has provided “a wonderful life” for the Johnson family.