NEW YORK — Tucked away in a corner of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a group of mostly teenagers are deep in concentration. It’s a school day, but they are as far away from the classroom as possible.
One girl wears AirPods, temporarily tuning out the world as she blow-dries her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Another is furiously spritzing her Collie with water. Others pace as their dogs rest in blanket-covered kennels.
These — the humans, that is — are the hopefuls of the Junior Showmanship competition, a component of the Westminster Dog Show that dates back nearly a century. Like their adult counterparts, the 9- to 18-year-old competitors have spent countless hours bonding with and training their dogs, and traveling the country to show them.
Unlike the grown-ups, however, when junior handlers step into the ring, the judge is evaluating them — again, the humans — more than the dogs. Does the kid know how to “free stack” or “hand stack” the dog, positioning its legs just so? How do they run with the dog? Are handler and dog on the same “wavelength”? Can they anticipate each others’ moves?
“It’s judging how well you show as a team, not necessarily the dog,” said Rylie May, an 18-year-old from Hillsboro, Kan., who traveled to New York to compete in one of her final dog shows as a junior handler before she ages out.
On a grooming table next to her was Toby, a 5-year-old Australian Shepherd who has been May’s constant companion since he was about seven months old. When May locks eyes with Toby, their connection is instantly evident.
They’ve put in a lot of work, she said, spending weekends at shows or in training when she could have been hanging out with friends, who may not be aware she has reached the pinnacle of her sport.
But May has also come a long way from the very first time she competed as a junior handler at 9 years old, when she showed another Australian Shepherd at a 4H show — and made every rookie mistake in the book.
“I had no idea what was going on and I was very nervous,” May said, laughing. “I went in a ring with a 6-month-old puppy. She was absolutely crazy. She did not listen to me for anything. She just pulled me across the ring the whole time. It was a little bit humiliating.”
Nine years later, May has learned to stay calm. (“Toby definitely can feel my stress.”) On Monday morning, minutes before she was due in the ring, she and Toby lined up with about 20 other well-coiffed junior handlers, all dressed in pressed blazers and structured skirt suits, as if entering a youth pageant sponsored by Talbot’s.
About 100 junior handlers qualified to compete at Westminster this year. Only eight will make it to the finals, which will grant them the opportunity to display their handling skills on prime-time television at Madison Square Garden.
Despite the odds, the junior showmanship competition is usually overshadowed by the breed competitions and, of course, by the televised spectacle leading up to Best in Show — which is a shame, according to several on the show floor this week. After all, it’s the junior handlers who will often go on to professionally show, handle or judge dogs as adults.
“It’s sad because that’s the future of our sport,” said Casey Paul, a former junior handler who got “hooked” on dog shows after bringing her mom’s Great Pyrenees to one as a child. “Without them, all of these breeders … and the breeds are done.”
Fittingly, some kids are born into families who are already in the show dog world. Others come to it through activities like 4H. For a few humans and dogs alike, it was an accidental stumble into a wacky and wonderful hobby.
Four years ago, Morgan Scandura saw a picture of a scraggly, underweight Pembroke Welsh corgi on the Facebook page of a shelter several hundred miles away. Somehow, she knew that was their dog.
“I drove 15 hours round trip to get him,” said Scandura, of Alto, Mich. Soon, “Pogo the Corgi” was the newest member of their family.
As it happened, her then-7-year-old daughter, Riley Dean, had recently had to give up showing horses because her horse had developed lameness issues.
“I didn’t want her to go all summer without something to do, so I thought, we’ll show the dog,” Scandura said.
It was a long shot for Pogo, who didn’t know how to walk on a leash and barely knew basic commands. But the “extremely food-motivated” Corgi took to obedience training quickly, she added.
Riley and Pogo soon entered obedience contests that they quickly dominated before moving onto junior showmanship.
“Our first time it was kind of a mess … I completely lost my nerves,” Riley said. “But I just kept on showing and everything. He picked it up really quick and easy. He loves showing. He’ll free stack. He’ll show for anyone.’
On Monday, Riley, now 11, displayed some of the precocious poise that has led her to win title after title, despite her age. In the ring, Pogo stayed fixated on Riley, gliding alongside her on cue. When it came her turn to present Pogo on the table, she hoisted the 30-pound dog — nearly half her size — and neatly adjusted his legs like a pro.
“Her table performance is amazing,” 12-year-old Fenric Towell, crouching alongside the ring and sipping a ginger ale, said without a hint of sarcasm.
Through it all, Riley kept Pogo motivated with beef liver treats that she had tucked beforehand inside her own mouth.
“It’s disgusting, but … yeah,” Riley said with a bit of a shrug and a giggle.
The temporary grossness paid off: Riley was one of two handlers in her group to move on to the finals. (She thinks Pogo knew he had won, too: “He gets excited and sneezes when he wins,” Riley later said.)
May, the 18-year-old from Kansas, did not advance with her Australian Shepherd — but said she had no regrets about ending her junior handler career in this way. She’s looking forward, she said, to a career as a professional dog handler.
“It really felt amazing today. I was really proud of Toby. He really gave it his all. I felt like he just had fun out in the ring so that just made me really happy,” May said. “It’s taught me a lot about responsibility. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s putting the dog’s needs before your own.”