When we started showing dogs, there were a few professional handlers in the Welshie ring showing class dogs, but mostly they showed a big winning dog in the breed competition. Heck, a dog we bred was in that category, but that's another story for another day...For the most part, the pros won with their dogs, finished them quickly and left the rest of us Owner-Handlers to go back to showing our own dogs. Maybe I showed them badly or ineptly, maybe I made the judges work harder than they liked to find my dogs, but I darn sure showed Rysan dogs myself, and I was PROUD to do it every show weekend. Then, one day standing outside the ring, I realized that I wasn't nervous. Gone was the terror that I was going to be sick in the ring or embarrass myself with a face-plant while gaiting my dog. And THAT is when I started to really enjoy the show dog gig. I had finally overcome my fears and it was then that I got better at showing our dogs, grooming our dogs, and even making it easier for the judges to find our dogs.
I applaud the AKC for wanting to encourage Amateur Owner-Handlers and Breeder-Handlers with the OH classes and competition and with Best Bred By Exhibitor competitions. But sometimes I get the feeling that even the judges don't value Owner-Handlers or Breeder-Owner-Handlers. I was ALWAYS proud to show Tigg as an Owner-Handler. In what turned out to be her last show in the AOH class, the judge handed me the blue ribbon and said "I don't understand why you don't have her entered in the Open class-she's a lovely bitch and she'd do fine in Open." I replied "I'm proud to have her on the end of my lead and I'm proud to be an Amateur Owner Handler." Clearly, the judge didn't hold us AOH folks in the same high esteem as the AKC was trying to promote. I got the feeling the judge considered the AOH class the equivalent of the 'Am-bred' class, where your dog isn't mature enough for Open but cannot be entered in any other class...Lucky for us, Tigg got the points that day and finished her AKC Championship. But the idea that Owner-Handler classes are somehow 'less worthy' than other classes still rankles.
My biggest concern now is the declining attendance of Welsh Springer Owner-Handlers and Breeder-Owner-Handlers at dog shows. For many years, the ring was filled with breeders and dog owners, with no professional handlers to be found until the BoB competition started. I loved those years-we had the chance to chat, see what each of us was up to in our breeding programs, have some friendly competition, and show the judges we were all proud of what was on the other end of our leashes. After judging, we'd hang out together, talk about breeding programs, stud dogs, imports from other countries, compare judges, get grooming tips, and all the other things that happen when dog people interact at dog shows.
Now, except for large entry shows, Welshie owners or breeders are a rarity at shows. Their dogs are out with professional handlers, with no owners or breeders at ringside-in fact they are nowhere to be found on the show grounds. It's become a kind of absentee-showing, where its easier to send the dog out to collect championship points in a vacuum, never seeing another breeder-owner-handler or interacting with other people. I miss the interaction-that's where all of us owners and breeders learned so much about this breed, where we made life-long relationships,where we all learned how to groom our dogs, train our dogs, exchange useful information. It's where we learn about one another, know who the person is we're being asked to vote for when WSSCA Board of Director elections come up.
While the professionals have a purpose, and are certainly entitled to make a living out of what they do best, I feel that our breed in particular cannot survive if it is taken over by professional handlers. The well-informed breeders and owners are the ones who need to make decisions that will have a lasting impact on the quality of the Welsh Springer Spaniel-about their health, their temperaments, their structure and grooming and movement. They are the people who need to make decisions about dogs that should be bred or not bred, about dogs selected to become show dogs or pets, about how the dogs are groomed and trained and handled. We cannot abrogate our responsibility to this breed by putting it into the hands of people who are looking for the next big winning show dog.
Professional handlers haven't spent a lifetime raising and training Welsh Springers that are representative of the type of dog called for in our breed standard. They have one purpose-to win, and one responsibility-making a living for themselves. The Owner-Handler or the Breeder-Handler has many purposes-raising a pleasant, companionable, biddable dog that can give joy for 14 or more years, and that also may perform in the whelping box, as a stud dog, as a gun dog, as a performance dog, as a therapy dog, and as a show dog. But more importantly, the owner or breeder has a RESPONSIBILITY for the FUTURE of this breed-the direction it takes regarding health, temperament, and how it complies with the ideal picture painted by our breed standard. I feel that committed owner handlers and breeder handlers are part and parcel of that responsibility, and I'd sure like to see more of them in the ring with me when I show my dogs.The direction that the breed takes must be guided by knowledgeable and enthusiastic owners and breeders who will become the future mentors and WSSCA elected members that guide our breed for years to come.