By Lauren Hull

When most kids want to get into a sport, Dog Showing and Junior Showmanship are not normally what comes to mind. In fact, most people don’t even know what Junior Showmanship is, their only knowledge of Dogs Shows probably coming from the events that are shown on TV or in movies. Fortunately, I was introduced to dog sports at an early age by my mother, Denise, who had been a Junior Handler herself. She had been dying for one of her kids to take an interest in animals, and so with my mother’s help and support, I began competing in Junior Showmanship when I was 10 years old. From 2008 to 2016, I was even fortunate enough to work with eight different Great Pyrenees in Junior Handling, one of which being a dog that I had bred, raised, and trained myself.

Many people who are involved in the “World of Dogs”, as I like to call our sport, know that Junior Showmanship is a way for younger generations to get involved in the hopes that they can become the future of reputable dog breeding and breed preservation. Like any other youth sport, it is quite the competitive business. Everyone wants to win, but the accolades really only matter if you are also learning as you go. To me, Junior Showmanship became more than just a sport or hobby that I enjoyed. It, quite honestly, became my life. The moment I competed in my first show, my world became centered around my dogs, and I wanted to gain as much knowledge as possible. Time management became very important to me as I found ways to keep track of dog training, grooming, schoolwork, and my schedule at each show. I had the opportunity to travel all across the United States, parts of Canada and even the UK, experiencing places that I normally wouldn’t think to visit. I was able to meet like-minded individuals that shared my crazy obsession with constantly running around in left-handed circles. Friendly competition became “the norm”, and while, contrary to popular belief, I was often losing more than winning, I gained the motivation to continuously better myself. I think Junior Showmanship as a sport really offers a lot of opportunities for self-growth and tough love.

Aside from working with my dogs, I think my favorite part of Junior Handling was learning how to set attainable goals and to believe in myself, win or lose. When I really started to get competitive with my dogs, I absolutely LOVED deciding on my yearly goals. First and foremost, I wanted to qualify to compete in Junior Showmanship at the Westminster Dog Show and The American Kennel Club National Championships every year. As I started to compete with my Great Pyrenees, I decided that I also wanted to win a Best Junior Handler award at a GPCA National Specialty, as well as be the #1 Great Pyrenees Junior Handler of the Year at least once. I set really high standards for myself, but I was willing and committed to trying my best to achieve these. My toughest goal to try and achieve was to qualify as the United States Representative for the International Junior Handling competition at the Crufts Dog Show held in Great Britain. This dog show is basically the Olympics for dogs, with over 25,000 dogs in attendance, and I knew that I wanted to experience it (I quite literally made it an item on my Bucket List).

The only way to qualify for the Crufts Junior Handling competition was by winning Best Junior Handler at the American Kennel Club National Championships, an event that you have to qualify for throughout the year both competitively and academically. Attending Crufts was goal that I never really thought I would achieve, but I set it for myself anyways.

The United States of America has one of the most active dog communities in the world, especially when it comes to Junior Showmanship. Even as Junior Handling numbers have been dwindling over the last few years, the AKC National Championship still sees hundreds of Junior Handlers qualifying to compete in the preliminary rounds every year. Of those hundreds of Junior competitors, twelve young handlers are selected, based on their skills and presentations of their dogs, to compete for the top four placements in the Junior Showmanship Finals. The 1st Place winner of the big invitational competition then receives an invite to represent the United States at Crufts.

In 2014, I competed in the AKC National Championships Junior Handling Competition for the 5th time with my Irish Setter, Kent, and won the title of Best Junior Handler. That entire night was such a blur that I had to be reminded that, in winning this title, I had won a $2,500 scholarship AND I would now receive an invite to be the United States Junior Handling Representative at Crufts. It was a literal dream come true, and I had achieved my goal at only 16 years old.

When I finally went to Crufts, I was offered so many amazing opportunities to meet Great Pyrenees breeders and owners that I had only ever known through social media. I was even asked to help show dogs in the breed ring, which was exciting and new as ring manners differ from country to country. The show itself is HUGE, and I was introduced to breeds that, at the time, were not yet recognized in the US, and I was even asked to handle a complete stranger’s dog who then ended up winning her class! It was nothing like I have ever seen!

As a Junior Handling Representative, I was able to meet other junior handlers from around the globe, and we had an official dinner as a group. Before the dinner, the Kennel Club holds a “mock” performance of what the show will be like so that we can learn the ring procedure for the actual competition. The catch is that you had to pretend that you were actually showing an invisible dog, and everyone had a ton of fun with that. At the end I was awarded 2nd place in the “mock” competition and it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. For the actual International Junior Handling competition, you can’t show your own dog, so you get to request a breed ahead of time that you would like to compete with. Dogs are then volunteered for the program, and you only get an hour before you show to get acquainted with your charge. I had decided to challenge myself and show a breed I’d otherwise not get an opportunity to show, so I requested to handle a Bracco Italiano. Tommy, the Bracco that I showed, was an absolute rockstar! While we didn’t end up winning anything, the entire trip was a blast! I came back home feeling so incredibly grateful to have had this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And then, in 2016, I competed in Junior Showmanship at the AKC National Championships for the last time. At this point it had been two years since I had won Best Junior, and I had qualified for the finals again in 2015. I was coming to the end of my Junior Handling career, and looking back, I had achieved every goal I had set out for myself, and more. I had won Best Junior Handler at not one, but five GPCA National Specialties as well as three other breed’s National Specialties (Irish Red and White Setter, Berger Picard, and Old English Sheepdog). I had been the #1 Great Pyrenees Junior of the Year multiple times and had ended my last year as a Top 10 Working Dog Junior Handler in the Country! I was awarded the Best Northeastern Junior Handler of the Year award while showing my Great Pyrenees, Jazz, and I had been chosen as a recipient of an AKC Junior Handling Scholarship. I had piloted a young Great Pyrenees to Best of Breed at the Westminster Dog Show and had successfully qualified for the Junior Showmanship competition there for multiple years. I had bred and raised my first Great Pyrenees litter and finished my first bred-by champion under two breeder judges. There wasn’t much more I could ask for.

So, I went into my final Junior Showmanship competition at the AKC National Championship, feeling very bittersweet that this journey was ending, and was awarded Best Junior Handler for the second time. I can’t even describe the emotions that I felt that night, and the icing on the cake was that I had achieved this feat with my Great Pyrenees, Jazz. I became one of only three Junior Handlers in AKC history to have won Best Junior Handler twice at the AKC National Championships, and the ONLY Junior to have done so with two different breeds and with a Great Pyrenees. For years I had been told to give up on this breed and find a different one to compete with in Juniors. I was told that Great Pyrenees weren’t flashy enough to win with, or that they were too hard to show, yet I was determined to prove that Great Pyrenees are magnificent dogs that can be just as good, if not better, than any other show dog out there. When I attended Crufts for my second time, I requested to handle a Great Pyrenees in the final. I was able to relive one of the most amazing experiences I had ever had in my life, and to say I was grateful for that second opportunity is a huge understatement.

Every so often I miss competing in Junior Showmanship, but the experiences I had, the lessons I learned, and the people I met along the way kept me in the sport. I now aim to get more young people involved, not only with Junior Showmanship, but with this amazing breed. I truly would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for the encouragement and support from my parents and my mentors (There are WAY too many to name, and I don’t want to leave anyone out!!). And I would be completely lost without my dogs, as every single award, ribbon, or bit of recognition is worthless without them.