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Nestled just beyond the roaring group-competition crowds at Pier 94 are the unsung heroes of Westminster Dog Show. These neophytes aren’t letting age or relative inexperience stop them from competing at the highest level, striving to both hone their craft as trainers and ensure that their pups epitomize canine excellence.
The aforementioned breed-show prodigies are all contestants in the Junior Showmanship tournament, vying for the title of Best Junior Handler with their parents’ blessing, but without the safety net of breed-based restriction. These youth athletes (all under the age of 19) compete solely on their merits as trainers, plying their trade by trimming the coats, polishing the teeth, and inspiring the poise and composure of their dutiful, blue-ribbon dogs.
Emulating their adult counterparts down to the modestly-tailored skirt suits and well-hidden doggy treats, each junior is judged based on their ability to present a dog’s physical attributes and command their canine’s attention. Developing the skill set to influence a dog’s behavior stems from patience and compassion, since trust is a big component in the process of nurturing a show dog.
Lily Bennett, a junior handler with 9 years experience under her belt and a Grand Champion Cirneco dell’Etna, thinks that personal sacrifice and building friendships with human competitors is just as vital to the process as behavioral exercises.
“It’s amazing how friendships build at big shows that have such a high level of competition and so much on the line, especially for someone coming from the West Coast. It costs a lot of money, but it’s worth coming.”
Juniors in their final year of eligibility have even more to fight for, as they struggle to make the transition to the adult competition and say goodbye to their beloved peers. Kendra Williams has been on the dog show circuit since age 5, and is enjoying a bittersweet finale with her Pharaoh Hound, Lex. She’s hoping that this isn’t her last chance at Westminster glory, and plans to transition into a professional career as a trainer, but infers that a good performance this year could dictate her future in the arena.
Johnathon Wehry is also nearing the end of his tenure, but nostalgia didn’t stop him or his prize-winning Cocker Spaniel from going for the gold. They left Westminster with the Best Junior Handler title, which was a culmination of 11 years of hard work and dedication. Their victory is emblematic of the spirit of Junior Showmanship, one which bears the work ethic and dedication intrinsic to the Westminster tradition, but without the limelight of the main event.