"Winning Westminster was not just a dream come true, it was a passion fulfilled through hard work and the support of many. My advice to other juniors is to take it all in, every win, loss, and experience. Learn all you can and enjoy the friends that surround you in the sport because before you know it...you are all grown up!"
-- Cassandra Clark, Westminster's Best Junior, 1997

"The future of the sport" - another Westminster tradition
By Kate Eldredge

While the Westminster Kennel Club staged its first dog show in 1877, there is one popular feature that was added later that has become a big part of America's Dog Show.

Since 1934, the world has been watching "the future of the sport" perform in what began as the Children's Handling Class, originally established through a partnership with the Professional Handlers Association (PHA). Over that time, the "future of the sport" in fact has become the sport, as the young handlers grow up and eventually end up on center stage with breed, group and even best-in-show winners.

The name changed to Junior Showmanship in 1951, but the competition is still the same after 75 years: the young handlers are judged on their presentation skills, their ability to present their dog smoothly and in the proper fashion according to the breed standard. Originally, things were much less formal - professional handlers served as judges and the kids grabbed whatever dog they could get and took it into the ring for the class.

Today, Junior Showmanship judges undergo a licensing process similar to that of a conformation judge, and handlers must own the dog they are showing or it must belong to a close family member. The competition is for youngsters age 9 to 18, and has become much more organized, with separate age groups and divisions. To qualify for Westminster, juniors must earn ten wins in competition during the year.

Westminster Junior Showmanship winners emphasize that those special moments on the green carpet at the Garden were more than high-stakes competition. For most, it is a wonderful family activity, a lifelong passion, and occasionally even a fulltime, professional career. In any case, Junior Showmanship teaches lessons to these youngsters that follow them throughout their lives.

For George Alston (1954, Vienna, Va.) it began when his father drove him up to New York for Westminster from their Virginia farm. His father bred and showed Boxers, and George had been handling some of his parents' dogs and assisting handlers at local shows. "I was just a boy from the farm when I first saw New York," he remembers. Some of the other junior competitors made fun of his Southern accent, but 14-year-old George wasn't intimidated.

He won Best Junior and, to the horror of his parents, that taste of victory changed his life. Passing up academic and swimming scholarships to Yale, Harvard and Cornell, among others, he went to work as a ring runner for the Foley brothers, the famous dog show superintendents. It wasn't much - he got only $5 an hour - but it was in the dog show world, where he wanted to be. Next he apprenticed for some of the best handlers in the sport over the next 12 years: Lina Basquette, Jane Kamp, Art Baines and Bill Trainor. He took the best from each and fashioned that into his own handling style, and became a professional handler, one of the most successful in the sport. He came back to Westminster and won two Group 1's, one with a Gordon Setter and another with an English Foxhound. Both were the first of their breeds to win their Group at the Garden.

Yet another significant event in George's life occurred at Westminster. It began when a woman handler beat him in Irish Setters. "I wasn't really happy about that," he says, but he married Mary Ann anyway. The union produced a daughter, Jane, who started as junior handler and segued to a professional handling career. She handled a Clumber Spaniel to Best In Show at Westminster in 1996.

After 25 years of handling dogs professionally, George retired to teach young handlers his art. With seminars all over the United States, one of his goals is to help amateurs succeed in the ring with their own dogs, even against professional counterparts. But in the end, it's all about the dogs. "As a kid I learned that dogs have temperaments and feelings," he says. "They aren't inanimate objects that can be put away on a shelf when a person is bored with them. Rather, they are something more. They are a way of life."

Joseph Sayres (1935, Peekskill, NY) won the Children's Handling Class in the second year the category was held at Westminster. His father, Edwin "Pop" Sayres, was the kennel manager for the legendary Mrs. Geraldine Dodge. Joseph and his brother, Edwin, Jr., both handled dogs for their father and for Mrs. Dodge. Joseph later went on to become a veterinarian, a renowned breeder of Irish Terriers, a dog show judge, and president of the Irish Terrier Club of America. Edwin, Jr.'s son, Ed, is the current President and CEO of the ASPCA.

Deborah Dagny von Ahrens Robinson (1972, Edison, NJ) went on to be the Vice President and General Sales Manager for WNYW, Fox Channel 5 in New York City for 20 years. She grew up with Afghan Hounds and going to dog shows every weekend, and still remembers fondly her Afghan "Snoopy," the dog she handled to her win. "It's all about discipline and commitment to training overall," she says. "This dedication and hard work pays off no matter what field a youngster may go into. This is an experience that will help them along the way."

Kathy Hritzo Heimann (1976, Hubbard, Ohio) remembers her family competing with Samoyeds and Papillons in both obedience and conformation as she was growing up. Her father (Dr. Robert Hritzo) was the first president of the Canine Health Foundation and was a longtime member of the AKC Board. After her Junior win, Kathy eventually became a professional handler for several years. "I learned that you can find success in your field if you work hard enough and have great passion for it. Working your way up through the ranks produces the most knowledgeable and complete person in any field."

It was a family affair for Virginia Westfield Slowik (1975, Huntington, NY), too. "My father did most of the showing (later becoming an all-breed judge), my brother was a successful Junior, and my mother was the organizer. It was nice to have an activity that we could all be involved in." She looks back at the life lessons: "Good sportsmanship is the main thing. Winning is important, but you learn a lot from your losses as well."

Cassandra Clark (1997, Tustin, Calif.) thanks her grandparents, who introduced her to the Siberian Husky and the dog-show world. "They gave us a family sport where we have all supported each other."

Anders Thoreson (2006, Snohomish, Wash.) was the only one in his family involved in showing dogs. He found a very special friend in the professional handler for whom he worked, Scott Price. "I learned a lot about showing dogs from Scott, but beyond that, he became a father figure in my life."
  • Dorothea McAnulty (1936, Atlantic City, NJ) rode horses competitively.
  • Jerry Werber (1937, 1940, Great Neck, NY) is the only person to have won twice.
  • Bethny Hall (1959, Greenville, RI) wrote The Junior Showmanship Handbook and The New Complete Junior Showmanship Handbook with her sister Marsha.
  • Charles Garvin (1969, Columbus, Ohio) is now a dentist, serves on the AKC Board and judged Best Junior at Westminster in 2005.
  • Pat Hardy (1970, Cincinnati, Ohio) is now a veterinarian (Dr. Patricia Haines) and a member of the AKC Board.
  • Teresa Nail (1973, Fort Worth, Tex.) is a professional handler.
  • Virginia Westfield Slowik (1975, Huntington, NY) is a sales manager for a chemical company.
  • Valerie Nunes Atkinson (1981, Newport Beach, Calif.) went on to be a professional handler. Lauren Hay-Lavitt (2008, Westminster, Calif.) apprenticed for her.
  • Brad Buttner (1984, Hayward, Calif.) is a professional handler.
  • Kara Purcell Jacobs (1991, Central Point, Ore.) works in the business office of Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas.
  • Cassandra Clark (1997, Tustin, Calif.) works as a design coordinator in Tustin, California.
  • Nicholas Urbanek (2000, Glenshaw, Penn.) judged Best Junior at Westminster in 2007. He attends veterinary school in Scotland.
  • Chad Malinak (2003, Harvey, La.) attends veterinary school at Louisiana State University.
For a complete listing of Best Junior Handler winners from 1934-2008, please click here!

CONTACT US    MEDIA CENTER    TERMS OF USE    PRIVACY POLICY    PHOTO CREDITS    ©2016 Westminster Kennel Club. All Rights Reserved.