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Meet The Junior Handlers Of The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show


Westminster may be best known for crowning the top dog best in show, but it's also where junior dog handlers compete for top honors. Rather than focusing on the dogs' attributes, judges are looking for how well their handler can present their canine companions. Allyson McCabe reports from the show in New York.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: On Monday morning, New York's Pier 94 was packed with kids as young as 9 years old. Sydney Wills traveled more than 1,000 miles from her home in Spencer, Okla., to show her dachshund. You might think she'd be nervous, but at 13, she's already a pro at this.

SYDNEY WILLS: Since we're in New York and it's cold, I had to get up and walk my dog, make sure I get his sweater on because it is freezing cold. Then I had to walk all the way down here, get him groomed and get him ready and then go into the show ring.

MCCABE: Thousands of junior handlers are registered with the American Kennel Club, but only those who can rack up seven or more wins over the year are qualified to compete at Westminster.

KATHY KIRK: The hours are long. It's a lot of work. People don't realize that it's not just a show and go.

MCCABE: Kathy Kirk is a veteran handler and juniors coach. She says getting to the top requires incredible skill and dedication.

KIRK: They miss a lot out on school and other sports things and a social life.

MCCABE: For 15-year-old Imre Mancini, competing at Westminster is a chance to carry on a family legacy. Her sister won last year's top junior handler prize. The trick is learning how to work with the dog, and she says that's harder than it looks.

IMRE MANCINI: In juniors, they look for that your foot is with the dog's foot. You're following the same pattern as the dog so that you guys match up.

MCCABE: After two days of preliminary competition, neither Sydney nor Imre made the cut. But eight others advanced to compete at Madison Square Garden. The staging area behind the show floor was abuzz as VIPs mingled with the press and handlers put the final touches on their dogs - a spritz here, a clip there. The juniors were surprisingly as serene as the adults. And the dogs were virtually silent. At promptly 7 o'clock, the eight finalists took the floor clad in sequined dresses and dinner jackets strategically outfitted with hidden treat pockets.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Members of the Westminster Kennel Club welcome you tonight to the 143rd consecutive annual dog show.

MCCABE: Johnathon Wehry looked every bit as dapper as his cocker spaniel. And first-time Westminster qualifier Melony Lopez's miniature poodle was similarly elegant with a light bounce in his step. The handlers communicated with the dogs using eye contact and subtle hand signals. The judge did the same with the handlers.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Madeline Beuhler of Manchester, Mo.

MCCABE: In the end, the best junior handler title went to 17-year-old Madeline Beuhler, whose pug was one of the crowd favorites. Madeline and her mom, Stephanie, were both excited.

MADELINE BEUHLER: We're going to sleep in tomorrow and get home and get home to the family.

MCCABE: Although they had slightly different plans for celebrating the win.

STEPHANIE BEUHLER: We'll probably go have Mexican and margaritas (laughter).

MCCABE: Backstage, the runners-up pose for selfies with their friends while one of the dogs nibbled on the remains of a well-earned hot dog. As one more Westminster draws to a close, the handlers are already preparing for regional competitions that could get them back to Westminster next year. But as they say their goodbyes, they just look like kids. For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe in New York.


Allyson McCabe