Now that the NFL's Super Bowl is fading into the past, it's time for the Super Bowl of dog shows. The 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show begins Feb. 10 in New York City. The show, one of the oldest competitions in America, attracts dogs, owners, breeders and fans from around the world and is one of the highlights of the $55 billion pet industry. At the center of attention alongside the champion dogs are the talented handlers who show the dogs to the judges. Handling a dog is an art, a science and a skill.
Ernesto Lara has been a dog handler for more than 25 years, initially exhibiting in his native Mexico. Lara is hired by dog owners who want to make sure their animals make the best possible impression on judges. In 2013 Lara won the coveted WKC Best in Show award with an affenpinscher named Banana Joe (though the dog's full name is GCH Banana Joe V Tani Kazari). This year Lara will be showing as many as 10 dogs while trying to add to his roomful of awards.
What is the basic job of the handler at a show?
Handlers and their dogs are like boxers and their trainers, or athletes and their coaches. It's our job to make sure the dog is ready for the show. Their muscle tone, their diet, their grooming—everything has to be ready. We are the nannies, the chauffeurs, nurses, the best friends. We sometimes work for years with the same dog, making sure we are the ultimate team.
You have to have the match with the dog; you need a certain rapport for the dog to show the best. You work with them, and you help create a natural connection with the animal. Then we show the dog in the ring to the judges, making sure to present the animal in the best possible way.
What are the judges looking for from a dog?
They want to see that the dog matches all the characteristics of the breed. It's the handler's job to make sure the judges can see that at all times.
Even when the dog is not being touched and looked at, we have to make sure that the dog stacks [stands square and still] properly. A judge might glance over, and in that second, he must see that the dog is everything it can be. We prepare for months and years for just a moment, and we have to be ready.
Your work can look very active. As a handler, you sometimes have to run or move very quickly around the ring. Why is that?
If you don't show the dog at the right speed, it might not show the gait the judge is looking for. Each dog was bred for a job, so the judge is looking to see whether the dog is fit for that job. So you have to work hard to make sure the dog is moving at the right speed, and you have to move with it. It's not just what the dog looks like, but how it moves. Still, the very best handlers are able to disappear behind their dogs to let the animal truly shine.
Tell us about the business of being a handler.
Dog owners come to us to show their dog. Owners can find us on the American Kennel Club website or see us in the ring. The first step is for me to meet the dog and to get to know the owners and understand their goals. If I see a dog that I believe can be a champion, then we get to work.
Some end up as champions. Some have talent but fall short of the goal. We also have a team of people with us for each show, from groomers and assistant handlers to custodians who stay with the dogs. For instance, Westminster has some additional costs because of the two locations—initial judging will be on Hudson River pier buildings; the finals are at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 11—and the length of the show.
How are handlers paid? Do you get more for a champion dog?
We are paid a daily rate to show the dog, and yes, we receive bonuses based on results. But for a typical show in which your dog makes it to Best in Show at an event, we can charge as much as $1500.
Tell us about the experience of winning in 2013.
I almost don't know how to explain it. As a writer like you, for instance, you hope to win the Pulitzer Prize. That could happen. But what if one of these days you get a call that you won the Nobel Prize, something that you never thought could happen. That's what I felt like last year. I had apprenticed with Peter Green, who holds the record with four Best in Shows, and I had seen firsthand what it took. So to experience that myself, there is nothing like winning it yourself.
It was a dream come true for me. After the show, however, no one prepares you for the attention from the media that comes afterward. However, it has given me a chance to be an ambassador for the community that I love and for the dog itself. I was very happy to show off the relationship that Banana Joe and I had.
—By James Buckley Jr., Special to CNBC.com