On a different weekend, 16-year-old Cassie Rice might be practicing a favorite ritual among many teenagers: sleeping until noon. But on the weekend of March 19, she was kneeling on a green carpet at Hale Arena in Kansas City, Mo., one hand under her Beagle’s jaw, the other behind his upright tail. A few other young handlers in the ring fidgeted with their dogs. But not Cassie. She was almost motionless. Only her eyes moved as she switched her gaze from her dog to the AKC Junior Showmanship judge walking down the line.
“They love seeing you be ‘smooth’ with your dog,” Cassie says of the judges.
“The whole point of Juniors is how the junior shows the dog, and kind of hides and shows the dog off.”
With seven years of handling experience and many Best Junior Handler wins in that time, this Kansas City teenager smoothly shows her dog off very, very well.
Cassie has been around the sport since she was little. Her mother, Kim Rice, shows dogs, so little Cassie went along just to watch. When the girl turned 9, she took her initial steps into the ring with her first Juniors dog, a Beagle named Travis (CH Useay Aladars Take It Easy).
Cassie and Travis won many times in the Novice and Open Junior divisions, which are for kids from ages 9 up to 12. At the National Beagle Club Specialty in 2006, Cassie took first place in Open Junior and handled Travis to a win in the American-Bred class. She showed Travis to his championship title when Cassie was only 11 years old.
But the young handler knew she’d face stiffer competition as she moved up in Juniors. She loved Travis, but decided that as far as junior handling was concerned, she needed to make a change.
“I had to get a dog that was more upbeat and ‘showier,’ she says.
According to Kim Rice, the most important thing for a successful junior handler is “to get the right dog. It needs to be the right size for the kid, it’s got to be good-tempered and it needs to be willing to do the work.”
So they contacted Travis’ breeder, Ruth Darlene Stewart. Kim and Cassie asked for a Beagle with a great personality that would love to show.
With Sherman, they got just what they were looking for.
Both Cassie and Sherman (CH Aladars Just Command’n) were now on their way. With the help of local handling instructor Jane Blackerby, Cassie perfected that smoothness and poise in the ring. Sherman’s honors include an American Kennel Club championship title, a United Kennel Club grand championship title and multiple UKC Best in Shows. Cassie, meanwhile, started an impressive collection of AKC and UKC Best Junior wins. For the last two years she’s been ranked among the top AKC junior Beagle handlers, as well as among the best juniors in the Hound Group. Last year, she became the only junior handler ever to win the UKC Premier Top 10 Junior Showmanship event twice in a row.
Perhaps the most exciting moment of Cassie’s career came at the 2010 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. To get to Westminster as a junior handler, you must be invited. Qualifying to be one of the 120 best juniors at the famous show is quite an honor.
Imagine, then, what it felt like to end up in the top four and win a $3,000 scholarship.
“It was awesome,” Cassie says. “It wasn’t something that was expected, because it was my first year going. To even make the cut in my prelim was really cool. But then to place and get that scholarship was the cherry on top.”
Cassie attributes part of her success to her ability to just have fun in the ring, which she recommends to others wanting to join the sport.
“The judges will notice that,” she says, “and they’ll see that you actually want to be there and enjoy it, rather than sulking and looking bored.”
Kim says Cassie rarely makes any big mistakes.
“She does a great job, and the dog is wonderful. And so it’s nice to watch them.”
But Cassie and Sherman don’t win every time they get in the ring. Losses are part of the game. Earlier this year, she left Westminster empty-handed. At the Heart of America dog shows in Kansas City, she took the Open Senior class just two out of the four days (the other days going to another high-ranked, accomplished junior handler, Kelli Denton of Shawnee).
“You’ll have weekends when you win every day,” Cassie says, “and then the next weekend, you’ll get completely dumped every day. You just don’t know what to expect from the judges. You’ll learn specific things that every judge likes, but then you’ll learn which judges don’t like something, and which judges do. It depends on your judge.”
The “you win some, you lose some” nature of dog shows has taught Cassie a valuable lesson in good sportsmanship, which has carried over to other parts of her life. Cassie is also an athlete, adding something else to her active schedule. For instance, as soon as she won Best Junior Handler during the Friday show of the Heart of America cluster, she had to rush off to run track.
“Now that I have my license, it’s a little bit easier, because I’ll be able to drive to track and stuff,” she says. “But we don’t show every weekend, so I do have some weekends off. And I don’t show during the week all the time, so I can go to school and do my sports later that night. It’s a little bit hard, but we manage.”
The real difficulty arises when Cassie, a sophomore at Blue Ridge Christian School, has to miss classes. For a local show, she can drive right back to school when she’s finished showing. But for Westminster, which requires a trip to New York in the middle of February, skipping school couldn’t be helped.
“I missed about a week, and it was hard to catch up,” she says.
That’s why the family tries to not show during the week when school is in session.
“But she does all right,” says her mother. “She knows that she has to get it all done.”
Cassie’s life may be hectic at times, but to her, it’s worth it. She loves traveling, meeting new people and learning more about the many different dog breeds. Best of all, she cherishes the time spent with her buddy Sherman, whether at the shows or relaxing at home with her family and their other dogs, including good old Travis. On those weekend mornings that Cassie does have free, she lies in bed with Sherman snuggled beside her, both catching up on those precious hours of sleep.
“He was with me for Westminster, and my first Best Junior and all my wins after that. He’s been with me for every show. He’s my boy.”
If you’d like to learn more about the wonderful world of junior handling, the best way to start is by attending a dog show and talking to experienced juniors and their parents. Check with your local all-breed or breed club for details on upcoming shows, as well as junior handling classes. Some obedience trainers and 4-H clubs also offer instruction for junior handlers. And while junior handling is most often associated with showing in conformation, you can see junior handlers in a variety of dog events, including obedience and field trials. Here are some resources for further information:
- American Kennel Club: Kids/Juniors
- United Kennel Club: UKC Junior Program
Also, for residents of the Kansas City metro, click the “Suggested by the author” links below to find a club or trainer near you.
See a slideshow and video of Cassie and Sherman in action!
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