Show dog handlers are breed apart

It's a blisteringly hot Sunday at the Fairplex in Pomona, Calif. Under the awning of Corky and Susan Vroom's rig, a fan plays upon an English springer spaniel named Dylan as he gets a blow-dry. In minutes, he will strut his stuff in the ring for the judges.

Between them, the Vrooms will show 23 dogs today, among these Georgie the papillon, Bismarck the pug, Stella the doberman, Jessica the Irish setter and a Bouvier des Flandres answering to Patton.

This is a four-day show, the Mission Circuit, and at show's end they will have shown 81 dogs and collected 26 purple and gold ribbons for best of breed and 23 blue ribbons for first place in group or class.

The Vrooms, who live in El Monte, Calif., east of downtown Los Angeles, are professional dog handlers � not trainers, handlers. When "campaigning" a show dog, they may travel as far as Tokyo. They're regulars at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden, where their clients have included now-retired Tugboat Willie, the second-winningest pug in American Kennel Club history.

Married for 19 years, Susan, 50, and Corky, 58, met � where else � on the dog show circuit. When Susan was 4, she was taken to her first dog show and, she swears, that's when she made her career choice. At 18, she apprenticed with a top handler. Corky apprenticed with his father, also a professional handler, when he was 12. Apprenticeships are the standard entry into the field. There is no licensing or certification involved.

The trail to glory

The Vrooms are part of a fraternity that is a world unto itself, one in which dog owners (or, often, wealthy patrons who "lease" top dogs from their owners for the duration of their show life) may spend $250,000 a year pursuing canine fame and glory.

"Money is certainly an enabler in this sport," says Susan. Owners or "foster parents" pay to have the dogs trained, to have them shown and to have them transported from city to city, show to show.

Dog handling is "not a normal occupation," says Corky, who's president of the national Professional Handlers Assn. "The closest thing to it is being a jockey." Just as horse and jockey must be a good match, so must dog and handler. Beyond that, he says, "it's about style and technique."

"It's choreography," says Susan. "You need to be light on your feet, make yourself almost disappear, make that dog center stage." A statuesque, blond former model almost 6 feet tall, she is known for looking elegant in the ring.

She knows that clothes� hers � help make the dog. That means solid-color skirt suits, and no busy prints or clanking jewelry.

"I try to stay away from long, flowing skirts," she says, painting a picture of "this Chihuahua at the end of this billowing awning." Showing a black dog, she avoids wearing black so the dog won't blend in.

No wrestling in the ring

In the ring, a handler has less than two minutes one-on-one with the judge. It's sort of a dog-and-mouse game. If a dog has faults, the handler's job is to conceal them.

Says Corky, "You pose your dog to make it look as close to that breed's standard as possible."

Adds Susan, "You always want to play up the stronger points, play down the weaker points." Is the muzzle too long, the tail too short? "Sometimes the judges know what you're doing. Sometimes they don't."

The goal is poetry in motion, not a wrestling match between dog and handler.

"If you get nervous," says Corky, "it goes right down the leash and the dog says, 'Wait a minute. There's something wrong here.'"

Often, the Vrooms find themselves competing against one another for best of group or best of show. But, to avoid conflict of interest, they never show dogs in the same breed competition.

Looking for star quality

For the Vrooms, a relationship with a dog begins when the dog is brought to them for evaluation. Typically, the dog will have already had basic obedience training. The Vrooms will assess a dog's mental, emotional and physical characteristics, and decide if the dog looks and acts the part of a potential champion.

Says Corky, "If a dog comes up the driveway screaming and yelling and throwing himself on the ground," forget it.

Being beautiful is not enough.

"They have to think they're good," explains Corky. "They have to be Alpha. They have to say, 'Here I am.' A show dog with attitude will defeat the dog that walks around the ring thinking, 'Let's get this over so I can go home.'" The great show dogs have both heart and charisma � in short, star quality.

And they really seem to understand what is going on.

"They look right up into the judges' faces, 'Pick me. I'm the best.'" says Susan.

The dog's life

In a typical year, the Vrooms will average 100 shows, mostly in the Western states, although they may show in Louisville, Ky., or Detroit also.

They have heard the criticisms � that dogs shouldn't be paraded around rings to please people, that it's wrong to "lease" show dogs to rich folks and, at career's end, return them to their owners.

First off, they'll tell you, dogs that become champions love what they're doing and thrive on the adulation and attention. Those who don't adjust have brief careers and return to their owners.

"They have to be happy and healthy in order to perform the way they do," adds Susan. She points out that show dogs live well. They travel in air-conditioned rigs and live in climate-controlled conditions. Adds Corky, "If there's a life afterward, I would love to come back as a purebred show dog."

Handler-dog relationships are short-lived. On average, Susan says, "the course of a career is two years" for a show dog, and then "a new kid on the block starts to knock you off your pedestal." Adds Corky, "You can show them as long as they're breathing, but after two years judges start looking real hard to find some dog to put out your dog. You don't want a dog that starts looking like a fighter who fights too long."

The owners can be another hazard. If they're angry that their dog didn't win, Corky says, "they're going to want to blame you. � The hardest thing in the world is to have to tell them that Fido lost today. It's personal to them. This is a living thing, not a race car."

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