On the Other End of the Leash
At 16, Ania Kelly has already mastered the art of the leash. The Dunkirk teen took top prize in the Junior Showmanship competition at this year’s 136th Westminster Dog Show, pairing with her English cocker spaniel Wizard to best over 100 competitors.
A five-time veteran of Westminster, Kelly is a third-generation handler.
“My grandma originally started showing dogs,” says the Southern High School student. “We breed and show Vizslas, a Hungarian pointing dog.”
Kelly stepped into the show ring at age eight, learning how to handle a show dog before a judge. On television, handlers are little more than a pair of legs in the background as the cameras focus on the dogs. In reality, the person on the other end of the leash is essential to a dog’s win.
“Each breed has a certain way you should show it,” explains Kelly, who is also adept in grooming several dog breeds for show. Handlers must be prepared for behavioral nuances that pop up in different breeds. “Sporting dogs like to please; working dogs and hounds are a bit more difficult. Part of the job is to figure out the quirks and work them out.”
Vizslas are her family’s business, but Kelly found her success with another family pet.
“I showed our Vizsla Daisy the first year I ever competed in Westminster,” Kelly says. “But she would rather be hunting than showing.”
Enter English cocker spaniel and family member Wizard. The team practiced until they were in sync.
“You can tell by a dog’s attitude if he likes to show,” Kelly says. Wizard, like his handler, enjoys being in the ring and earning treats. “Wizard loves food, and he enjoys showing more.”
This year, judges were more focused on Kelly than Wizard. Junior Showmanship puts the focus on handlers. “They judge me, not the dog,” Kelly explains.
Add to that the pressure of competing in the nationally televised dog show equivalent of the Super Bowl, and Kelly’s poise with Wizard is even more impressive. Each year, 5,000 junior handlers apply to show at Westminster. Only 150 get enough wins to qualify. Kelly earned this year’s qualification in six months — half the time allotted.
“I’ve competed five times,” she says, “but I get nervous when it’s my turn.”
The show wasn’t over for Kelly when she won top prize. She still had a job to do.
She works for two professional handlers, Michael and Michelle Scott. The Scotts handle non-sporting group winner, the Dalmatian Spotlights Ruffian. Kelly ran between dogs to help the Scotts prepare. “It’s definitely very, very, very chaotic. Handlers, spectators and dog owners are running back and forth.”
Having earned the highest junior honor, Kelly is turning pro.
So she spends her non-high school hours as show apprentice with the Scotts. On show days, that means waking up at 5am and going to bed at 10pm.
Mother Rachel Kelly sees handling as a long-term investment.
“At least 10 different shows in the country offer up to $1,000 of scholarship money,” she says. “At Westminster, Ania won $6,000 for college. So that’s there for her when she’s ready.”
Kelly’s dream is to travel the country showing champions. For now, she’s a teen who has to balance school and friends with a promising professional career. In two weeks, the champion heads back into competition.