What makes a Great Handler

With the 2015 National Championship less than a month away I feel that this subject is quite appropriate.

Thirty years ago in Wisconsin, I attended my first National Retriever Championship. After I arrived, my attention was riveted on a handler, whose outline was framed by the trees, Even though I was new to the sport and did not understand its subtleties or nuances, I knew that this handler was different from the rest. Her presence, composure, and intensity marked her. I couldn’t see her dog, but I didn’t need to. I could feel her control over the moment, I knew the dog could, too. There was something special about the handler.  That handler was Judy Aycock.  Her dog was NAFC Trumarc’s Zip Code.

Since that June afternoon, when I attended my first National, I have devoted considerable thought to the question:  “What makes a great handler?”  In attempting to answer this question, I have spoken to Judy, Danny Farmer, Jerry Patopea, and countless other professional and amateur handlers.  Below is my interpretation of these conversations.

Broadly speaking, I think that the answer can be broken into two categories:   a) Mental toughness; and b) Technical competence.

By mental toughness, I mean:

a)    The ability to ignore all distractions and focus on the task at hand;
b)    The determination to succeed when everything seems stacked against you;
c)    The ability to immediately overcome adversity;
d)    The ability to think creatively under extreme pressure; 
e)    Knowing when you must be conservative and limit your damage on a test; and
f)    Knowing when you must be aggressive and take a risk when running a test. 

By technical competence, I mean:

a)    The ability to interpret a test and determine how best to approach it with the dog you have – at that particular moment in time; 
b)    The ability to line a dog quickly and effortlessly; and
c)    The ability to read a dog (e.g. interpret its posture, breathing, eye movement, and. hundreds of other minute details) instantaneously, and then use the information you have gathered to influence the dog to do what you believe it must do – both when the dog is at your side and when it is moving in the field.

Now that I have peaked your interest,  please look forward for a more in depth discussion in an upcoming issue of Retriever News.