A 16-year-old Coupeville High School student will soon compete to be the best junior dog handler in the country.
Gabriella Gebhard and her English Setter, Walker, have qualified for the Junior Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. She and her parents will head to New York City on May 9 to compete against other top junior handlers.
Junior Showmanship at Westminster is a limited class for children who have won at least seven Best Junior Handler awards at American Kennel Club dog shows over a certain timeframe. To qualify, Gebhard competes in dog shows throughout the year, mostly in Washington, Oregon and California. This is her first year qualifying.
At this competition, judges are watching the kids, not the dogs.
“So they’re judging how you handle the dog that you’re showing,” Gebhard explained.
She began handling dogs in 4-H Club when she was 8 years old. She said she grew up with dogs and knew from a young age that she wanted to work with animals.
“When I’m in the ring and I have a dog at the end of my leash, there’s just this feeling (that is) so fun and I love it,” she said. “It’s definitely about getting to work with the dogs that I love.”
Gebhard grew up with sporting dogs, specifically Labrador Retrievers, but she wanted to work with a “flashier” breed. She found out that one of the top English Setter breeders in the world, Melissa Newman, lives on Whidbey Island. Gebhard bought her first dog from Newman about five years ago.
“I went down to meet her and she had the puppy out on the couch, and right then and there I knew that I wanted and needed to have an English Setter,” she said. “I just fell in love with the breed.”
Gebhard now owns five of her own dogs, along with the three dogs her parents own. Walker is the main dog she works with, but it is undoubtedly a lot of work to care for all five of her pooches.
Gebhard said she is competing at a dog show almost every weekend. During the week, she has to bathe her dogs and brush and condition their coats every six days. Grooming is one of the many skills a dog handler must possess.
She said that, surprisingly, a big part of being a dog handler is having good people skills. Gebhard said you need to know how to talk with the judges and interact with the public. You also have to be confident around animals and have to have a knowledge of each dog breed that you’re showing.
“Each breed has its own standard and if you’re showing that breed, you need to know what that standard is,” she said.
In New York City, Gebhard will be competing against 87 other top handlers from all over the country. The winner of the competition will receive a $10,000 scholarship, as well as a medal and ribbon.
“And obviously you get to say that you won best junior at Westminster Kennel Club which is a very big deal,” she said. “It’s an honor to win that.”
Gebhard is confident about her chances as she beat the the No. 1 junior handler in the country at her last show. She has started working with one of the top dog handlers in the county, Andy Linton, which she thinks will give her an edge. However, she is nervous about the fact that the event is televised.
Gebahrd’s mother, Stephanie Gebhard, said that she offered to take her daughter on a trip a couple of years ago to watch the Westminster Junior competition.
“She said ‘No, Mom, we’re not going until I win and I earn my way,’” Stephanie recalled.
Whether she wins or loses this time, Gebhard is already only two wins away from qualifying for next year’s competition.