30 Under 30
Thirty? Remember 30?
If that question has nostalgic resonance for you, then maybe there is altogether too much truth in the statement that the sport of dogs is losing more participants through attrition than it is gaining in newcomers. All the more reason, then, to celebrate the young people who have decided to make purebred dogs a career or serious avocation.
To that end, Dog News is pleased to debut “30 Under 30,” a series in which we profile some of the talented fanciers in our sport who are under age 30.
Straddling two generations – the younger 20-somethings belong to Generation Z, while those closer to the 30-year mark are technically millennials – what these young fanciers share are a strong work ethic and willingness to spend the time to hone their craft.
Here, in no particular order, are the first four of our “30 Under 30.” Look for future installments of this ongoing series in upcoming issues of Dog News and on dognews.com.
Vizslas and English Cocker Spaniels
Born into the sport as a third-generation Vizsla fancier – she showed her first dog at age eight – Ania actively breeds Vizslas with her mother Rachel Romano Kelly and grandmother Dorothea Romano under the Willorunn prefix.
In 2006, wanting a Juniors dog that she could groom as well as present on the table, Ania acquired her first English Cocker. (Sad, but true – it’s hard to be flashy and competitive amid all those Springers and Setters with a wash-and-wear breed like the Vizsla.) Since then, she has gotten just as immersed in that Sporting breed, joining the breeding program of her mentor Lisa Ross of Winfree English Cockers.
After a successful start as a Junior handler, Ania apprenticed under some of the most recognizable names in the sport, including Andy Linton, Michael and Michelle Scott, Greg Strong and Tracy Szaras. “Above all else, they taught me the importance of remaining humble and professional in all circumstances,” she says. “They instilled the importance of not getting carried away with one dog’s success and risking your reputation and integrity in your future career.” After all, she reminds, “the judges you see in the rings today you will likely see for years to come.”
Ania’s most memorable moments inside those rings center around Westminster, where she won Best Junior Handler in 2012 under Theresa Hundt. This year, exhibiting at the Garden as a professional, she took breed with two dogs she showed for clients, a Vizsla and a Clumber. Both made the cut in the competitive group under Terry Hundt, and Ania piloted the Vizsla to a Group 4, making him the first of his breed in more than a decade to place on that iconic green carpet.
Ania says she recognizes that her generation is perceived as lacking tenacity. While older fanciers sought out the knowledge of those who came before them, “young people today may not deem it a necessity to seek out mentorship as the older fanciers did in their day,” she says. “If the older generation openly offers their experience and knowledge, I hope that the younger generation can recognize the value of it.”
She thinks another area of missed opportunity is the relationship between professionals and owner-handlers – or the lack of it. “Many pros are willing to help out owner-handlers who are seeking advice,” she says of this unfortunate divide. “And owner-handlers have helped me to better understand their breeds I don’t feel I have completely mastered.”
During the COVID shutdown, Ania has expanded her handling business to include pet grooming. (The usual suspects? Doodles, of course, whose owners universally request puppy cuts with teddy-bear heads.) She plans to apply to judge Junior Showmanship in the near future, and looks forward to many generations of Vizslas and Engies in the whelping boxes of the future.
Merrimack, New Hampshire
Another triple-generation fancier, Holly breeds and shows the Somerri Norwegian Elkhounds that her grandmother Bea Hall founded in 1961. “People often remember me as the girl walking around the shows with her stuffed animals,” she laughs. By age five, her local 4-H club created a special conformation class for her so she could participate with a Pembroke Welsh Corgi leased from a family friend, and as an eight-year-old she began stewarding, encouraged by her uncle, judge Edward Hall.
An active junior handler from age 10 until she aged out eight years later, Holly was approved to judge Junior Showmanship in 2013, and has judged Juniors twice at her national; 2020 would have been her third year, but for COVID prompting the show’s cancellation.
She has a particular appreciation for Juniors who show non-traditional breeds. “Showing Elkhounds in Juniors, I used to get frustrated that I wasn’t doing as well as others,” she admits. (Holly’s wish list for overhauling Junior Showmanship to lower barriers and increase participation: Make entries free, permit day-of entries, and remove the ownership requirement so Juniors can improve their skills by handling different breeds they don't personally own.)
Competing in obedience as a preteen, Holly almost threw in the towel when she switched from her obliging Corgi to a characteristically independent-minded Elkhound, but her mother, Laura Lewis, “didn’t accept giving up as an option.” From obedience scores in the 30s and 40s – out of a total of 200 – Holly went on to put several titles on her first Elkhound. “I certainly had my fair share of embarrassing ring moments,” she says, “but that's how we learn and grow!”
While going to graduate school to get her doctorate in physical therapy, Holly kept her hand in the sport by apprenticing for professional handler Deanna Rotkowski and helping out at the kennel of long-time Norwegian Elkhound breeder Kevin Richards.
Some of her most satisfying moments have come from introducing her breed to an unfamiliar public, both literally and figuratively. Holly runs the Norwegian Elkhound Association of America’s Facebook pages for both members and the general public, and last year, joined by her older sister Alicia Lewis, she was a breed ambassador at Westminster.
“People just don’t know about Norwegian Elkhounds,” she explains, adding that the breed is frequently mistaken for a Siberian Husky.
Now a physical therapist for humans, Holly is contemplating transitioning to practicing with canines, a process that could require a year of online and in-person instruction as well as an internship. She’s certainly up for the test: An avid hiker, Holly has taken her Elkhound bitch, now an 11-year-old veteran, mountain-climbing on more than 30 of the 48 peaks in New Hampshire that are higher than 4,000 feet. A career change would be just another challenge to scale – this one, happily, with her dogs again at her side.
Standard Poodles and Portuguese Water Dogs
Succeeding in the sport of dogs means hard work and sacrifice. And when you’re a student trying to balance the demands of college and conformation, it’s even more demanding, as Lindsay learned all too well.
While she attended university for four years, she campaigned two dogs back to back. “College had to be a priority,” she remembers. “So it wasn’t uncommon for me to go back to the hotel to work on a term paper after just finishing bathing Poodle topknots instead of going out to dinner with others from the show, or to sit in the whelping box and take reading notes so I could get my puppy time in.”
Now a professional handler, Lindsay started in 4-H at eight years old, seguing to Juniors as a teenager. If she could change anything about that program, it would be to eliminate the rankings. “Junior Showmanship should be about improving your skills as a handler,” she says. “Nothing else is of any importance. A Junior handler who only competes a handful of times a year could in fact be more skilled than one who competes every weekend. I just think it adds more unnecessary pressure.”
Portuguese Water Dog fancier Robin Huested was Lindsay’s first mentor, “but more like a mother to me as she raised me since I was 15,” she says. Another strong influence was Debra Ferguson Jones, who “taught me a great amount about Standard Poodles in the breed ring as well as the importance of having a long-term goal and the dedication it takes to achieve it.”
But the greatest advice she’s ever gotten, she says, was “Just be Lindsay.”
“As many people know, being a people pleaser usually comes at one’s own expense,” she explains. “The past couple of years I have made a conscious effort to do what makes me the happiest. I left my job at the law firm I worked for in order to show dogs full time. This is what my heart wants me to do, and despite what others may think or say, this was the best decision for me.”
Lindsay’s most memorable moment was competing in the Portuguese Water Dog Club of America’s Top Twenty event in 2016. After showing her dog to Meghan Trainor’s “Me Too” and having the crowd clap along with enthusiasm, Lindsay thought the night couldn’t go any better. Then suddenly everyone was looking at her. “It didn’t hit me until I looked to Robin and saw her face” – and at that moment, as if the sound had suddenly been turned on again, Lindsay heard the last word of her dog’s registered name, and realized they had won.
If she could change one thing about the sport, it would be to make it less divisive. “I wish more people realized that words hurt, and you can't always take them back,” Lindsay says. “Dogs come and go, but we all stay. It’s disheartening to see how many long-term friendships end due to competing with one another. Doesn’t the phrase go, ‘Every dog has his day’? Let them have their day, because yours just might be tomorrow.”
Standard Schnauzers and English Setters
Grace grew up in a cat-owning family, and when she finally persuaded her parents to get her a dog from the humane society, training challenges led them to the local 4-H club. There, 8-year-old Grace met two instructors who also showed their dogs, and her foray into the sport – most of it fueled by her sheer persistence – began.
Grace’s first purebred was a pet Golden Retriever that she trained herself and showed in Juniors for three years, starting at age 10.
“It was kind of difficult seeing other kids with their show-quality, push-button dogs,” she says, adding that she was told multiple times by her peers and a few adults that she wouldn’t win without a show-quality dog at the end of her lead. “They were wrong,” she says, noting that she and her Golden went on to qualify to compete in Juniors at Westminster.
In 2017, she returned to the Garden with a different dog to experience one of her most memorable moments in the sport – winning second place in Junior Showmanship. All told, she qualified for the Garden seven times and the AKC National Championship eight times. And in addition to being a top-10 Working dog Junior handler for three years, in 2015 she was the number-one Sporting Junior handler and number four overall.
As she deepened her involvement in dogs, Grace acquired two influential mentors: Liz Hansen, who in addition to Standard Schnauzers breeds Berger Picards, and English Setter breeder and handler Eileen Hackett, with whom Grace travelled for two summers as a Junior. “They have both gifted me with a wealth of knowledge about dogs and dog shows,” she says. “Both have taught me about the hard work and unwavering dedication behind what it takes to breed and present a great show dog.”
Today, in between her studies to become a pharmacist, Grace is finishing up her permit assignments as a newly minted Junior Showmanship judge, and serving her second year as a board member of the Columbia (Missouri) Kennel Club.
It takes time to make an impact as a young person in a club where the average member is more than twice her age. “At first, just sitting in meetings, I had to built my presence,” Grace says. But over time, “I’ve earned more respect and gotten more of a voice.” And she has used it to communicate her greatest passion: reaching out to and welcoming young people in the community who love dogs. Not only does this cultivate a much-needed new generation for the club in particular and the sport as a whole, but it helps dispel misconceptions and biases about purebred dogs that are altogether too common among the general public.
As for AKC Junior Showmanship as a whole, “one thing that I would like to see changed is a more direct support of Juniors and families that are new to the sport,” she says. “In my experience, newcomers can easily get overwhelmed and frustrated with the dog-show environment.”
While COVID has put the brakes on some of Grace’s aspirations for her all-breed club, like a Juniors clinics with AKC-registered handlers and a regular Juniors program, she knows that the new generation will still be waiting for her when the pandemic subsides.
“Just seeing those kids who have a puppy and are interested in exploring what they can do with it” really motivates her, she says. And the reason is simple: “I was that little kid.”