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Pets & Animals

Doggy duty: Last year's winning handler on what it takes to take Westminster

John Moore / Today
Dog handler Ernesto Lara hoists Banana Joe into the air after the affenpincher won Best in Show at last year's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Now that the NFL's Super Bowl is fading into the past, it's time for the Super Bowl of dog shows. The 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show concludes Tuesday night in New York City — and a winner will be crowned! At the center of attention alongside the champion dogs are the talented handlers who show the dogs to the judges. 

Ernesto Lara, a 25-year-veteran of dog handling, is the man behind Banana Joe, the affenpinscher who won coveted Best In Show in 2013. In other words, he knows dogs. This year, Lara will be showing as many as 10 pooches while trying to add to his roomful of awards.

Just how does he do it?

What is the basic job of the handler at a show?

Handlers and their dogs are like boxers and their trainers, or athletes and their coaches. It's our job to make sure the dog is ready for the show. Their muscle tone, their diet, their grooming — everything has to be ready. We are the nannies, the chauffeurs, nurses, the best friends. We sometimes work for years with the same dog, making sure we are the ultimate team.

You have to have the match with the dog; you need a certain rapport for the dog to show the best. You work with them, and you help create a natural connection with the animal. Then we show the dog in the ring to the judges, making sure to present the animal in the best possible way.

Coco Posh, a Cardigan Welsh corgi, poses with a handler on Feb. 10.

What are the judges looking for from a dog?

They want to see that the dog matches all the characteristics of the breed. It's the handler's job to make sure the judges can see that at all times. Even when the dog is not being touched and looked at, we have to make sure that the dog stacks (stands square and still) properly. A judge might glance over, and in that second, he must see that the dog is everything it can be. We prepare for months and years for just a moment, and we have to be ready.

Your work can look very active. As a handler, you sometimes have to run or move very quickly around the ring. Why is that?

If you don't show the dog at the right speed, it might not show the gait the judge is looking for. Each dog was bred for a job, so the judge is looking to see whether the dog is fit for that job. So you have to work hard to make sure the dog is moving at the right speed, and you have to move with it. It's not just what the dog looks like, but how it moves. Still, the very best handlers are able to disappear behind their dogs to let the animal truly shine.

Ally, a standard poodle, runs with its handler after winning the non-sporting group during the 2014 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York.

How are handlers paid? Do you get more for a champion dog?

We are paid a daily rate to show the dog, and yes, we receive bonuses based on results. But for a typical show in which your dog makes it to Best in Show at an event, we can charge as much as $1500.

Tell us about the experience of winning in 2013.

I almost don't know how to explain it. As a writer like you, for instance, you hope to win the Pulitzer Prize. That could happen. But what if one of these days you get a call that you won the Nobel Prize, something that you never thought could happen. That's what I felt like last year. I had apprenticed with Peter Green, who holds the record with four Best in Shows, and I had seen firsthand what it took. So to experience that myself, there is nothing like winning it yourself.

It was a dream come true for me. After the show, however, no one prepares you for the attention from the media that comes afterward. However, it has given me a chance to be an ambassador for the community that I love and for the dog itself. I was very happy to show off the relationship that Banana Joe and I had.