10 Secrets of Casting Directors

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For every Peter Jackson, there is an Amy Hubbard. For every Martin Scorsese, there is an Ellen Lewis. You may not be as familiar with the work of Hubbard and Lewis—the casting directors who brought you Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins and Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, respectively—but you've definitely benefited from it.

Rarely interviewed and rarely recognized, a casting director is someone whose mind is an archive of faces, names, and talents—and the wrong combination can make or break a production. Mental Floss spoke to a few of these professionals about the tricks of their trade, and the ups and downs of a business unlike any other.

1. YOU DON’T NEED A COLLEGE EDUCATION TO DO IT—JUST A PASSION FOR THE CRAFT.

Film school is not a prerequisite for working in production—John Waters, Quentin Tarantino, and Stanley Kubrick are just some of the many filmmakers who never attended. A good work ethic and a commitment to professionalism will get you far. And while the job market is competitive, it's fairly easy to score an entry-level casting internship or job in the larger markets of New York, L.A., and Atlanta. (For those interested in getting their start, websites like Staff Me Up list many reality show projects, which can transition to scripted projects later, and EntertainmentCareers.net provides agency and network desk jobs that don’t involve actually working on set.)

Casting directors say the most important part of their job is being able to connect the right people to the right opportunities. Eli Cornell, who has worked in both principal and extras casting on projects such as “The Big C” and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), tells Mental Floss: "You need to be a good judge of character and talent and good at reading how talent can work together. [You need] to be able to be on the same page as the producers and creative teams and have a sense of their needs and wishes for their respective productions." Cornell himself started in film and TV as a production assistant, but says he transitioned to casting by sending emails to casting offices throughout New York City. "I explained to them my desire to enter the casting world. When I got into interviews, it was easy for me to talk and share because I was so genuinely excited for the opportunity."

And don't be afraid of starting out as an assistant, our sources say. “The Most Feared Man in Hollywood,” infamous producer Scott Rudin, got his start as an assistant in the casting world at the age of 16. He was head of production at 20th Century Fox by the age of 26.

2. REALITY CASTING IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS.

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi
Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Finding memorable characters like Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi or Carson Kressley is no small task. Often, reality shows don’t pay their talent, so it’s hard to get someone to commit to weeks of shooting with no compensation. Gillian Heller, a reality casting producer who has cast such shows as Food Network’s hit Chopped and MTV’s Made, tells Mental Floss, “Being a reality casting producer is really three jobs in one—most are expected to be researchers, story producers, and editors on a razor-tight budget. One of the biggest challenges to me was the fact that there is usually more that you can't tell applicants than things you can. Network requests and production details change rapidly, so getting people to agree to speak with you is a lot like one blind person trying to sell another blind person on a room with an amazing view.”

But, she says, the hard work is eventually worth it. “Building a trusting relationship with applicants is a huge part of the job, and there's no better feeling than getting someone to open up to you and knowing you helped them nail their interview.”

3. EXTRAS CASTING IS JUST AS DIFFICULT AS CASTING THE STARS.

Extras casting staff have to do much more than just fill up a location. They're responsible for ensuring new faces in every scene (imagine if you saw the same extras over and over), bringing people back for continuity, casting background actors that fit specific measurements for costumes and/or to match lead actors, and other nuances of appearance. And while many film crew positions wrap at a specific time, extras casting is required to inform all of the background actors of where they are supposed to be the next day and when—usually about 5 a.m. If a background actor cancels at the last minute, it’s up to the extras casting team to replace.

Furthermore, it can be hard to gauge new talent. Mel Fabi, who worked on The Dark Knight Rises(2012) as an assistant casting thousands of background actors, tells Mental Floss: “[If] you are doing principal casting you sort of immediately know who's really good and what they have done before. That's completely opposite from background casting.” With extras, the talent are usually newbies, and it's always a gamble putting someone with no on-camera training on the screen. “Vetting everyone's abilities takes time, and since shooting days can sometimes have literally hundreds needing to be booked, our flow of work is always high volume and very stressful.”

Fabi admits to rolling his eyes at how often a film’s success is attributed to the main cast. “How about the vast amount of talent that was needed in the background, didn't that contribute to the success of the story? Yes, it does. But no one acknowledges it.”

4. THEY ARE TRYING TO CAST MORE DIVERSE ROLES.

Actresses Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Laura Prepon, Natasha Lyonne and Laverne Cox of 'Orange is the New Black,' at the Critics' Choice Television Awards
Cast members from "Orange is the New Black" at the Critics' Choice Television Awards
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

The lack of diversity in Hollywood is a well-known issue, but casting directors say they are making an effort to remedy it. NBC hosts showcases for actors, writers and directors with an emphasis on highlighting LGBTQ actors and performers with disabilities. Walt Disney Studios recently opened up the casting call for the live-action Aladdin adaptation to the public to ensure they get Middle Eastern actors in the lead roles. (At time of publication, Disney had cast a relatively unknown actor, Mena Massoud, in the title role.)

The boundaries are also being pushed in commercial casting, according to commercial casting director Melonie Mack. “If you think about the Cheerios commercial that showed an interracial couple [in 2013]—that was the first time we were seeing that. We’ve recently had same sex couples cast and we are trying to push those boundaries in the commercial world. It’s archaic. Then you have the studios looking at streaming services like Netflix and their casting process. With shows like Luke Cage and Orange is the New Black that truly showcase diversity—it’s no surprise to me that the rise in popularity in streaming was bigger than the studios could ever hope to be.”

5. A CASTING DIRECTOR’S JOB IS NEVER TRULY DONE.

Casting professionals log a lot of time holding auditions and attending production meetings. But the job isn’t over when they leave the office—they're always scouting for new talent. They frequently attend showcases (a kind of variety show put on by actors) and scout plays after-hours, host their own acting workshops where they coach actors in audition methods, and accept various freelance positions for casting projects like web series, student films, and local commercials.

6. THERE’S NEVER A DULL MOMENT.

Casting directors have to cast everything from crime scene re-enactments (think Law & Order SVU) to celebrity nude photo doubles. Sometimes, their job might entail making sure the background actors are comfortable being near a wild animal. Former extras casting assistant Melanie Block told Mental Floss about casting a commercial that appeared in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and included a real lion walking through corporate offices. “We had to send an email to all of the extras and verify by telephone that each and every extra was comfortable with working around an actual lion. Sure enough, before the lion was even let out of its cage, we had complaints coming in from the union asking us if we had cleared this with the background actors. Of course we did!” Eventually everything worked out and Scorsese got the shots he wanted—the ad made the cut to final edit.

7. IT'S FEMALE-DOMINATED.

Liz Paulson and Sarah Paulson at the Emmys in 2016
Liz Paulson and Sarah Paulson at the Emmys in 2016
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Film and television are often considered male-dominated areas, but not when it comes to casting. Mack tells Mental Floss: “I’ve been in casting for over 10 years, predominately doing commercial casting, and 95 percent of the people I work with are women. I think women tend to be more in touch with their emotional psychology—[we] create a safe comfortable inspiring space when actors come in the room to audition.” Mack points to the career of her own mentor, Liz Paulson, who is now Senior Vice President of Casting at 20th Century Fox. “It’s a powerful position to be in. Casting can make or break a show. And it’s inspiring to watch a woman rise up like that.”

The dominance of women in casting isn't anything brand-new, either. Director Tom Donahue’s 2012 documentary Casting By is a profile of one of the most unsung heroes of the film world, Marion Dougherty—often credited with creating the “New York” look in films during the 1960s. Dougherty was a casting director responsible for the transition from the old Hollywood casting method of casting actors based on looks to hiring based on talent. She gave many actors their first film credits, including Al Pacino and Glenn Close, and had the unwavering support of directors such as Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen until her death in 2011.

8. EVEN BIG-NAME ACTORS HAVE TO AUDITION FOR THE JOB.

Did you know that before Rainn Wilson became Dwight Schrute, Seth Rogen read for The Office role, while Adam Scott auditioned to be Jim Halpert? There are thousands of actors in Hollywood and only so many parts available, so even stars face rejection—and it happens more often than you would think. Sometimes it may even come down to the chemistry a celebrity may or may not have with those who have already been cast, and other times, an actor just may not impress the director. (Peter Jackson famously slammed Oscar-nominee Jake Gyllenhaal for not using a British accent while auditioning for the part of Frodo in Lord of the Rings.)

Vincent Veloso, a director whose web series Changelings has screened at Cannes Marché du Film and who has auditioned top-tier talent for his projects, says: "Attaching a well-known established actor may help with potential financing, [and] raise exposure in producing and marketing. However, [big names don't] necessarily [have] a given automatic lock-in or upper hand in auditioning every time, anytime, if at all.”

9. THEATER CASTING JOBS DO NOT PROVIDE HEALTH CARE AND PENSIONS.

It may surprise you to know that the casting directors responsible for finding the stars in many of your Broadway favorites are not guaranteed benefits for their work as independent contractors. Broadway heavy hitters like Bernie Telsey (Hamilton) and Tara Rubin (Dear Evan Hanson) are just some of the casting directors encouraging the Broadway League, the trade organization for the Broadway industry, to negotiate a deal with Teamsters Local 817, which Broadway casting directors joined in 2016. In a statement released at the time of this year’s Tony Awards, the Broadway League stated: “We have had a respectful dialogue in the past year with Teamsters Local 817 but do not believe it would be appropriate for the Broadway League or its producing members to recognize a union as the bargaining representative of professionals who are not employees of our productions.”

10. THEY HATE THAT CASTING STILL ISN'T OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZED AT THE OSCARS.

Lynn Stalmaster accepting his Governors Award in 2016
Lynn Stalmaster
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

For years, casting directors have hoped to be included in the Oscars. In Casting By, notable casting directors such as Ellen Lewis (The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013) and Laura Rosenthal (Carol, 2015), alongside Hollywood stars Glenn Close and Al Pacino, argued that casting directors are just as important to a film as a director. However, then-Directors Guild of America (DGA) president Taylor Hackford insisted in the film that casting directors are undeserving of Oscar recognition because they “don’t direct anything.”

In a 2013 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lewis said, “It's funny, in a way, because what [Hackford] is saying is this: Nobody knows what goes on behind a closed door. And that's true. Casting is very private. It's between the casting director and the actor. Of course what [Hackford] doesn't address is why he's meeting the actors that he's meeting. And that's because his casting director has done her job! He's also leaving out that the reason it's behind the closed doors is to protect the actor who's doing something vulnerable. Nine times out of 10 [an audition] ends in rejection.”

There may be some hope, however. In 2016, screen actor-turned-casting-director Lynn Stalmaster was recognized by the Academy for his achievements in casting over 200 films and TV shows, including "Gunsmoke," Tootsie (1982), and The Graduate (1967). Stalmaster was presented with the Academy's Governors Award for “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.” For now, though, the Casting Society of America celebrates the achievements of casting professionals throughout the country each year with their own Artios Awards, which commemorate the achievements of principal casting directors in film, television, and theatre.

10 Secrets of Seeing Eye Dog Trainers

Seeing Eye instructors with the dogs they are training.
Seeing Eye instructors with the dogs they are training.
The Seeing Eye

Founded in 1929, The Seeing Eye is a nonprofit in Morristown, New Jersey, that trains guide dogs to help their blind owners navigate the world safely. In order to make sure each dog is ready for all the obstacles and challenges that come with leading the visually impaired, instructors train them in both real-world settings and simulations at The Seeing Eye's campus. It's a system that has worked for over 90 years.

“It’s the oldest guide dog school, and we’ve been honing this very specific process of training a dog to do very specific tasks,” Brian O’Neal, a guide dog mobility instructor with The Seeing Eye for nine years, tells Mental Floss. “We have a road map.”

Seeing Eye dogs are venerated; in January 2020, New Jersey proclaimed them the official state dog. And legally, no guide dog can even be called a "Seeing Eye dog" unless it graduated from the school itself. Though the dogs that come out of the school have garnered plenty of attention, the dedicated instructors who prepare them for working life are less well-known. We spoke with three trainers from The Seeing Eye about why certain breeds make great guide dogs, how they keep their owner’s safe from low-hanging branches, and whether or not they can read cross signals (spoilers: They can’t).

1. It takes years of apprentice work to become a Seeing Eye Instructor.

Being a Seeing Eye instructor isn't a volunteer position anyone can sign up for—it's a full-time job. If you meet the basic requirements, such as having a four-year Bachelor’s degree, you can apply to become an instructor. Once you make it through the application process, you go through a three-year apprenticeship program in order to become an official trainer. The apprenticeship includes classes and exams, as well as hands-on training with dogs and students, The Seeing Eye’s name for blind people preparing to become guide dog owners.

The work doesn’t become any less intense when apprentices graduate to full-fledged instructors. From 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., they train, exercise, and care for eight dogs total—four in the morning and four in the afternoon. If you aren’t ready to commit to working for The Seeing Eye full-time, you can volunteer to be a puppy raiser and foster future guide dogs in your own home.

2. Seeing Eye dog instructors also train the dog owners.

The dogs and their trainers aren’t the only ones working hard at The Seeing Eye. Before a blind person can take a guide dog home, they must live on the campus and go through weeks of training to learn all the intricacies of working with their dog, including navigation and bonding.

“A student is someone who’s applied to our school and [has] been accepted to our program, and we’ve flown them here or provided travel to come here,” O’Neal explains. “We match them with a dog, and over 27 days, we teach them how to safely and effectively work with this dog and vice versa. Once they’ve completed the program, they become graduates.” But to get there, the instructors, students, and their dogs have to put in long hours.

“Class is emotionally and physically exhausting," Sarah Indano, who's been in the apprenticeship program for two and a half years, tells Mental Floss. "It's like boot camp to really train these people for everything they need in a limited amount of time."

3. The Seeing Eye instructors only work with dogs bred by the organization.

The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey.
A photo of The Seeing Eye campus in Morristown, New Jersey.
The Seeing Eye

The Seeing Eye breeds all its own dogs at a center in Chester, New Jersey, and each must meet a strict set of requirements to become a part of the breeding program. “All the dogs are medically tested and their temperaments are also tested,” Ruthanne Dewey, a guide dog mobility instructor at The Seeing Eye for more than six years, tells Mental Floss. “The best of the best are selected to go into that breeding program.”

Even with the proper pedigree, not every dog the organization breeds is fit to be a guide animal. At 7 weeks old, dogs are sent to live with volunteers called puppy raisers who provide them with care and teach them basic commands. When the dogs are about 14 months old, they receive medical testing to determine if they’re fit enough to train to be guide dogs. From there, the training, which O'Neal says involves a lot of "repetition and consistency," lasts four months.

4. Instructors typically work with a handful of choice breeds.

Seeing Eye instructor with a yellow Lab.
Seeing Eye instructor Ruthanne Dewy with a yellow Lab she trained.
Seeing Eye/Ruthanne Dewy

Seeing Eye dogs almost always belong to the following groups: Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, or any mix of those breeds. Both physically and personality-wise, these breeds produce the best dogs for the job. “They are working breeds,” O’Neal says. “They have a long history of work and working alongside humans in varying capacities. So it comes down to their drive to work as well as their incredible temperament.”

This drive to work often translates to a desire to please their humans. As O’Neal states, trainers can only teach dogs so much, and an animal’s need to keep their owner happy is what ultimately allows them to do their job well. “They want to get the praise from that person. They want to figure out, ‘what does this person want me to do? Because I’ll do it.’”

These breeds also fit the physical requirements for a guide animal: They’re big enough to lead a person down the street or block them from traffic, but at the same time, small enough to fit on public transportation or beneath an office desk.

5. Praise is crucial during the training process.

Seeing Eye dogs may not know the directions to the supermarket, but they're trained to learn other tasks that enable their owners to move through their environments with confidence and security. These include stopping short of curbs, moving around objects, and blocking people from walking in front of vehicles. Dogs learn these skills through positive reinforcement—as much as it takes to make the behaviors second-nature.

“When the dog does something right, we’re showering it with love and affection telling it did a great job, and if it didn’t do a great job, we’re telling it ‘no, we don’t do it that way,’ and we’ll always go back and give them the chance to be successful,” O’Neal explains. “That’s important, because if we just said 'no' and moved on, I could see animals being discouraged by that."

6. Seeing Eye instructors can’t teach dogs to read street signs.

Seeing Eye instructor with a black Lab.
Seeing Eye instructor Brian O'Neal with a black Lab he trained.
Seeing Eye/Brian O'Neal

A Seeing Eye dog can navigate obstacles on a sidewalk, or stop a person from stumbling off a curb, but Seeing Eye instructors can't train them to replace a GPS. “I get asked all the time how the dog can read the stop light and know that green means go and red means stop,” Dewey says. “I always explain to people that it is not the dog that decides when to cross the street. The dog doesn’t know how to get to the grocery store. All that falls on the person. The blind person has to be able to cross the street safely.”

7. The Seeing Eye has escalators and Priuses on campus to simulate real-world obstacles.

The more advanced stages of Seeing Eye dog training take place in urban areas, starting in the center of Morristown and culminating in trips to New York City. But before the dogs are ready to enter the real world, trainers find ways to recreate those environments on the campus.

“We have our own maintenance department and mechanic that is in charge of our own fleet of vehicles,” O'Neal says. These cars are used to prepare dogs for the type of traffic they'll encounter when guiding their owners in public. “We also have Priuses so we can make sure the dogs are learning to steer clear of cars that are silent as well.”

The campus also has plenty of indoor obstacles designed for training, like staircases and an escalator that's housed on the grounds.

8. Some obstacles require some surprising training equipment.

Training a dog to look out for objects in front of it—like cars or pedestrians—is fairly straightforward. Making sure they’re aware of obstacles above ground-level poses more of a challenge to instructors. For these lessons, trainers use some unexpected equipment. “We have an obstacle course with overhead pool noodles that stick out to make sure the dogs are watching out for the top part of the person, too,” O'Neal says.

Instructors don’t know what size a dog’s owner will be during the training process, but that hasn't been a problem so far. Incredibly, the dogs are able to figure out the height and width of their humans on their own. “If you’re an instructor that’s really short, but that dog goes to a person that’s really tall, that dog quickly learns and adapts that they have to look out for [obstacles] that are much higher,” O'Neal says. “To me that’s one of the most amazing parts of the job; how much the dogs adapt and do on their own that we don’t teach them and can’t teach them.”

9. Seeing Eye apprentices take classes on the human eye to learn more about visual impairments.

Every instructor’s apprenticeship includes courses on dogs and dog training, but they also take classes to learn about the vision issues faced by the students. “I’m currently studying for my second exam, which is on the human eye and diseases and disorders of the eye and optic nerve,” Indano says, likening these classes to a college course. “It gives us the basis of the language we use to communicate with our students. We’re reminded that not only do our students see us as dog professionals, but they also see us as vision professionals, as well.”

This level of understanding is made even greater during Blindfold Week—which exactly what it sounds like. “We wear a completely dark blindfold for one week, and we live with the students for the first week of class,” Indano says. “We’re given some prep on how to effectively use a cane for travel for the first two days of class, and are taught how to cross streets, how to judge traffic, and keep ourselves safe."

The apprentices are even paired with a dog during Blindfold Week, effectively putting them through the same training as the students. "It gives you a lot of insight into what these students are going through," Indano says.

10. Seeing Eye instructors don't prepare dogs to work 24/7.

Seeing Eye instructor with a black Lab.
Seeing Eye instructor Sarah Indano with a black Lab she trained.
Seeing Eye/Sarah Indano

Seeing Eye dogs don’t have the time to chase squirrels, accept pets from strangers, or sniff trash cans when they’re on the job, but that doesn’t mean they never get to enjoy being a regular dog.

“People think these dogs don’t ever get a break,” Indano says. “They put on their business suits, which for them is their harness, and they’re at work. When they go home, their business suit comes off, and they get to be a dog that their person can snuggle and give pets to and play fetch with ... They live and love to work for their owners, and they get to go home and get even more love.”

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband, Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle,” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.”

“Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to complement the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it,” he says.

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

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