20 Secrets of 911 Dispatchers

iStock.com/HHLtDave5
iStock.com/HHLtDave5

Every year, the U.S. 911 system receives about 240 million calls, and emergency dispatchers are the very first responders. They translate a caller’s situation into actionable instructions so police, fire, or medical teams can respond as quickly as possible. It’s an incredibly demanding job, with some shifts lasting up to 16 hours. That’s a lot of time spent listening to terrified callers in their most desperate moments, and it takes a certain kind of person to survive the stress. Hopefully you never have to dial 911, but if you do, here are a few things you should know about the person answering your call.

1. Most of the calls 911 dispatchers deal with aren’t emergencies.

On busy days, 911 dispatchers may get somewhere between 300 and 500 calls, and they have to answer every single one of them. However, many of them aren’t true emergencies. “Ninety-five percent are nothing calls,” says Amanda, a dispatcher of eight years in British Columbia, Canada. “They’re not people who need help. They’re people who have low coping skills. The fact you don’t know how to change the batteries in your fire alarm is not a 911 call. The fact you don’t know where you parked your car at the mall is not a 911 call. But you’ll have days where it seems that’s all you get.”

The irrelevant calls can be about anything from barking dogs to parking disputes, and in some states there are penalties for abusing the system. In 2015, a woman in Ohio was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor after calling 911 to report bad Chinese food. A man in Illinois was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for using the emergency line to request an ambulance ride to a doctor’s appointment.

“The level of distress somebody is displaying is in no way correlated to how serious their problem is,” Amanda says. “The people who are screaming the most generally have overflowing toilets. But the calmest guy will call up and say, ‘I don’t really wanna bother anybody, but my wife isn’t breathing.’”

2. 911 dispatchers have a call hierarchy.

Emergency calls don’t necessarily get responded to in the order in which they’re received. “Calls get triaged based on the level of immediate public danger,” Amanda says. So calls involving things like weapons, kids, or domestic violence get prioritized. If you just woke up and realized your car or house was broken into, unless the invader is still there, the police are told to respond when they have a free moment.

Bill Blume, a dispatcher in Virginia since 2001, says call severity also dictates whether emergency vehicles respond with or without sirens. Life-threatening events get lights and sirens. For events that are less severe but happening now, officers go quickly but without lights or sirens. And for low-priority calls, an officer might take their time. “A low code call tells officers, ‘if you need to go get some coffee or grab lunch, it’s a good time to do it on the way to this call. No matter what time officers arrive, it won’t affect the outcome,” Blume says.

3. Butt-dials are a big problem for 911.

All over the country, cell phone owners are unwittingly dialing 911 and clogging up the lines with the muffled sounds of their pants or purse pockets. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that roughly half of all 911 calls made by cell phones in New York City are accidental, which translates into about 84 million calls per year. “This is a huge waste of resources, raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes PSAP morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls—and first responders—will be delayed,” FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly declared in a memo.

These accidental calls may be a waste of resources, but that doesn’t mean they’re not entertaining. “We’ve had people call with the phone under their pillow while they’re having sex, or people singing while they’re driving down the road,” says Nikki, a dispatcher for nine years in Michigan.

And not all butt-dials are useless. “We once had a police chase going on and the people being pursued accidentally dialed into 911 so we could hear their conversation and let the officers know their plan,” Nikki says. One accidental 911 call in Deltona, Florida, led officers to a meth house.

4. The 911 system might give you a busy signal …

Sometimes there are more calls than dispatchers can handle, especially during emergencies that a lot of people witness, like a fire or car crash. “When you have a very public incident going on, sometimes you’ll get busy signals because there are instantly 1000 calls,” says Amanda. “The problem is that within those busy signals are some set of people calling for things that are not the public incident.”

5. … but there’s a way around it.

If you can’t get through to 911, you can try calling your local police or fire department directly through their seven-digit phone number, which you can find online. “You should have that number programmed into your phone,” says Rachael Herron, a former dispatcher in California for 15 years who is also an author. This trick lets you bypass the 911 traffic jam, but should only be used if you know your exact location, because the 911 dispatchers have better tools for locating you.

6. Whatever you do, don’t hang up on a 911 dispatcher.

The worst thing you can do to a 911 dispatcher is end the call before they answer. Every time someone calls and hangs up, dispatchers are required to call that number back. Even if you called by mistake, the best thing to do is stay on the line and explain, rather than hanging up and initiating a game of phone tag.

“I understand how frustrating and how long it can seem when you’re sitting there waiting and it feels like nothing’s happening quickly,” says Blume, “but at same time people just don’t appreciate how much a hang-up can slow the process down.”

7. A lot of callers to 911 dispatch don’t know their own location.

The most important piece of information for an emergency operator to acquire is a caller’s exact location. After all, they can’t send help if they don’t know where you are. But because not all emergencies happen at home or near a clearly-labeled street sign, many callers simply don’t know where they are when disaster strikes. “Maybe you’re stuck in a store and you didn’t pay attention to the address,” explains Amanda. “Or on the highway people are very fuzzy about where they are. In hotels people don’t know their room number.”

This requires some investigative work on behalf of the dispatcher, and everything becomes a clue. “Any descriptors are really useful, like if it’s really close to a landmark or store,” says Amanda. If the caller spots a license plate, the dispatcher can run the number and cross-reference it with the owner’s home address. If all else fails, dispatchers can send police cars to where they think the caller is and guide the officers using the sounds of the sirens over the phone.

Experience has taught dispatchers to be extra-aware of their surroundings at all times. “I used to say ‘left’ or ‘right’ but now I say ‘north, south, east, west,’” says Nikki. “I pay attention all the time now to where I am and what’s going on around me.”

8. 911 dispatchers wish you’d call from a landline.

The prevalence of cell phones means the number of 911 calls made from landlines has decreased through the years: More than 80 percent of emergency calls now come from wireless phones. But this poses a challenge for dispatchers, because unlike a landline, cell phones are not attached to a specific address.

“The absolute number one thing if there’s an emergency, please call from a landline,” says Amanda. “If you’re in an apartment building with 35 floors, it will give us an apartment number. Your cell phone will only give us an approximate.”

But this information varies by location and carrier. “We’ve discovered that Sprint and Verizon have the most accurate locations,” says Nikki. “We were once trying to locate a man with a gun, and he had Sprint, and the map showed him on one side of a pine tree and that’s exactly where he was.” In 2018, Apple and Google also both added services that transmit location data from cellphones to 911.

9. You don’t have to say anything to the dispatcher.

In some dire emergency situations, a 911 caller may be unable to speak. For example, if an intruder is in their home, or they’re choking or having a heart attack. Dispatchers are trained to ask yes-or-no questions a caller can answer with the push of a button. “We’ll tell them to press a button if they’re in the city,” explains Martha, a dispatcher in Georgia. “If they don’t press a button we’ll know they’re in a county. Or if there’s a domestic situation, we’ll ask, ‘Is he still in the room? Does he have a weapon? Has he been drinking?’”

10. 911 dispatchers don’t know what happens to callers.

One of the hardest things about being a dispatcher is the lack of closure that comes with the job. Once the first responders are on the scene, dispatchers have to hang up and move to the next call. They will probably never find out what happens to their callers. “It is the worst part,” says Jill, a 14-year veteran dispatcher in Florida. “You have this intense moment with this person, it could be the most horrible moment of their life and you’re the first one to help them, and you never find out what happens.”

11. Dispatchers have learned that sports fans procrastinate in medical emergencies.

One guaranteed slow time for 911 dispatchers is during a major sporting event, particularly the Super Bowl. “You get no calls when the game is on,” says Amanda. “None. It’s bizarre.” But dispatchers don’t have to follow the game to know when it’s over. When the buzzer goes off, the phones start ringing. “As soon as the game is over, you’ll have 20 guys having a heart attack because they weren’t willing to call during the game,” says Herron. “It’s true every single year.”

12. 911 dispatchers are very superstitious.

One word you’ll never hear a dispatcher mumble is “quiet.” Acknowledging a shift has been particularly sedate is a quick way to get an onslaught of calls, Amanda says. Acceptable alternatives include “tranquil” and “serene.”

13. Dispatchers don’t care why it happened.

Dispatchers want to know the what and where of your emergency, but never the why. “'Why' is the one question we never ask,” says Blume. “Everyone is dying to tell us why, and the thing is that has nothing to do with determining the level of safety for our officers.”

14. They’re traumatized.

One 2012 study found 911 dispatchers are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder due to the high volume of distressing calls they receive. "This is a population of people who are routinely exposed to events that should be considered traumatic," says Michelle Lilly, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University.

“I heard a gentleman take his last breath after being stabbed,” Jill admits. “That one bothers me today and it happened seven years ago. I have a thick skin but not around my heart.”

Insomnia, paranoia, and grief can haunt dispatchers when they’re not manning the phone lines. Herron says she can’t drive around her town without remembering the bad things that happened at particular addresses. “I know the geography of grief,” she says. “I know which woman hanged herself in that window and which mother found her son dead in that bedroom.”

Some dispatchers survive by emotionally detaching, others by approaching their job from a mindset of positivity. “A lot of people I work with live with a lot of fear and assumptions that terrible things will happen in the world because that’s what they hear,” says Amanda. “But my frame that keeps me ok is I know that this person is having a terrible day whether I’m there or not, and anything I do might make things better. And most people never have to call us. The majority of people go through their days and nothing bad happens to them and that’s very powerful also. We have to remember the things we hear are rare.”

15. For dispatchers, kid calls are the worst.

Many experienced 911 operators develop pretty thick skins over the years. But emergencies involving children are an exception.

“Everyone hates a baby call,” says Herron. “If you get a call that a baby isn’t breathing, the whole room gets really, really quiet and all the dispatchers pull for the person giving CPR instructions. I’ve had a couple that have gone badly and those are hard to let go.”

16. Dispatchers have regulars.

If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to call 911, but some people call the number so often the dispatchers recognize them immediately and know them by name.

“We call them frequent flyers,” Blume says. “You kind of develop a relationship with them. You remember them and know how that conversation is gonna go. It may be someone prone to alcoholism or who has a history of mental illness and you know certain things that work on other calls just aren’t gonna work there.”

17. Dispatch is full of creatives.

A lot of dispatchers enter into the career through the side door, as writers or musicians looking for steady income while they pursue their art on the side. “You rarely see someone come into a job as a dispatcher where that is their career goal,” says Blume, who is an author of several books himself.

“I work with five or six people who have written and published books because that’s what they want to do but they can’t make any money doing it so they do this four days a week,” says Amanda, who took the job to supplement her magazine writing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers make an average annual salary of $39,640, a pretty decent supplemental income. But finding the right kind of person for the job is difficult considering the high stress levels and long hours, and a lot of new dispatchers quit. “Our survival rate is one-third,” Blume estimates. “In my academy we had nine people in the beginning and by the time we were done, there were three of us left.”

18. Your dispatcher might be knitting when you call.

Dispatchers are multi-taskers who thrive on adrenaline, and that’s what makes them good at their job. They can talk a caller through CPR while simultaneously typing instructions for first responders at record speeds. But between calls and on slower days, they get bored like the rest of us, and resort to browsing social media or even knitting to occupy the time.

For some veteran dispatchers, the job has become so routine they can nearly do it with their eyes closed. Nikki admits that sometimes while she’s instructing a caller on how to administer CPR, she’s simultaneously browsing Pinterest. “I’m like holy crap I just saved somebody’s life without realizing what I was doing.”

19. Dispatchers know that tasks keep people calm.

A dispatcher’s job is to get as much pertinent information as possible from a caller, and that’s hard to do when the caller is hysterical. But there are tricks that dispatchers use to calm people, even in the most terrifying situations. “I slow my language and bring my tone way down,” says Herron. “If they’re shouting, I don’t shout back because it’s human nature, if someone else talks quietly, you listen.”

One quick way to get a panicked caller to concentrate, Jill says, is to give them something to do. “If they don’t know where they’re at, I tell them to look for a piece of mail. If you give them a small task it seems to make them focus a little more and that can de-escalate their stress a little bit.”

The most important thing is to just keep talking, Blume says, because silence can make a caller feel alone, which breeds panic. Skilled dispatchers will explain exactly what they’re doing on their end of the line and why, even if it’s boring. “I’ll say ‘standby just a moment, I’m going to enter this,’ or ‘hold on I’m going to update the units, don’t hang up.’ A lot of times those little touches can completely change the tone of a conversation. It’s all about communicating.”

20. Dispatchers are human lie-detectors.

From the second they answer your call, dispatchers are listening for signs the situation is not as you say. Callers lie to them all the time for various reasons. For example, someone might exaggerate the seriousness of their situation (perhaps by reporting that gunshots have been fired when they haven’t) to get a faster police response. In a domestic abuse situation, a victim might place the call but be unable to communicate, or the abuser could somehow end up with the phone and lie on their behalf, or hang up. The dispatcher’s job is to use strategic questions to gather any revealing information they can.

“Usually you can read into tone,” says Blume. “A red flag is if, when I call back, they say the call was a mistake, that’s a big difference than if they say it was an accident. If they say it was a mistake that gives me the impression they were trying to call on purpose and clearly there was a reason why they did it. You have to be suspicious.”

A version of this piece first ran in 2015.

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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