In this interview, we're joined by a pet sitter and dog show participant with whom I share a wonderful connection through our time at the same church, the Congregational Church of Boca Raton (now called Church on the Hill), where my dad was one of the ministers. Tracy served as the Children's Ministry Director and her love for animals was always evident. From the hustle and bustle of South Florida to the serene landscapes of Southwest Virginia, she's nurtured many animal friends and has made a significant impact in the dog show world. She imparts her wisdom on handling and training dogs, gives us a glimpse into her memorable experiences, and provides practical advice for those interested in dog shows and hosting pet blessings. Her journey offers a wealth of insights for pet lovers, show enthusiasts, and those who seek to understand the meaningful bond between humans and animals. (The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Key Takeaways from Our Interview with Tracy
Preparing a dog for a show is a time and energy-consuming process, beginning as early as eight weeks of age and involving grooming, nutrition, exercise, and positive reinforcement training.
The safety and well-being of dogs is paramount, necessitating particular precautions and avoidance of potential dangers like unreliable retractable dog leashes,other dogs, and dog parks.
Tips for churches or communities looking to organize pet blessing events include ensuring the safety and comfort of all animals involved, including fundraisers, choosing a worthy recipient for the funds raised, and getting as many people involved as possible.
Tracy: I started my pet sitting business, South Florida Hometenders, Inc. in 1989. At the time, to my knowledge, there were only two other professional sitting services in all of South Florida. Over the years, I worked with many clients and a wide variety of animal friends.
In 2020, I retired and moved to southwest Virginia with my husband and five Golden Retrievers. We enjoy participating in a variety of dog sports and love experiencing a true four seasons with much cooler weather. You can visit my website: toastygoldenretrievers.com.
Dog shows have been a popular form of entertainment and competition for many decades, with the first recorded dog show taking place in the UK in the mid-19th century. They provide an opportunity for dog lovers to showcase their pets and assess breeding stock. Now let's dive into our interviewee's unique journey in the world of dog shows.
Q: How did you get involved in dog shows?
A: I became interested in dog shows when I met one particular client who bred and showed Golden Retrievers. She was extremely successful in the dog show world having won Best of Breed at the Westminster dog show twice. She bred and handled several National Specialty winners as well as many champion Golden Retrievers. I was lucky to purchase our first Golden from her. She and her husband became our friends and mentors whom I rely upon to this day.
Q: What do you think are the most common misconceptions people have about dog shows?
A: I think the most common misconception about dog shows is that it’s a beauty contest. It really isn’t--it’s really about canine structure and how well your dog meets the accepted and published breed standards compared to other competing dogs.
Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to enter their dog in a show for the first time?
A: I highly recommend watching a dog show as a spectator just to get a rough idea of what goes on. It is very important to have a mentor in your chosen breed who can help guide you along the way. Attend handling classes with your dog so you both know what to expect in the ring. If you decide that conformation showing is not for you, there are many other fun activities and competitions (scent work, barn hunt, rally, obedience, tracking, therapy work, FAST CAT [Editor's note: Fast Coursing Ability Test, is a sporting event for dogs that tests their speed and agility], dock diving) in which you and your dog can participate. Many dog sports allow mixed breeds and purebreds that are not registered with the AKC [American Kennel Club]. Check out AKC.org. for more information.
Q: How do you prepare your dogs for a show? Are there any training methods you'd like to share?
A: Preparing dogs for conformation shows is a time and energy consuming process. Formal typically begins at eight weeks of age and just a few minutes at a time. When puppy is old enough (four months of age) we attend handling classes where the puppy learns how to stand properly, tolerate a stranger's touch while not moving, and how to behave on a leash. Proper grooming, nutrition and exercise are all important parts of the preparation. Only positive training methods are used--favorite treats, toys and lots of praise. Punishment and harsh words are forbidden.
Q: Could you share with us some of the challenges you have faced as a dog show participant?
A: Showing Golden Retrievers is especially challenging. Due to their popularity, the number of Goldens who compete in a show is generally higher than other breeds. That means you must outdo a greater number of competitors in order to win points towards your dog’s championship. Owner-handlers (that’s me) oftentimes compete against professional dog show handlers, so the competition is stiff.
Q: Could you tell us about any memorable moments you've had while participating in dog shows?
A: The most memorable event at a show took place in December 2020 at the Mid Florida Golden Retriever Specialty (a specialty is a dog show for just one breed). Maestro finished his championship with professional Rindi Gaudet handling him. It was an especially challenging time as we were all contending with the pandemic.
Q: Can you share some advice on how pet owners can best prepare their dogs for crowded environments like dog shows or dog-friendly events?
A: The best way to prepare your dog for crowded environments is to participate in a Canine Good Citizen class. You and your dog will learn how to navigate in a crowd, how to greet another dog and handler. In addition to learning how to sit, stay, down, come and loose leash walking, the dog and handler participate as a team. Dogs are so smart and intuitive--spend time with your pet, take a class together and build rapport with your dog.
Professional dog walking is a valuable service for many pet owners who are unable to provide their dogs with the necessary exercise due to work commitments or physical limitations. With an increase in pet ownership in recent years, this profession has grown significantly. Now, let's hear about our interviewee's experiences as a professional dog walker.
Q: How have your experiences as a dog walker influenced how you handle and present your dogs in shows?
A: Care and concern over the well-being of my client’s pets and my own dogs are pretty much the same. I want to ensure that all the dogs are happy, safe, and comfortable.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you as a professional dog walker?
A: There really isn’t a typical day in the life of a pet sitter because clientele is constantly changing. My day generally began between 7 and 8 am with the first of several dog walks. I would break until noon then start with the next set of pets after lunchtime. The third block would begin around 3 pm then home for our family dinner. The typical workday ended around 8 pm. Unscheduled time during the day was designated for appointments with new clients and taking care of special requests. My clientele mainly consisted of dogs and cats. Exotic birds, reptiles and ferrets kept things exciting. I was very fortunate to have a number of very long term clients.
Q: As a professional dog walker, what precautions do you take to ensure the dogs you walk are safe and comfortable?
A: The safety and well-being of my client’s pets were of the utmost importance. I never used Flexi leads [Editor's note: "Flexi" is a brand of retractable leashes; the interviewee's comment applies to all similar types of leashes] as I find them to be unreliable and dangerous. It’s so easy to lose control of the dog while walking and if they wrap around the dog’s or my legs, it really hurts! I have had firsthand experience with this situation and have a scar to prove it! I found it best not to interact with other dogs while out walking client’s pets. Everyone likes to say his or her dog is friendly, but you never know until it is too late. I always avoided dog parks for the same reason. Walking in hot weather was a concern, so I stayed in the shade as much as possible and off hot pavement.
Blessing of the animals, also known as pet blessings, is a religious practice observed by various faiths. The tradition is most prevalent in Catholic and Episcopalian communities and often takes place on or around October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Now, let's learn about how our interviewee organized these special events.
Pastor Tom Lacey blessing Golden Retrievers at the Blessing of the Animals at the Congregational Church of Boca Raton (now called Church on the Hill), Boca Raton, Florida (Credit: Gary Martin)
Q: Can you tell us about your experience organizing the "blessing of the animals" at the church?
A: Of all the events I planned at church over the years, the annual pet blessing was undoubtedly my favorite. The blessings were such a joyful event--watching owners with their beloved pets and knowing we, as a congregation, were helping homeless pets through our fundraising efforts.
Q: What inspired you to organize such an event?
A: I noticed a number of other area churches from various denominations hosted an annual pet blessing and I thought our church should host one as well. Our pets are viewed as authentic members of our families so why not incorporate them into once-a-year church service that emphasizes their importance to us. According to Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8:6-8, God placed the care of animals into human hands.
Q: What were some memorable moments from these ceremonies?
A: I enjoyed the variety of pets who came to be blessed. My favorites included the Sugar Glider who traveled in a shoe box, a Betta fish which came in its little aquarium and my ball python (Steven just traveled in a pillowcase). For the Betta, our pastor dipped his finger in the bowl to bestow the blessing.
Observing the joy and emotions on people’s faces as they participated in their pet’s blessing was most meaningful to me. Our pastor had a unique prayer for each pet which made each blessing special.
Q: What kind of planning and considerations were necessary to conduct these events successfully, especially considering safety for all the animals involved?
A: To keep everyone safe, all dogs were required to be leashed (no Flexi leads!) All cats and pocket pets needed to be in carriers. Dogs and owners sat one side of the church and everyone else sat on the other side.
Q: Did you include other activities in the event, such as animal rescue/adoption involvement?
A: A fundraiser was always included in the pet blessing service. Prizes for a very popular raffle were donated by local businesses and the monies were given to a local rescue group. One year, a local rescue group brought pets available for adoption to our pet blessing. Those pets received their own special blessings, too. Another popular aspect of this event was the pet photo contest. Pet owners submitted a photo of their pets to the church and the Sunday school kids picked the winner. The prize was a gift card to a local pet store.
Q: Do you have any advice for other communities or churches who might be considering hosting a similar event?
A: Pet blessing events are time consuming and involve many details but are so rewarding. It really helps to have volunteers to lend a hand to make this project a success.
Consider your event location with safety and comfort of all in mind.
Choose a worthy recipient of your fund raising efforts.
Compile a list of possible raffle item donors
Solicit cooperation of your pastor
Advertise your event, ask congregants to spread the word. Remember the more the merrier!
Embrace the noise and have fun!
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