SILVER LAKE — Plenty of teenagers — and people in general — love dogs, but only a select few get to work with them full-time as a handler, people like Alexis Shook. Even then, only a small number of junior handlers are on Alexis’ level.
Alexis, a 15-year-old who lives near Silver Lake, is the nation’s No. 1-ranked junior poodle dog show handler and the No. 8 ranked non-sporting dog handler. (The junior category is for handlers ages 9 through 18.)
“Dogs are my favorite animal,” Alexis said in a recent interview. “I love that they’re kind of like a person, but they’re not really. I enjoy spending time with my dogs, just because they’re all happy and fun to play ball with and things like that.”
She has three poodles she shows, including a feisty dog less than a year old named Twitter. Alexis said she has no idea how the poodle earned that unusual name, but Twitter’s abundant energy certainly warrants comparisons to the fast-paced social media site.
Alexis began showing dogs when she was 7, thanks to the encouragement of her mother, who also was a handler as a child.
Currently, Alexis works under the tutelage of professional handler Soni (pronounced “sunny”) Jager from Junction City, Ore. Jager said she hired Alexis as an assistant three months ago after watching Alexis show poodles for years.
According to Jager, Alexis has a natural knack for dog handling.
“There’s just a certain something that people have that can do this job,” said Jager, 51. “(Alexis) has the confidence, she’s got the athletic ability (and) she’s got the desire to be a great handler. If they have that, the rest they can learn.”
During show, Alexis and one of her poodles have to jog in the ring — in dress shoes, no less — to show off her dog’s structure and movement. From there, judges pick which of the many competing dogs best fits the breed’s standards.
Alexis said that in terms of movement and structure — how the dog’s bones are set, i.e. their shoulders and hips — poodles are her personal favorite to show. The way she grooms and trains her dogs are key to how they present at shows.
How does the 15-year-old routinely place well in junior competitions, which typically attract 50 or more competitors? Alexis said her rise to the top is all about experience.
“I’ve shown poodles for quite a while now, around six years, and I’ve been ranked every year. But this the first year I’ve gotten to be number one,” she said. “I’ve just gone out and shown more and won a lot more because I’m more experienced.”
Alexis’ schedule can be grueling: About two weekends out of every month are dedicated to dog shows. She routinely travels around the West Coast, including Alaska, to show her poodles. She is preparing for a trip to Colorado and Utah next week after a show this weekend in St. Helens, Ore.
According to Alexis, her favorite location so far for a show was Sacramento.
“There’s a lot of competition down there, and it’s warm,” she said of the California capital.
Travel isn’t the only way dog shows take up a lot of time: Alexis says it can take up most of a day to groom and prepare her dogs the day before a weekend show.
“You have to wash and dry (the poodles), which takes four hours, and then you have to shave and scissor them and do their nails and get them ready for the show,” she said. “It probably takes six hours (in total) the day before the show.”
Facing such demands, Alexis and her family decided that traditional schooling wouldn’t work. So she studies through the online Insight School of Washington, which has helped make her education more flexible.
“It would be really hard, because I can’t take off that many days (from school),” she said. “I would be really swamped with my schoolwork, trying to take all my books with me. Now, I have everything online, and I only have to take a certain amount of books with me. So (Insight) makes it real easy.”
What about making friends, a very important part of school? Alexis said thanks to dog shows, that’s not a problem.
“I have a lot of friends at dog shows, and I meet people when I go places,” she said. “I see a lot of my friends that I do junior shows with pretty much every weekend I go to a show ... and I meet new people when I go to new places.”
More than the success or the rush of showing, Alexis said she just loves spending time with her poodles.
“I like how we bond when we show,” she said. “We involve a lot of training in it, so we spend a lot of time with them.”
As for her future, Alexis said that she’s tentatively planning on continuing part-time as a dog show handler as an adult, while also working another career.
Jager said that as long as Alexis wants to keep working with dogs, she should have no problem keeping up.
“(Alexis) is a great kid and she’s got a great future ahead of her. She just gets better and better.”