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If one talks with a fancier long enough, inevitably the subject of the “greying” of our sport comes up. We fret over the future of our respective breeds; club members wring their hands over how to attract new and younger members, and the AKC grapples with finding relevancy with a generation raised on the “adopt-don’t-shop” mantra. It’s natural to wonder how best to attract the young (as if they were oddities being lured into a humane trap with the most effective bait) when the future of the sport has wrinkles.

In reality, the fancy already has a young demographic. We call them junior handlers, and while we talk a good game about the importance of supporting them, the fact is that we could do more. Junior Finals should be part of the evening line-up for televised dog shows not only to show how much we value them, but to attract young viewers to the sport; Prize money at premier shows should get serious (as in “college tuition-money” serious), and more clubs might consider “adopting” a junior by helping mentor and/or sponsor their career.

Every enterprise needs an occasional renaissance, and our sport is no different, but as I see it, there’s a more compelling reason to encourage our juniors than to safeguard the future of our sport. We need them to help safeguard the future of our society.

Living among us are young adults who, in their short lives thus far, have been rewarded for simply taking breath, figuratively speaking. As children, they’ve received soccer and little league trophies not for having the best record in their league, but for participating. Some attended schools where letter grades have been eliminated as “relics from a less enlightened age,” and because Valedictorian and Salutatorian honors have come to be seen as encouraging an “unhealthy” level of competition, many high schools and colleges have dispensed with them. A Columbia University survey in 2007 found that 85 percent of American parents thought it was important to tell their kids that they’re smart, as opposed to telling them that hard work, a good disposition, or consistent effort was valued at least as much. Many Millennials have grown up in a world where self-esteem trumps actual accomplishment, “trigger warnings,” must accompany their forays into the real world, and being offended is to be avoided at all costs.

It doesn’t seem to have worked out. A growing body of research indicates that the self-esteem movement has hurt kids more than help them. A review of over 150 praise studies by Reed College and Stanford scholars determined that highly praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy.  No surprise, then, that we now have the “Snowflake Generation:” Young adults so easily offended that they demand “safe zones” at college campuses where they are protected from words and ideas they don’t like. These people are genuinely distressed by ideas that run at odds with their worldview. Rather than embrace a different point of view, they insist that history be rewritten to eliminate the bad guys, and that life come at them with warning bells to ensure a stress-free future.

The fact that some Millennials have became this way is rooted in how their parents raised them, coupled with society’s tolerance of their hypersensitivity. Some parents have gone to ludicrous lengths to eliminate all risk and disappointment from their children’s lives, and worse, they’ve done it to spare themselves the unpleasantness of dealing with their children’s rejection, disappointment, or failure – some of the basic “food groups” of just being alive.

The end result is a group of individuals who lack the resiliency children learn in a competitive environment such as junior showmanship. Early on, juniors learn about winning and losing, team work, effort, competition, and sooner or later, the importance of balance. They must take criticism from strangers, fellow competitors, friends, and parents. They don’t always win, and learn that life isn’t always fair. In time, they’ll learn about good breeding practices where they’ll inevitably encounter words like, “bitch,” semen,” “penis,” and other steamy biological words, and they’ll be able to talk about breeding without blushing or giggling foolishly. Contrast this with Harvard law students who in 2014 asked professors not to teach rape law, or even use the word “violate” because it might distress the students. Don’t we all want an attorney who can’t say the actual word of a crime committed against us without falling apart?

The world of Junior Showmanship isn’t perfect, or at times, even pretty: Children can encounter stage parents (both their own, and that of the competition), snarky competitors, biased judges, ugly comments, spectator scrutiny, and any manner of things that can, and do go wrong. There is room for criticism: Some juniors compete with a finished champion that could show itself and thereby miss the point of what junior showmanship is supposed to be about, but guess what? The show ring is a lot like real life, and few of us emerge out of it unscathed. Some of us have advantages from the start, some of us don’t. The more “reality” that youngsters encounter in the somewhat protected environment of a show ring, the more resilient they’ll be in a big bad world that comes without safety net.

In 1999, the junior handler in my life entered a show ring with her dog and lined up next to kids who’d been her regular competition for the previous few years. For a few of them, it was the first show they’d entered since a shooting at the school they attended, Columbine High School. Their world that day had been a very, very bad place. Some of these kids “bended” in the weeks that followed, but not one broke, and the group hug that occurred in a familiar place surrounded by instant therapy dogs had become their safe zone.

In adversity, a “Snowflake” will be most apt to run and hide, but I’d lay odds that a junior handler will say, “Bring it.” I’ll put my future in the hands of that junior over the melt-on-contact sensibilities of a “Snowflake” any day.

This piece first appeared in Dogs in Review, September 2016


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