There’s a satisfaction that comes from having attended one’s National Specialty, the sense that our obligation to “check in” with our breed has been met. I suppose it’s not unlike the physician who reads medical journals to keep up with the latest studies and current thinking. Unlike medicine, however, it behooves the dog fancier to look backwards in time and know something about the dogs, breeders and exhibitors upon whose shoulders we stand.
The twenty-one hour drive back from my own breed’s national this past week gave me ample opportunity to think (to ruminate, really) over a discovery that quite honestly startled me. Rather than point fingers at my own breed, I should mention that I’ve since learned from other fanciers that they’ve noticed the same thing in their own breeds: There’s a disturbing lack of knowledge among newer members of a breed club about their own breed and its history. As someone from another breed told me, “New people come into this breed and want instant gratification. It never occurs to them that there may be some dues to pay, or that talking as much as they can with the “elders’ of their breed is a good idea. They just don’t study old pedigrees or seem to want to learn about the past like we did.”
Several weeks ago, I was taken aside by a newbie who felt more should be done to teach people new to her breed, perhaps by offering a mentoring program. “We need teachers!” she told me, and I was struck by the irony. I’d written an article over the summer that had been triggered by the very same statement. Standing ringside at a dog show years ago, it was impossible not to overhear the conversation of two people sitting in front of me, dog on the floor between them. The couple seemed to be equal parts enthusiasm and puzzlement as they sorted out what they were seeing in the ring. At one point, one of them shook her head, sighed and lamented, “You’d think after a couple of years, I’d understand more of what I’m seeing, but it sure would be nice if someone could sit with me and tell me what to look for.” Her male companion nodded his head and replied, “Where are all the teachers?”
I didn’t doubt the chap’s sincerity, but the way it was asked made me find his question a bit naive. It reminded me of someone asking a grocer, “Where will I find apples?”
Apples are to be found where one would expect to find them: On an apple tree or in the produce section of a grocery store.
Likewise, mentors are found in “mentor habitat.” They’re at seminars, conferences, and workshops because the longer they’re “in dogs,” the more they realize there is to learn about genetics, reproduction, structure and nutrition – and, they attend as many Specialties as they can to stay current with their breed.
Teachers can be found running all-breed and breed clubs so that specialties, judges’ education, breed statistics and perpetual trophies can remain in existence. They’re chairing committees, editing newsletters and keeping the club books. They’re doing it because not enough newbies to the dog fancy are volunteering to work behind the scenes to keep the sport running. These “gurus” of the dog fancy are keeping the legacy of their respective breeds alive for future generations. They are the Keepers of the Flame.
Unlike apples, there is no Mentor Tree ripe for the picking – but if the fellow asking the question had only looked, he would have realized that mentors have been right in front of his eyes all along. They were the ones setting up ring standards the night before a dog show, sitting in board meetings, poop-scooping the remains of dogs they don’t own to protect the club, and stuffing hospitality bags at specialties. They were the folks going over dogs in parking lots or grooming areas and watching other breeds being judged. They were the folks staying until Best in Show was over even if they didn’t know any of the dogs competing.
Mentors are working, researching, stewarding, learning, judging, breeding, evaluating and studying. They’re talking with other dog people in restaurants, hospitality rooms and hallways, sometimes reminiscing about when they were new and hung on the words of people more experienced than themselves. Now they’re wondering where the heck all the new people are. If the fellow from the dog show wasn’t able to find mentors, perhaps it was because he wasn’t where the mentors are.
Most often, mentors don’t even regard themselves as such because dog people are perpetual students. There’s always something new to learn, a different breeding to try, a new goal – and one day, the person who stayed with the sport beyond the five to seven year average “lifespan” of someone new to it suddenly realizes they’ve been in the sport for thirty years.
Many newcomers to the sport rely on their breeders to learn how to navigate this new world, but competition is a funny thing and there’s something to be said about learning the ropes from someone unlikely to be a competitor in the same breed ring. Sometimes, the best mentor is someone with different breed altogether. Some things are universal to all dogs regardless of breed. By learning to follow movement in a fully corded Puli or watching structure-in-action on a hairless dog, we train our eyes how to see. The “old timers” are right; there’s a lot to learn about our own breeds by watching other ones – and just maybe, a future mentor can be found by sitting outside those rings, watching, listening, and when possible, asking questions. There’s nothing a dog person likes more than to talk about their breed.
Not everyone had a mentor as they entered the sport, and many fanciers learned through trial and error, mistakes and successes, broken friendships and new allies. Sometimes the best mentor is actually several people, each of whom can offer wisdom from different points of view. Not all breeders excel at handling, not all great handlers have a track record in the whelping box, and the marvel with a brush and a pair of scissors who can teach us how to groom may be none of the above.
A great mentor might be an “old timer” who no longer steps foot in the show ring anymore, but whose knowledge could fill one. These veterans are gems, in my estimation, people who can bring alive what it was to compete with or have their hands on great dogs now only distant names on a pedigree. It’s been my experience that health willing, these people seldom miss a Specialty, but also that they rarely get to meet new club members who tend to gravitate to more familiar faces from the show ring.
There is simply no substitute for endurance in this sport. While mentors don’t actively seek out students, they are keen to pass along knowledge because at some point, time catches up to us all and certain is the knowledge that without “new blood,” the fancy and our respective breeds will wither and fade away. To catch the eye of a potential teacher, one needs not only to be where they are, but also to show evidence of an eagerness to learn, to make mistakes, and to roll up one’s sleeves and get to work.
Coming up: Part II: I found a mentor. Now what do I do?
A variation of this article first appeared in Dogs in Review, August 2013 issue