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The town in which I live had never before seen such unity among strangers and neighbors alike. In the face of utter tragedy, we hugged and comforted each other, the thought bubble over our heads the same.

We are Columbine.

Throughout the state, school assemblies, prayer vigils and pep rallies ended the same way: A murmur would emanate deep from within the crowd and build to a crescendo as every person speaking the words gave strength to the person beside them.

We are Columbine.

After 9/11, American flags sprouted up on lawns, and Old Glory appeared on lapels and bumper stickers.  We seemed to have more patience with each other because the attack in New York City was an attack on all of us, and all of us were hurting.

In a far different and much happier way, many of us have experienced something similar at a National Specialty; the Best of Breed winner goes on to compete in group, and as the dog gaits for its individual examination, breed supporters roar their approval. Why do we do this?  Why do we so ardently support a dog and its handler that only hours before were competitors we wanted to soundly beat?

You know the answer.

We support our own. When it’s “us” against all others, we form a tribe.

A sense of tribe: It's what makes competitors become cheering fans

A sense of tribe: It’s what makes competitors become cheering fans

Basketball legend, Phil Jackson,borrowed heavily from Buddhist thinking and Native American philosophies to build his teams into juggernauts. He did it by shaping talented, but largely selfish players into a tribe bound by brotherhood and pride. If I were pressed to condense what it was that Jackson drummed into his players, it would be this: Team always beats a group of individuals. This is, in my view, a lesson the dog fancy has yet to learn, and we’re likely to lose the battle against animal rights momentum if we don’t learn it soon.  HSUS, PETA, and their ilk are the “Borg” of our lifetime; they absorb misinformed animal lovers and become a single voice. Remove one part, plug in another, it doesn’t matter, they are drones of the Collective.  If there is dissention in the ranks, we don’t hear of it. If there is friction between groups, who can say.

Does this even remotely sound like the dog fancy?

The same rugged individualism that once served fanciers well is now a hindrance to the cohesion needed to disarm those who would see our demise. Instead of acting in a manner that’s in the best interest of a threatened sport, there are too many among us who proceed with business as usual even as they acknowledge that their sport is in trouble.  Instead of writing to their legislator, they write on Facebook.  Instead of pointing out flawed thinking behind dog legislation to local representatives, they’re quick to point out flaws of other dogs or exhibitors. Squabbling over real or perceived slights when the worst assault on our sport ever is happening seems a luxury to me, and to continue down this road is like arguing over who gets to sit next to the captain at dinner when the meal is being served on the Titanic.


In their groundbreaking book, Tribal Leadership, a book used by Phil Jackson to reshape his team, authors Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fisher-Wright described five stages of development on the way to tribal unity.  Self-centered achievement, winning as a means to elevate oneself, despair when falling short, and apathy towards anything outside of one’s personal bubble characterize the first (juvenile, if you will) stages of development. If we’re being honest, doesn’t this sound familiar? Didn’t most of us go through similar phases on the way to becoming seasoned dog fanciers?

Individuals at stage 4 see the big picture and regard themselves as a thread in the tapestry of a community.  When people at this point coalesce, they share cohesion so strong, it becomes an invincible “us” against “them” mindset characteristic of the final fifth phase of tribal maturity. The 1995 – 1998 Chicago Bulls was a team made up of Stage 5 people. Though they’d started out as a loose group of talented, but egocentric players, they became a “tribe” once each player embraced a self-sacrificing approach to the game as advocated by Jackson. Playing for each other now, they became the only NBA team ever to win 70 regular season games.

Can you imagine the formidable force we’d become if every purebred dog owner, breeder, handler, exhibitor, judge, steward, and poop-scooper did what was in the best interest of the sport?

What’s that you say?  Basketball is a team sport, but dog shows are individuals competing against individuals?

How’s that working out for us?

Are newcomers clamoring to get into the sport? Do hundreds of us pack city council meetings to speak out against bad legislation? Are clubs turning away new members? Shouldn’t we be putting as much energy into saving the sport as we do in participating in it?

To persuade his players to approach the game differently, Phil Jackson used Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path to teach his players “selfless” basketball. Each player learned to see the game as a whole and work together as a team like fingers on a hand. If one “finger” was damaged, gangrene threatened all the fingers, if not the whole hand. This is a metaphor, of course, but easily applied to the dog fancy. When one breeder is negatively impacted by an animal rights driven agenda, the precedent makes it easier to go after all breeders.  When all hobby breeders have been driven away or discouraged, dog shows stand to become a thing of the past and only substandard breeders will be left to perpetuate our breeds.

Doing the right thing, remaining positive, humble and approachable builds “team” spirit and encourages fellow fanciers to do the same.

When pigs fly” is an expression I can almost hear you saying to yourself right now. I daresay it’s the same phrase I would have muttered myself years ago if someone had told me that one day,  “dog breeder” would become a dirty word, owners with certain breeds would be barred from living where they want, and rescue dogs would be elevated in status over purebred dogs.

Do we want to dine in on the Titanic, or jump on a lifeboat?

This article first appeared in Dogs in Review, Volume 18 Issue 1,December 19, 2013

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlee January 21, 2014 at 8:04 pm

Actually, there ARE quite a few people trying to get into the fancy. Our future in part, depends on how we welcome them, or perhaps IF we welcome them. Right now we need every potential rookie we’ve got. Hopefully there WILL still be a future in dogs for all of us.

THAT said, yes, we need to stick together. I quote: “We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

— Benjamin Franklin


Kara January 26, 2014 at 5:18 am

I have a new pup and will be trying this dog show thing once again. If this pup starts to win as quickly as my first pup I took out, I expect the same handler will start the same harassment, the same cowards will stand by and watch and the same AKC will do nothing, and I will never return to this sport.


louis vuitton australia March 13, 2014 at 2:57 pm

It my first visit to this site We Are a Tribe , and I am actually surprised to see such a nice feature YouTube video posted here.


Jennifer Smith Touchgold Kennels April 26, 2014 at 1:57 pm


I can’t believe I missed your Phil Jackson article! Its great! And, yes agreed that if all of us in the purebred dog fancy banded together to explain our sport to the HSUS and PETA folks it would be phenomenal. Here’s another thought for you about what gets in the way of our sport–ego. In her TED talk on creativity and genius
Elizabeth Gilbert advises there’s a way to get the ego out of our way–we must put in the work, but there’s something divine in the way we get inspired and its not just us. In a dog show, I think what happens is a special connection between us and our dogs. And our tribe shares the connection and that’s what we love about it.


Susi April 26, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Guffaw, I can’t believe you missed it earlier, either, Jennifer!! Where’ve you been, woman? I’m looking forward to looking at the link. I suspect there could be another article in it if it’s about ego……


Jennifer Smith April 27, 2014 at 9:37 am

She describes what she sees as the reason so many writers have been brought down with terrible addictions and depression-her talk outlines a way to put everything in perspective and to keep creating. On my way to my breed’s national today-I will most definitely be implementing your many inspired lessons this week-and mostly I will be enjoying time my dogs and the people in our sport.


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