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Breed Mentors & Where to Find Them

Two Pomeranian dogs at a grooming table during a dog show.

Breed Mentors & Where to Find Them

A mentor is a person who provides counsel and guidance—not just news and information. A mentor is a trusted advisor who volunteers their time to share knowledge that was gained through experience. A mentor is someone who cares enough to take on a leadership role, providing direction as well as support. A mentor is always consistent, staying on message until each lesson is learned. A mentor is understanding and patient, never pushing too hard too quickly. A mentor is honest, offering both praise and criticism as needed. A mentor provides the kind of motivation that can lead others to victory and offers the sort of critique that can challenge people to become better versions of themselves.

In the sport of dogs, mentors are generally available for just about any activity. Performance people can be guided by trainers at the facilities where they practice Agility, Dock Diving, and Scent Work. Participants in Companion events can connect with more experienced competitors at class who may be able to offer helpful solutions to persistent problems. And even aspiring show chairs, stewards, and judges can apprentice under knowledgeable mentors whose long-term involvement in these endeavors often proves to be enormously helpful. But when it comes to learning about a breed, about your breed, where’s the best place to find the right mentor?

For most Conformation exhibitors, the first breed mentor is often the breeder of their first show dog. The dam’s owner certainly has some experience (at least enough to raise a litter of puppies from presumably titled and health-tested parents), but being a breeder on paper does not always mean that person is equipped to mentor the newbie. For some newcomers, the initial mentor in a breed can be the owner of the sire or one of the other puppies in the litter. These folks may have considerable experience in the breed and are only too happy to answer questions and respond to phone calls, emails, and text messages. If the breeder is always available—wonderful! But if they’re not, other “family members” can step in as great resources.

Sometimes a mentor can be found at a dog show. Opportunities for learning abound at these events, despite the persistent schedule and the general “busyness” of the goings on. At any given show, a mentor can be found in the person who offers a helpful suggestion in the ring. Or maybe it’s the judge who gives a compliment (or a criticism). Perhaps it’s a neighbor back at the set-up who shares a grooming tip, or the professional handler who provides a breed-specific handling tip. Each of these interactions can jump-start a mentorship with someone who has in-depth experience with a particular breed. The key to success in the relationship is for the newcomer to demonstrate a genuine willingness to learn more… the mentor will usually do the rest.

Of course, formal systems are already in place for providing mentorship in a given breed. Parent clubs have designated breed mentors who are approved to assist aspiring judges, but these experienced volunteers are also available to guide newer club members with their first (or second or third) dog. The mentors’ status as advisors is indicative of their in-depth knowledge and their ability to communicate the salient points that define a breed. It also means they know what it’s like to actually live with a particular breed, which can be especially helpful to the novice who is experiencing a medical or behavioral issue (or facing a logistical dilemma) for the very first time.

Many parent clubs also have breeders’ education committees that encourage communication among breeders with all levels of experience. Their members are typically qualified to provide assistance with most aspects of a breed, from training and problem-solving to grooming, showing, and of course, breeding. They are also dedicated to upholding the Breed Standard and health-testing their breeding stock. These folks can be a great resource for someone who is looking to find a mentor who can offer suggestions, provide direction, and deliver the right message—whether it’s wanted or not. In this way, a good breed mentor is a lot like a good friend.

A grooming table can be a great spot for an impromptu mentoring session.

No matter where a breed mentor is found, that person is likely to become a trusted advisor, coach, teacher, confidant, and occasional therapist. The counsel they provide can even allow the novice to avoid some of the pitfalls that aggravated the mentor in the early days of their association with a breed. A good mentor offers all they know without expecting anything in return. The only thing a mentor should expect is for the recipient of their help to “pay it forward” to the next person who’s looking for a little guidance in the breed.

In many ways, a successful breed mentor is a lot like a great show dog. Neither is born (despite what some have declared). Instead, both the great dog and the well-respected mentor require time to develop their many fine qualities. Both need lessons to inform their opinions. Both need real world experiences to figure things out. Both need personal accomplishments to set the bar, and both need challenges to overcome. And just as all great winners in the ring are not the same, each breed mentor is uniquely qualified to assist others. The secret to finding the best mentor in a breed is to realize you can have more than one.