Developing New Show Homes – A Labor of Love
In June of 2019, Sean and I moved to New Jersey. The Northeast has housed close to 50 percent of the Irish Terrier breeders in the country for the past few decades, but in the past 6 to 10 years, 75 percent of the breeders have been lost for many different reasons. We have lost a huge contingency. As a vice-president of the parent club, I have seen the number drop every year.
We decided to start an experiment, to see if we could impact the number of exhibitors in our region. We agreed to devote 50 percent of our resources, time and financials, dedicated to the dogs, to try and develop new show homes in hopes of getting some of them interested in breeding.
Almost three years ago, we started trying to identify, develop, mentor, and support as many new show homes as we could, either by helping them groom, show, and train their dogs, or by connecting them to handlers who would help them with their puppies.
In the past two years, we have hosted weekly grooming sessions—sometimes twice a week. We’ve had handling workshops; we’ve attended seminars together; we’ve gone to handling classes together; and we have often shown as a group. And for the ones who have a busy work schedule, we’ve helped them to identify the best match when it comes to handlers, helping them create a relationship and understand the whole process. We have also had handlers who have helped new show homes by grooming their dogs, and in some cases, they have even given private handling lessons to our newbies, especially in the case of Juniors.
Having a great relationship with handlers in our area has been fundamental to create a support system for the new show homes. This takes a lot sacrifice and dedication. Sometimes the new show homes cannot come to the grooming sessions because of the work schedule, so I give up part of my Sunday when we do not have shows to help them catch up on grooming.
I also volunteer at one of our local 4-H dog clubs, and have had some of the Juniors transition from mixed breeds to purebred. Some of these Juniors have used our dogs to show in AKC Junior Showmanship.
It’s very important to be open-minded and try to be sympathetic to all of the new exhibitors’ different backgrounds, different stages of life and careers, their daily routines, and their social activities. We cannot be too rigid, especially in the beginning, because they do not understand or grasp the commitment that is involved in dog sports. If you are not flexible and try to work with their constraints, you will never be able to bring new people, especially the new generations, into the sport.
It is fundamental to keep the newcomers’ expectations and commitment in check. Always be clear that their success will be directly proportional to the time and effort they put into the dogs. Sure, it is easier to have a handler work with the dog, but some people really want to go through the whole process on their own, which can be very rewarding if you put in the time and effort.
You need to be willing to work with the two different groups, and it is very common to have a hybrid; where we work in a system in which the owner and the handler show the dogs at different shows. This has proven to be very effective with dogs that the owners want to be more competitive with at big shows and fight for the rankings.
One of the most important aspects of developing show homes in our modern world is to let go of old concepts. Today, people work and learn very differently than a few decades ago. The Internet and smart phones have created an interactive world where distance and time become irrelevant and learning can happen much faster. I use Facetime, Zoom, and Facebook Messenger to mentor show and companion homes across the country, in Canada, and in other countries. Flexibility and empathy are fundamental to help people understand and fall in love with the sport of purebred dogs.
One big obstacle for new homes are the contracts. This is a very sensitive topic, and I understand both sides of the issue. I understand the decades of dedication to your bloodline, the generations of commitment and passion. Those are all of great value and are very important, and I deeply appreciate them. But they do not make sense for all the rest of the population. If you are paying full price for your puppy, why would you need to give back the pick of the first—sometimes the second—litter? When will these new breeders be able to have their first high-quality homebred dog?
I was very fortunate that my mentor and co-breeder does not believe in contracts. I understood why right away; in the eyes of the law, in most cases, ownership is based on possession. For a beginner, the concept of needing to give back the pick of one litter, and many times two litters, is not commensurable.
We use a co-ownership contract, which spells out clearly that the co-ownership is only for purposes of showing and breeding. We make it clear that the ownership and possession of the dog in question is solely that of the co-owner buyer. The other reasoning for this is that if I want to “BUY” a puppy back, I would prefer that I was listed as co-breeder. Then I would be showing a puppy that I bred.
These changes to the contracts make new homes more comfortable and it sounds much fairer than the traditional contracts, those that made sense a few decades ago. We need to change and adapt in order to appeal to the modern world.
We have been criticized for what we do with the picks of our litters; that we are crazy to risk them with prospective show homes. But the truth is… if you do not give the best show prospect to some of the new show homes, the chances for them to succeed and get hooked by the “dog show bug” are very slim.
So, we have placed picks of the litters with new show homes, and in the majority of cases we have been very successful. There is only one situation where we decided to let them go; their priorities and their passion were not in the sport. If people are not happy for many reasons, it is better not to push them because they will only disturb the synergy of the group. Sometimes you need to accept setbacks for the greater good of your circle. We are all “in dogs” because we love them and we love the sport. If you no longer find joy in it, it’s time to move on or at least take a break.
One topic that comes up at the AKC Delegate Meetings is the need to breed more litters. This is one of the biggest challenges our sport is facing today. The decline in litter numbers affects not only the quality, it directly impacts entries in all breeds in the many events within our sport.
The AKC staff frequently urges us to go back home and breed more litters. To be able to do so, with restrictions of the local ordinances and legislation that force us to reduce the number of dogs we can keep (and in some situations even to relocate), is one of the biggest challenges we face.
To be able to increase the number of breeding bitches and dogs in the current legislative scenario, one can only achieve this by creating new show homes and partnering with them. Of course, this brings a new challenge where people become very competitive with each other, and it can make working together a challenge. To try and minimize this issue and create a more synergetic environment, we are trying to develop a team concept, where we are all part of the same team. We help each other, we cheer for each other, and we support each other. Nobody likes to lose, but if we are all working in a synergetic environment, we tend to see the bigger picture.
I’ve lost to my teammates many times, which, for people who really know me, sounds crazy. They know how competitive I am, but seeing my teammates excel with our help has been very rewarding. You win even when you lose!
We’ve also created some team attire… LOL! We have chairs embroidered with our logo, grooming aprons, vests, and we’re working on more items. These tools help the group feel like a team and they enable the synergy. We have experienced some successes and I would like to share with you the results of our efforts.
In the past four years, we have sponsored about 30 new parent club members, with a retention of 90 percent. Twenty-four members are show homes, and four are Juniors. We also have two more homes with Juniors that will be joining our club in the next few months.
The retention of our show homes is about 80 percent. I am extremely happy with this. To give you an idea of the impact at a regional and national level, we will use data from some recent shows.
Our local regional club had an increase of 90 percent in the entries relative to the previous year. We went from 10 Irish Terriers at our regional specialty to 19 this year. Nine of the dogs were out of our breeding program and only two live at our home. At our national specialty this year, we will have a very significant entry for the Rockledge team.
The average entry for our national specialty has been around 45 to 47 dogs since we joined the parent club 10 years ago. This year, the Rockledge contingency will be 15 entries, nine class dogs and six specials. If we maintain our average entry, our national specialty will have a grown by 20 percent, maybe 25 percent.
We also have two new show homes in Canada. One is brand new to the sport and doing very well, and the other is a home getting back into our sport after a long break. One of our dogs just finished his Spanish Championship and belongs to a new partner, Betirish Kennel, in Spain for future projects. And we have been working with the Merrymac Kennel in Sweden. Not bad for three years of work!
I want to close this article by mentioning one of our show homes, which, for me, is one of the most inspiring stories of my career. I have never been happier or more proud of any of our big wins as I have felt about their accomplishment. Theirs has been a very inspiring journey, and their weekly commitment and dedication has paid off big time.
They have been in the purebred dog sport for just 18 months, starting as neophytes with handling and grooming. If you are familiar with Irish Terrier grooming, you know how challenging it can be for experienced people, never mind a neophyte. Also, taking into consideration the fact that this breed is largely dominated by highly regarded professional handlers makes winning the classes a truly herculean feat.
Against all odds, they managed to finish their dog’s championship by earning every single point themselves. (I will not embarrass myself to tell publicly how long it took me to finish one of my dogs on my own.) Their newfound love for our sport is what keeps me always on the lookout for the next new show home, with hope that they will become our next breeders.
To see their success with their first show dogs, and that of many others in our little dog family, makes all the long hours of grooming sessions and working on their handling skills with their Irish Terriers (and the many hours on the phone or FaceTime) all worth it! Every success story makes my passion for our sport and our breed grow exponentially.