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Q & A with Lee Whittier the Dog Show Mentor

The SHOWSIGHT family is pleased to introduce readers to Lee Whittier and the exciting program that she’s developed for owner handlers: DOG SHOW MENTOR.

Lee’s online program provides strategies, guidance, and support for today’s owner handlers who are looking to WIN MORE IN THE RING. DSM courses and masterclasses offer exhibitors at every level of experience a “virtual classroom” where they can learn how to best prepare, present, and perform with their dogs—and achieve their goals!

As a professional with a background in coaching and mentoring, plus more than 20 years’ experience as an American Kennel Club (AKC) Judge, Lee understands the need to mentor owner handlers for the competitive world of AKC events. DOG SHOW MENTOR provides a safe place to meet, and an unequalled opportunity to learn the strategies, presentation skills, and approach necessary to win.

Lee has graciously provided responses to a Q&A that’s designed with today’s owner handlers in mind. Thank you, Lee, and welcome to SHOWSIGHT!

  1. When did you first identify the need for Dog Show Mentor? Was there an “ah-ha” moment?
Lee Whittier
Lee judges her Group Winner at the 2018 Orange Empire Dog Club show.

Lee Whittier: Yes, there was an “ah-ha” moment. In 2016, I was judging, and a wonderful dog came into my ring that had the type, the soundness, and the personality to be a great special. Unfortunately, the owner handler had none of those things. As a dog owner myself, it hurt my heart to see the disappointment in the owner handler’s eyes, especially knowing that no matter how great the dog was, he could not overcome his shortcomings to take the wins he so richly deserved.

At that very same show, I overheard exhibitors talking—as I often have. They were speculating about what a judge was thinking or why a judge pointed to a particular dog. Now, these were people who appeared to be experienced dog exhibitors. I was struck by how little they seemed to understand the judges’ point of view and process… and I remembered the dog that wouldn’t be able to overcome the failings of the owner handler.

In my “ah-ha” moment, I realized that this is the only sport where exhibitors enter the ring with no training or experience, and still expect to win. I also recognized that for those with some experience, particularly owner handlers, authentic information was missing about what judges were thinking. That was the seed that started Dog Show Mentor. It was in that moment that I appreciated—someone should do something—and that I could do something about this gap. I could take action in a way that would bring great joy to many as well as add significant value to our sport. So, I created a program that provides authentic information about what the judges are really looking for, how decisions are really made, and how to ethically use that information to win more often in the ring.

  1. How would you describe the relationship between the owner handler and his or her mentor? Does it have to be a formal relationship?

Lee Whittier: You say that like every owner handler has a mentor, and how I wish that were true! Just imagine how the quality of presentation in the ring would improve if all owner handlers dedicated themselves to improving the craft in the same way a professional does. The answer to your question is: It doesn’t have to be a formal relationship between an owner handler and a mentor, but it sure does help. The problem with personal relationships is that sometimes personal boundaries or agendas get in the way. But, when an owner handler makes a commitment to “up their game” in the ring and chooses a paid professional mentor, the expectations of that relationship are not, “Be my buddy tomorrow.” Instead, they are, “Will you help me be my best, so I can help my dog win more in the ring?”

In the same way, this is why many people prefer to hire a professional contractor rather than relying on their handy brother-in-law. You can hold a contractor (with whom you have a professional relationship) to a higher standard than your brother-in-law who is doing you a favor. While we appreciate the support and advice from friends and family, and even our greater network, what we really need is a mentor who will take us as we are. There is value in a professional who doesn’t have a personal stake in whether or not we win, but is simply paid to do their best for us.

Now, if we’re talking about breed mentors, that’s a whole different conversation. I have an entire diatribe about choosing breed mentors; whether they should or should not include your breeder, and how to tell which is which. That’s for another time!

  1. Is it important for the owner handler to establish specific goals? Are the goals different depending on the experience level?

Lee Whittier: Absolutely, it’s very important for all exhibitors to establish goals. They will be different depending on the experience level. Most first-graders have a goal to learn to read, but a high school student can be ready to tackle something a lot more complex—maybe even Shakespeare. You would not give a first-grader Shakespeare when they’re just learning to sound out a few words.

So, the goal depends on each person’s current skill level and experience. Yes, we can aspire to win in the ring. However, with that said, it’s also necessary to know that there are steps to get there. In terms of goals, most of us are not starting at absolute zero, but we do need to have a destination in mind. Otherwise, how would we choose the best tools needed and the best route to get there?

  1. Do owner handlers need to understand ring procedure from the judge’s perspective? What about that “two minutes per dog” timeframe?

Lee Whittier: Whether owner handlers need to understand ring procedure from the judge’s perspective depends on the individual’s goals. If your goal is to learn how to simply show your dog, then you’re going to learn about judging procedures through osmosis. As we know, it’s certainly possible to be in the ring for the first time, know absolutely nothing, and just follow the judge’s instructions. Occasionally, those newbies win something. More often, they don’t.

If your goal is to win and keep winning, then understanding ring procedure from the judge’s perspective is essential. As a judge, I have to stay on time. AKC expects experienced judges to judge at least 25 dogs per hour, which breaks down to 2.4 minutes per dog. This includes taking photos, marking our books, choosing Best Puppy or Veteran, any non-regular classes, and, most recently, using hand sanitizer between each dog.

This also means decisive decision-making—who’s winning what award—in less than two minutes! We are happy to welcome new people to the ring. It’s my personal pleasure to know it’s an exhibitor’s first time or someone has a new puppy that’s gleefully untrained. However, the extra time it takes to give additional instructions to someone who hasn’t been paying attention to ring procedure or hasn’t bothered to train their dog can result in the judge having to play catch-up to stay on time. So, the answer is, if you want to win on any kind of a regular basis, it’s important to take the time to understand basic judging procedures from the other side of the table.

SHHHHH! Here’s a tip. Understanding the judge’s ring procedure is just one more way to make it easy for the judge to point to your dog.

  1. Are most owner handlers intimidated by the professionals? Can they really beat the pros?

I don’t know about most owner handlers, but I will say that many owner handlers are intimidated by the professionals. Intimidation is simply a function of lack of experience. In other words, the non-professionals don’t know what they don’t know. Experience and education will give them what they need.

Spoiler Alert: Yes, owner handlers really can beat the pros in the ring. In fact, they have an advantage. Typically, they have a deeper relationship with their dog and more of personal investment in winning. They are likely to spend more time training both themselves and their dog.

  1. Why do some owner handlers think they can never win? Are the odds really stacked against them or are they missing something?

Lee Whittier: I don’t know why some owner handlers think they cannot win, because the odds are actually stacked in their favor. What wins in the ring is a great dog and great handler. Just because a handler is paid to step into the ring, it doesn’t mean they are any better or that they care more. In most cases, it means they are more experienced. But remember, the experience is open to everybody.

If some owner handlers think they can’t win, I believe it is because they haven’t created a winning mindset. Mindset is a concept I’ve been studying for a number of years. We spend a lot of time talking about mindset in Dog Show Mentor. We ask the question, “What if?” This is one of the biggest questions that drive change and allows outcomes to move from dreams into reality. As one of my members said, “If I had resorted to hiring a handler, I would not be where I am today.” In her case, she’s a Best in Show owner handler.

  1. How important is it for owner handlers to understand their breed’s standard?

Lee Whittier: It’s incredibly important for owner handlers to understand their breed standard. They can’t accentuate their dog’s virtues and minimize their faults if they don’t understand what their breed is supposed to look like, again, according to that standard. The whole point is to create an ideal presentation for the judge in the ring.

I’ve created a system for exhibitors to learn their breed, by teaching it. It’s a well-known fact that when you teach a topic, any topic, you will achieve a deeper level of learning. At DSM, members have the opportunity to present a “Spotlight on Your Breed.” Under my personal guidance, they take a deep dive into their standard; ultimately they create a 10-20 minute presentation. This system works for newbies as well as multi-decade exhibitors.

  1. Any thoughts on the human-canine bond? How can this be utilized in the ring?

Lee Whittier: The way the human-canine bond can be utilized in the ring is through the relationship, both in and beyond the ring, that is developed between the owner handler and the dog. Dogs were domesticated thousands of years ago and they want to please their humans. Typically, it isn’t the dog that has a problem in the ring, it’s the human. I have seen dogs blossom with the enhancement of a gentler bond with their human. I’ve been known to encourage owner handlers to hold their dog’s lead or head like an uncooked egg; the gentler the touch, the more powerful it is for the bond. Thus, the presentation evolves.

  1. Does good sportsmanship still have a place in the sport of dogs? How can owner handlers keep this in mind when they’ve lost? How about when they’ve won?

Lee Whittier: Absolutely! Good sportsmanship still has a place in our sport, perhaps now more than ever. Sportsmanship is really just how we treat each other, whether we’re happy with a particular outcome, or not. In fact, I believe that sportsmanship should be at the forefront of the sport. Ultimately, we practice good sportsmanship amongst all handlers. It is such an important standard that Dog Show Mentor integrated sportsmanship into its own Core Values and, of course, AKC has the Code of Sportsmanship.

Good sportsmanship means it’s just as important to be a good winner as it is to be a good loser. Never gloat. Be kind to those ahead of and behind you. If the judge doesn’t point to your dog, turn it into a win anyway. Learn something about yourself, your dog, the judge, or your competitors. Learn from the experience; use the evidence as information that opens an opportunity for further improvement.

Lee Whittier
Lee Whittier announces the winner of a DSM t-shirt giveaway.

I can think of no better example than what we do at DSM. Every week, we share Monday Morning Mentoring Moments and Brags. It is an opportunity to reflect on our weekend shows and gather as a community in our Facebook Group. One of the DogShowMentorisms is: “Reflection is a powerful tool.” And so, we do. We reflect on what we did well and what we could have done better. And we reflect on who we consciously invite into our support circle. We share moments of joy and even challenges. Perhaps we didn’t win that weekend, but we can still recognize the joy that others have when they win. So, we honor that. It’s not Pollyannish, being excessively optimistic with a tendency to find the good in everything. It’s honoring our sport and honoring others. That’s a big part of what dog shows are about; building community and camaraderie.

One of the DSM Core Values is Kindness. Interestingly, new members have asked, “Why is Kindness a Core V? How can it help me win more in the ring?” I believe that kindness is a core value to have in any community. Particularly, in a competitive setting, simple kindness is unexpected and powerful. In short, it shows your confidence in yourself, and that confidence oozes out into the larger community. Kindness is a leadership quality, and leaders are winners, and winners are leaders.

  1. Finally, who were your mentors in the sport? Can you share a story about how one of your mentors helped you when you were a novice owner handler?

Lee Whittier: Mentorship is so important to those of us who wish to excel and have big goals to achieve. Thirty years ago, I had a number of mentors when I started to seriously engage in the dog world. Looking back, I don’t think many of my mentors realized their role and the impact they made. Up until 2016, our sport was the only sport (the only recognized sport) that did not have professional coaches, let alone a formalized mentoring program. All golfers have coaches. Tennis players, football players, equestrians—they all have coaches. You get the picture. Had I known such a thing was possible, it would have seemed like heaven to me when I was first showing as an owner handler.

Lee Whittier
At a DSM seminar, Lee asks a participant, “What did you miss to come here?”

I do have a story. It’s a serendipitous mentoring moment that happened during the 1980s. The Rottweiler ring was male-dominated, in both numbers and wins. One weekend, I was at a show with my Rottweiler, Tamar. There was only one other woman in the ring, and the judge was ignoring both of us. They had even put us at the end of the line. (Make note, this was a time when judges lined the dogs up in order of preference as they judged them.) So, we were painfully aware of our placement. My lone, fellow female handler looked at me and said, “Well, we may not win this, but let’s put on a show for ringside.” And so, we did. We pretended we were at the Garden with everyone watching our dogs. We created this beautiful competition, first stacking our dogs and then free-baiting. Rottweilers were a free-baiting breed back then. We showed off all of our dogs’ virtues and we pretended that ringside was our very own cheering section. This was one of my first insights into owning my presentations. I didn’t have to wait to be noticed as I stepped into the ring.

I know the value of professional, competent coaching and mentorship. And so, I am propelled forward by all these years of experience, which I continually use to develop Dog Show Mentor. I have created a mentoring and learning community where our members support, encourage, and help each other. This camaraderie perseveres now, just as it did in that Rottweiler ring some thirty years ago.

All photos are courtesy of Lee Whittier.