From the monthly column “Becoming”, ShowSight The Dog Show Magazine, August 2019 Issue. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE.
Four years ago I published an article that talked about starting academies for Junior Dog Breeders. The article generated some interest, but as far as I know it did not generate any new young breeders, or any new approaches to teaching breeding skills to young people. The statistics on the number of purebred dogs and litters produced every year is validating the trouble many of our breeds will have surviving into the next two decades. Last year, 16 Bedlington litters were registered. My own breed is on a fast track to extinction if we don’t start identifying, training and promoting new breeders.
Many of the ideas I hear others talk about focus on the AKC Junior Showmanship program as a place to start. They suggest mandatory service in all-breed or breed clubs that put on dog shows. They suggest using a trip to Westminster as a reward for breeding and showing a dog. They suggest encouraging more very young people to travel with professional handlers to learn the care of multiple dogs. I think many of those ideas have merit, but none of them will encourage breeding because they all use handling a nice dog as a reward. This practically guarantees all children involved in these programs will learn to value exhibiting far more than breeding. That has been my biggest argument against the current AKC Junior Showmanship program. The “reward” for doing something with your dog is always winning a ribbon at a dog show—hopefully the really big ribbon. That teaches a love for competition, but it certainly does not teach a love for breeding dogs. The motivator and the rewards are both wrong to encourage what we really need—more breeders. Most Juniors spend 3-4 years showing the same dog, probably one that someone else bred. The training of that dog, and the grooming and presentation of that dog use up all of their time. They practice endlessly with their one dog, perfecting every minute detail of the performance. Many years ago Juniors were required to exchange dogs in the ring, and were judged on how well they handled the new dog. I understand why the practice was discontinued, but at least it forced the Juniors to show a dog with which they had little familiarity. It was a test of actual handling skills, not just a test of a practiced performance.
I don’t want to disparage any of the ideas—some of them are actually pretty good, but the rewards are still winning at a big show with a dog someone else has bred. I particularly like the idea of mandatory service in a show-giving club before anyone can become a licensed handler. Most young people have no idea how shows get put together, or the amount of work individuals put in to make sure shows run smoothly. Not only should they become members, but they should show evidence that they successfully served on a subcommittee or two. Tell me about the issues involved in setting up reserved grooming or finding stewards. Tell me how you would encourage more spectators to come watch the show ad why that’s important, or how you would handle RV parking. And then explain why giving up a weekend of showing to help your club can actually benefit your career.
Working for a handler will teach the care and grooming of multiple dogs, but it doesn’t teach breeding. It can teach the discipline necessary to manage several client dogs, and figure out how to get them groomed and into rings on time. It can teach you good sportsmanship, how to say please and thank you, and how to be publicly polite to people while your internal anger rages. It should teach you how to form a business relationship with people who
pay you money to do a job, but it doesn’t teach breeding.
I feel like a broken record—BREEDING, BREEDING, BREEDING—not exhibiting is what we need young people to learn. Instead of being focused on going to every show, they need to stay behind and help whelp litters or take care of puppies. They need to become involved in the decision-making process for choosing a stud dog, or deciding which bitches should be bred, and which can be placed. They need to learn genetics and biology—not just showing dogs. They need to learn the value and reward for doing something that produces the dogs we want to send to dog shows regardless of whether or not they get shown or win.
The kids in 4-H all raise their own animals. When they win at the fairs it’s because they helped to breed and care for beautiful animals. It’s a lifestyle and work they enjoy. The kids in FFA are the same—the biology and study of animals and genetics, and health issues are being taught in school. They are encouraged to work for kennels, groomers and vets—not show people. Both of these organizations encourage volunteering. Our all-breed club has used volunteers from both organizations at our annual dog show, and they are always grateful for the opportunity to help. These FFA and 4-H kids are learning the basics of an animal husbandry trade, not just getting a taste of winning. Their reward is producing beautiful well-bred dogs that can compete, but do not have to for value. Their reward is learning about structure, movement, health, nutrition and biology and applying that knowledge in a real-life setting. They are eager to learn, not just win. The animals, not the ribbons, are their primary reward. They are proud of their dogs, pigs, goats and cows even if they don’t win a blue ribbon at the annual fairs. They know there will be another county and state fair next year, and they are ready to apply more learning to try for a blue ribbon the next year.
I think junior handlers (maybe all handlers) today just enjoy winning regardless of the quality or origin of the dog on the end of their lead. It’s what we’ve taught them. We’ve all become slaves to the Vince Lombardi mantra, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the ONLY thing!” You get more clients when you win. You get more money when you win. You get more respect from peers when you win. You get noticed by judges more when you win. You get more influence and power when you win. You start to win more when you win.
I think we need to get out of the mindset that winning at a show is the “reward”, and somehow transition to the reward being understanding, raising and breeding beautiful purpose-bred dogs that meet the standard for their breed—win or lose. Get back to our roots. Pull dog shows back from the sports-like competition that is ruining them to the animal husbandry roots of determining the quality of breeding stock.
I have learned that when I explain how judging works to novice spectators watching a show, they suddenly have a lot more respect for what they are watching. It’s not just a beauty contest, it’s a livestock evaluation of form and function. They relate it to the livestock shows at fairs, and suddenly there is a newfound level of respect for what it takes to breed the dogs that can compete not against each other, but against a written standard of perfection for each breed. They start asking about how long those standards are, and how much detail is in each one. As this information sinks in they begin to realize how much information judges must know, and their respect level goes up again. If you can relate the importance of health and structure, and how that relates to the breeding of good purebred dogs, the spectators’ respect for the complexity of what they are watching increases again. They don’t understand exactly how a judge compares a Beagle to an Afghan, but they understand perfectly when you tell them that the beagle they see in the ring is as close to a perfect beagle as they will see, but the Afghan needs a few different characteristics to be considered a great Afghan.
In a perfect world the AKC would have enough money, people and literature to supply all FFA and 4-H programs with study materials. They’d have a department dedicated to reaching out to the kids who want to learn animal husbandry. That would surely encourage these kids who are already showing a love for owning and breeding dogs to look to a place like the AKC to guide them into our world. And in that perfect world we would have a trade school or academy (or several) to help teach them how to move from studying to applying their knowledge as apprentice purebred breeders. And that academy would have curriculums, teaching positions and honorary professorships for our aging breeders and judges to transition into. Then we would have Junior Breeders, not just Junior Handlers, and our existence, and the future of our dogs—not just dog shows—would be assured.