You Don’t Even Know What You Don’t Know

From the monthly column “Becoming”. ShowSight Magazine, June 2018 Issue. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE.

I just wrapped up a three-month experience with a very young man who had told me for two years how much he loved Bedlingtons and wanted to be a breeder. He told me his dream was to breed and show them and he wanted me to teach him how to be a great breeder. I don’t think he had any idea that finding a young person to mentor in my rare breed was a dream of mine. Most people who work for me don’t actually like the Bedlingtons—they tolerate them because the person who signs their checks breeds them. So I put my blinders and my rose-colored glasses on, and welcomed this charming young man into our world of showing and breeding dogs.

While this young man lived in another state I gave him three beautiful Bedlingtons that could easily start an experienced breeder on the path to stardom. He had two bitches and a male. He just had to listen, watch and learn. He just had to practice the care and feeding, exercising, training, grooming, breeding, whelping, evaluating and care of multiple dogs. He just had to observe and ask questions and listen to the stories about the great ones of the past. He just had to give it time—lots of it. Nothing worth knowing comes quickly or easily—and he could become a great breeder some day.

Except it didn’t work quite the way I hoped it would.

I had heard many of the stories about some of the great handlers of the past half century. I listened to the stories about the years they worked for great breeders who taught them everything they knew about dog care and breeding. Eventually they took over the reins of the breeding programs, and ultimately the handling of those dogs. They apprenticed with masters who had learned their trade at the feet of the masters who came before them. Apprenticing was how the great dog people learned to do what they did. Sure, they read books about genetics and stayed on top of the latest technology in breeding and canine nutrition. They wrote books and made videos about training practices they had perfected over the years. Every week they went to a show where they sat with other masters and apprentices and discussed the trade they had immersed themselves into. And they worked very hard at the daily maintenance for those long-ago breeders and their kennels.

I know things are changing rapidly. I understand that technology can bring us instant information from far away worlds. I understand that our communication and transportation abilities have been able to speed up a lot of the things we do on a daily basis. But all that speed can’t speed up the human capacity to learn a trade. We don’t have a microchip or a jet engine inside us that allows us to speed up our ability to traverse the distance from pre-novice to master. Our brains and our brawn are basically the same as they have been for thousands of years. We must still have a daily exercise program to build muscle and we must still have a long-term plan to acquire the necessary information to enrich our knowledge of any given subject. The quantity of information that any good breeder needs has grown exponentially in the past few decades, but our brain’s capacity to absorb it has remained essentially the same. In other words, it should take longer now to learn the dog business because we have so much more information about it.

That model does not fit with the younger generation who honestly believe they can become instant experts on any given subject because they own a smart phone and a computer and they know how to use them. Want to become a master plumber? Read a book and take a test. That should take about a week. Want to become a mason? Read two books and take a test. That should take about a month. Want to be a car mechanic, electrician, landscape architect or roofer? You can surely become an expert in all of those because everyone has driven a car, changed a light bulb, planted a tree or lived in a house with a roof. Isn’t that about all there is to it? I mean, for heaven’s sake, there are BOOKS about all that stuff and some of them even have pictures about how to do it. If you’ve owned a dog once, breeding and pet care should be easy!

Except trades don’t work that way and dog care—breeding, grooming, training and exhibiting is in every sense a trade. I don’t think any occupation, blue or white collar, works that way. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. It is only a fool who thinks that time practicing a trade or any occupation is a waste of time. It is only a fool who believes they are as good at their work on the first day as they are on their last.

I do believe there is great value to the energy and naivete of youth. Sometimes young people get a lot done just because they don’t know what they can’t do when they start a new job. It’s kind of fun and energizing to turn them loose to see what they accomplish before reality sets in. When I worked for the Mayor of Milwaukee, I invented a budget reduction formula to be used to mathematically calculate how much city department budgets could be reduced depending upon a series of variables calculated for each department. The variables included things like “vital to health and safety” (think police and fire); size of recent budget increases, ratio of support staff to production workers and a few other variables that my innocent 27-year old brain thought were important to efficiently run a city. Eight years later, after the formula made headlines for the Mayor and won him international accolades, it was scrapped entirely because Milwaukee runs on a strong mayoral system of government. In that kind of a system, politics was the most—well, only—important variable. If a department’s work, or its leader could contribute to the mayor’s re-election, then it was really important. That’s why the Department of City Development always got whatever it wanted. The department head was a huge supporter of the mayor and he offered up hundreds of his employees to work in mayoral campaigns. On the other hand, the police department was headed by an arch enemy, so they had to play a different kind of hard-ball, public-relations brand of politics to get the funding they wanted and it was never easy.

I consider myself a master breeder. It has taken me 49 years to get where I am now. The first 20 were spent mostly dabbling, but the past 29 years have been seriously devoted to my trade. I have loved almost every minute of this journey. I have loved working with the master breeders and groomers. I have loved working with the professionals in theriogenology and genetics and training. It has become a life-long learning process. I know my eagerness to learn, advance and work hard towards a
goal was enhanced by earning both a bachelors and a masters degree. Higher education teaches people how to focus and work hard to achieve a goal. It broadens your exposure to all of the disciplines you know you can never really understand and it teaches you how to be patient in your own field. It teaches you that there will always be some people who know more than you do and there are an awful lot of people who know less. It is humbling and expanding all at the same time.

So back to my young protégé. Well, he’s gone. Packed up in the middle of the night, left me his three dogs and disappeared. I was told he unfriended and blocked me on my social media accounts and unfriended or blocked the other important people in my life. He also left me with a lot of unfinished jobs he said he would do and a staff that had to immediately cover for his assigned hours. We will survive his abrupt departure, but it was a really poor way to leave a group of people who just wanted to welcome him in as part of their team. It was what a young person with little real-world experience does. He did not want to have the difficult conversation with me. He didn’t want to tell me that forcing him to live on-site in a newly remodeled apartment, and work long hours as a groomer and a trainer and take care of four-week old puppies and work as an assistant at local dog shows was what he had in mind. He wanted to be me. He wanted to have all of my knowledge and all of my skills and all of my relationships—you know, the stuff I spent 30 years acquiring—and he wasn’t happy that it didn’t all come to him in three months. He didn’t like working so hard at menial labor like taking care of other people’s dogs. He wanted to show a beautiful dog at the Nationals and Westminster and win big. He wanted the 5% of glamor that’s attached to this trade, without putting in the 95% hard damn work. He wanted to be my equal without investing much of his own labor.

And in case you didn’t catch it earlier, this young man left all three of his dogs behind, though he did take the Westie puppy he got from a different friend. Now I don’t know about too many others, but the real dog people I know would never let themselves be separated from their dogs without a fight. If, as he said on more than one occasion, these dogs were the most important thing in his life, then how could he simply leave them without so much as a conversation? He had the only daughter I had access to out of my BIS winning bitch who died of pyometra three weeks earlier. I must admit I am truly happy to have her back and wonder about the grand plan in the universe when this sort of thing happens.

I am disappointed, but I am not devastated. And I really don’t care one bit about social media. I am disappointed that my breed does not have a young protégé living with me after all. To a rare breed, this is a blow to the future. There are a few young people coming up who are progressing much more cautiously in the breeding and exhibiting of this breed and I think the breed will be in good hands with these real dog people. There are also some foreign exhibitors who are reaching out to learn about the basics of this breed.

I don’t know how to reconcile the young people today with the reality of our trade. I know 30 years sounds like a long time to them and they think they should be able to speed things up with technology. But all technology has brought to this trade is more work to do and things to learn. It certainly has not sped up the breeding or training process. Perhaps we need to remind young people that it is the journey that is fun and meaningful. They must learn to find joy in things that cannot be rushed. Puppies won’t grow faster because you have a smart phone with dozens of apps, and you won’t become a good handler by just watching videos of great handlers. It’s the joy we get from spending time with our dogs and the other people in our lives who love their dogs as much as we love our own that has become important to us. It takes time to know what you don’t know, and even longer to figure out how to fix that. It takes time, our most precious commodity and one I don’t want to waste with people who don’t understand or want to commit. 

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