Monday, October 5, 2009

Being Ambassadors for Our Sport

Joanna Kimball put up a wonderful post on her blog, , and since I had more to say about it than was appropriate for the comments section, I decided to take the ball and run with it here.

In that post, Joanna relates an experience a new exhibitor had at a dog show, and she mentions that "the way things work" sometimes does new exhibitors in the sport a disservice. I couldn't agree more.

When members of the dog fancy write those helpful articles telling John Q. Public where to look for a good dog, we tell him to visit a dog show to see different breeds and to talk to breeders. But let's think about what John Q. finds when he gets there. There are endless people with a rainbow of breeds running to and from rings. Dogs go in and out of rings; handlers go in and out of rings, sometimes with the same dog and sometimes with a different dog; the judge standing in the ring grunts and points in a pre-verbal, simian manner; there are dogs being groomed with enough product to make Tammy Faye Baker say, "Whoa, take it down a notch!" Some exhibitors have a huge string of dogs of different breeds, others have a slew of dogs of the same breed. Some are wearing business suits, others are lumbering around the ring in outfits one step up from a muumuu. They are gathered in little cliques, often talking behind their hands about another exhibitor who does this or doesn't do that or, more to the point, beats their own dogs 9 times out of 10 and is therefore the object of jealousy and resentment.

When John Q. tries to actually talk to one of these people, he can be met with behaviors ranging from borderline civil to out-and-out rude. People don't want their dogs touched, distracted, etc., and they often can't be bothered to answer questions. "Dumb" questions are met with an eyeroll and sometimes a snicker with a comrade at John Q.'s expense.

Exaggeration? Maybe, but only a little. A very little.

Now, you and I understand that there is often tight timing between getting one dog into the ring and another out of it. We know what we've put into grooming this dog for the show ring and, yes, the thought of Cheeto-covered fingers touching that carefully chalked rough gives us hives the size of Volkswagens. We've been at this for a while, and we understand when it's okay to talk to breeders and/or handlers (i.e. AFTER they're done in the ring), and we know not to touch other peoples' dogs without asking, etc.

And, you and I know that an object of derision may be one because they've illegally trimmed their dogs, or numbed a "happy" tail, or had teeth fixed -- because they have essentially cheated. Maybe he/she knowingly sold a puppy with a health problem to a pet buyer without full disclosure, and then refused to replace the puppy. Hell, maybe he lied about a pedigree.

But John Q. doesn't know any of this -- not because he's dumb, but because this is his first time at the controlled chaos that is a dog show. And why did he go there? Because we TOLD him to.

Fact: Dog show entries and AKC registrations are on the decline. Fact: the dog fancy, and breeders in particular, are increasingly under attack by animal rights groups. Fact: there is an ever-growing number of venues that provide performance events for mixed-breed dogs, removing the old argument that you need a purebred dog to be able to "do something" with it. Given these things, those of us in the fancy need to do everything in our power to be ambassadors for our sport.

So how do we be good ambassadors:
  • When approached by someone looking lost, interested, hopeful, enthusiastic -- be polite. Smile. If it's not a good time to talk, tell them why and then tell them you'd be happy to talk with them after you do x, y and z.
  • If they're interested in your breed, tell them more about it, including both its good points and its challenges, health issues, etc. Ask them why your breed appeals to them and how they would envision it fitting into their lifestyle. If your breed is not the appropriate one for them, tell them about some other breeds that may be more what they are looking for.
  • If John Q. wants to know what all that business in the ring is about, and you have the time, go stand ringside with him. Take your catalog and show him how the classes progress; explain why that dog went back into the ring, and what that ribbon that the judge just handed out means. Because I assure you, if someone does not explain it to him, he will NEVER figure it out.
  • If poor John is not daunted by all of the chaos and the displays of bad (human) temperament he has seen, if his eyes are beginning to take on the zealous glow of a true religious convert, tell him how to go about finding an all-breed kennel club in his area so he can continue to learn and to network. Tell him how to narrow down his choice of breed, and how to find good breeders once he is sure of what he wants.
  • If your breed is the one John is interested in, give him some contact information and keep in touch. Let him know of your breed club's activities, keep him in the loop. Give him the names of some fellow breeders and encourage him to seek out all the information and contacts he can. You may or may not have the perfect dog for him, but don't give the impression that you are the be-all and end-all resource for him. Encourage him to shop around.
  • If John asks you how much a puppy costs, or how much showing a dog costs, be frank. You don't need to whip out your check book register and show him line item for line item, but give him a realistic expectation of what it costs to buy, register, condition, feed, care for, and show a dog.
  • Avoid standing ringside and/or in a clique in the grooming area and badmouthing other people or their dogs. When one person speaks ill of another, it is generally the speaker, and not the spoken of, who ends up looking bad.
  • And, because it can't be said enough: SMILE. And be polite.

I had the good fortune to grow up beside an obedience ring. I knew what a perfect recall looked like by age 8, could tell you what the scent article exercise was, could steward better than some adults do now. But conformation was just something with a bunch of dogs that happened under "the big tent." It wasn't until a breeder sat next to the ring with me one day, catalog open to the breed being shown, and told me step by step what was happening and why, that I understood how conformation worked. I could see it in front if me, ask questions as different situations arose, and all of the little pictures that make up the big picture were suddenly clear. Without that kind of mentoring, I would probably still be trying to figure it out. I suspect that many of us first learned in much the same way.

So pay it forward. Be that person who patiently explains what is going on. Show John what we know to be true: that dog people are some of the best people in the world -- to those who are IN that world. Be an ambassador. Invite John in. Make him want to belong, not run screaming with horror stories about the weird, stuck-up dog people. Be a good example, not an object lesson.

And who knows? You may just have met your new best friend and future breeding partner. Pretty neat, huh?


  1. Amen -- I could not have said it better. I believe that sometimes we are so busy ringside talking to our fellow exhibitors that the newcomer with questions doesn't feel he/she can interrupt. Perhaps if we were just a little more aware of the people looking inquisitive, we might exude more of an approachable air. Making dog shows "public friendly" is one step in halting the AR movement.

  2. I liked this post as much as Joannas. My biggest pet peeve is "asshole exhibitors." Well, asshole humans in general.

  3. Hi! Found your blog through Joanna's.....I enjoyed your post, nicely said. I am a performance person, not conformation, but some of the same concepts apply there as well!

  4. Well said. I know nothing about Cardigans, but I found my breeder because he was the only guy with his dogs out, chatting up the public, and putting himself out there. Otherwise, the group of interested and knowledgeable owners will dwindle, and anti-breeding legislation will increase in public support.

  5. Good post, Dawn. It is really unfortunate that a few bad apples can have such an effect on the way the sport is perceived.