Friday, February 12, 2010

Writing the Unwritten Rules

Okay, this is probably going to be long and way rambly, but there is an eventual point. Bear with me.

A couple of years ago, a then co-worker (and now friend) of mine had a litter of Collie puppies. Her dog and bitch were not show dogs, but were both healthy and had good temperaments. She was also very choosy about where her puppies went, and she's been absolutely great about following up with the puppy buyers and about taking one back when the placement didn't work out. Like the dam and sire, the pups are healthy, have nice temperaments, and are just nice, family pets.

Around the time she had that first litter, I invited her to join our local all-breed kennel club. She wasn't familiar with the world of dog showing, beyond watching Westminster on TV and the occasional broadcast on Animal Planet. But she was interested, and so joined. Thus began her introduction to the Fancy. I took her with me to a show to see first-hand what went on, explaining what was happening in the ring. I later sat down with her at the table and made a color-coded flow chart (yes, I'm anal) showing just how the classes progressed, how you got to Winners and what that meant, and how Best of Breed and Group worked.

My friend had initially considered keeping a puppy out of that first litter, but after we talked some about the breed standard and what constituted show quality vs. pet quality, she decided instead to invest in a show bitch from a reputable breeder. Much internet research and many emails later, we made a whirlwind trip to Albany to pick up Bela, a 5 month-old bitch that the breeder had been growing out.

For a number of reasons, Bela has not been shown extensively. When she was shown, she received some nice comments but did not garner any points. Now full grown, it is apparent that she is not quite all my friend was hoping for. Which leads to a discussion that my friend and I had yesterday.

She is on a waitlist for a puppy from a different breeder, from a line that she really likes. But she expressed that she was a little gun-shy about the price. I reminded her that you get what you pay for. She said that's what she thought when she bought Bela.

This led me to explain that a show breeder can often be reluctant to place a really nice show prospect in an untested "show home," because people may say that yes, they want to show, but when it comes down to it they don't, for a whole variety of reasons. So the prospective show novice may get an "okay" or "probably finishable" puppy, but they're not going to get the really good puppy.

All of us who have "been around a while" know this intrinsically. Thing is, no one TELLS the novice this. And really, how would you? "I'm pleased that you have an interest in showing in general and in my breeding in particular, but I don't know if I can believe you when you tell me you'll show my puppy, and you don't know anything yet, so I'm only going to sell you something mediocre."

Um, yeah. I don't think so.

So it falls on the newcomer to show that mediocre pup anyway. If they give up after a few tries because they're discouraged that they didn't win, stop being involved in the breed and the fancy, drop off the face of the earth, then this justifies to the breeder that they made the right decision in not placing a top prospect with this person and only reinforces the practice. If the person perseveres and shows the dog at two dozen shows whether they're in the ribbons or not, learns from other breeders how to groom and how to handle, networks, researches bloodlines, memorizes the standard, etc. and so on, then the next time they look for a show puppy, either from the first breeder or from someone different, they're going to get a better quality puppy, because they've paid their dues.

It's just The Way Things Work. You know it. I know it. And no one is going tell it to anyone who doesn't already know it.

It was an interesting conversation we had yesterday about this. And it was a jumping off point for discussing other "unwritten rules" that we all follow but have to learn the hard way. Things like:

Ring etiquette: Yes, the entry confirmation and armband number you received in the mail says that Akitas show at 9:00 a.m. in Ring 3. But did you look at the Ring 3 schedule? There are 5 Bernese Mountain Dogs, 7 Newfoundlands, 16 Dobermans and 4 Mastiffs in the ring before Akitas. Don't be at the ring at 9:00.

When it IS time to go to the ring, Do not stand at the ring gate until the class just before yours is in the ring. Otherwise, you're in the way.

The ring steward will call for you when it's time to go into the ring. Do not make the ring steward call for you. Be where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to be there.

The judge will tell you where to stand and when and how to move your dog. If you're the first dog in the ring that day under that judge, then you'll have to go by that. Some judges are articulate, but there are a fair number of the grunt-and-point variety. So if you are not the first dog in the ring that day under that judge, then watch the classes that go in before you so you know what the pattern is. But don't stand in the ring gate to do it. :-)

These are just a small sample of things that you learn along the way, usually the hard way. Some breeders are true mentors, and will take the novice firmly under their wings; this is perhaps the best way to learn. However, not everyone has that relationship with their breeder, for any number of reasons. I have never yet attended a handling class where the instructor talks about class progression, ring etiquette, points calculation, etc. But by not explaining these things to novices, are we setting them up to fail? Is it some kind of survival-of-the-fittest mentality, separating the wheat from the chaff by sorting who figures it out vs. who gets frustrated and gives up?

All of which leads me to the question that I really want to ask all of you (see, I told you there would be a point; it just took me 3,254 years to get there): If we WERE going to give newcomers a crash-course in "Everything You Need To Know About Showing Your Dog, But That People Won't Tell You," what would be the best forum in which to do that?

Incorporate it into handling classes? Give an "orientation" at dog shows? Have a public education event? Get some breed clubs together for an event and have the clubs' breeders encourage their new puppy buyers to attend? I'd really like some input, because I'd really like to put something like this together; I'm just trying to figure out how to reach the congregation, instead of preaching to the choir.

Because the choir's not going to sing out about it anyway.


  1. Excellent post- and excellent topic!

    I used to teach handling classes, and my beginner handling classes incorporated things like "what to wear" "how to enter" "is your dog ready" "what to do at the dog show"- all the stuff that I had to learn as I went along! Truthfully- in an hour class, you can't really work the dogs for a full hour without dogs/handlers getting bored! So- I would take a 15 minute break in the middle to talk about the subject of the class- and I always had hand outs.

    Point 2-- not ALL breeders sell mediocre into show homes. There is a point of pride there- for example, I won't sell anything into a show home that I would not personally take into the show ring. And I am picky about what I will show! I would personally far rather put a dog in a pet home, then have a less- than- show quality in the ring with my kennel name on it! I know that there are many other breeders that feel just as strongly about this as I do! It takes awhile to find them!

    Thats not to say I am going to sell a novice person my best dogs in the litter! But I will place a dog that I normally would have run on- with a novice; provided that they have proven to me that they are willing to learn and work at it! Its not an easy decision, however, for a breeder to make, since you are essentially placing a bloodline with someone you don't know...

    That, to me, is the scary part- and I don't want my hard work falling into the wrong hands..

    Xtacee Cardigans

  2. When I started attending handling classes I expected to learn more than just gaiting and stacking. I didn't know any better. I was hoping to learn some of the above mentioned items. So if it could be incorporated into classes I think newbies who attend handling classes would get a lot more out of them and would feel less overwhelmed. Speaking from my personal experiences!

  3. Great Post, even for this performance only person! When I was getting ready to go into the agility ring for the very first time (as were several of my classmates) our instructor offered a one night "What to expect" lecture where she showed us everything from getting/filling in the premium correctly to trial etiquette to record keeping, etc. It was a loose format with plenty of time for questions. She didn't make it a part of the regular agility classes since so many of the students were on their 2nd, 3rd....agility dog. And of course she highly recommended attending a couple of shows before actually competing (although I never did!) and volunteering as well.

  4. Great post! We used to teach a class at the University continuing Education program called dog show 101. I also include it in my handling practices whenever a newbie is involved. I also always encourage new people to volunteer to steward prior to getting their 1st show dog. I know people get "puppy fever" but stewarding is a great way to learn the ropes and get some dog show "creds". The other thing I also recommend it the book "Show Me! a dog show Primer" to new people and I give it to my puppy folks who might want to show.