Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M -- Mentors

Learning to show dogs is a lot easier if you have guidance from experienced people. Yes, there are some great books and videos available, but they are not enough -- trust me. If you're really lucky, you'll find a kindred spirit in a veteran fancier who just happens to know your breed. She is worth her weight in gold! Other things to consider:
  • Your breeder -- Her name is on your dog, she wants you to do well. Chances are she's been breeding and showing for a while. Ask her questions, share your journey and send her pictures of the puppy from time to time. (She'll love it. Promise.) She may also know other fanciers of your breed willing to help you.
  • A breed club -- I was fortunate enough to join the German Shepherd Dog Club of North Florida years before I got my first AKC puppy. There were several breeders and fanciers in the club willing to let me pick their brains. We had guest speakers come to the meetings to discuss various GSD issues. We watched videos from the National shows -- and critiqued them. Our club hosts a dog show every year and they always need volunteers. I was able to work a few dog shows and I got to see what was going on first hand.
  • An all-breed club -- Most of these "kennel clubs" host an all-breed show every year. Some even offer handling classes. If you have one near by, I strongly suggest you check it out. You may even find yourself a golden mentor.
  • An obedience club -- I discovered this completely by accident. K-9 Obedience Club of Jacksonville offers Puppy Kindergarten, Family Dog and various other classes. I enjoy taking classes, and I learned that club members get classes half-price. I'm cheap frugal, so I jumped through all the necessary hoops to join the club. And I talked to other members. Guess what I discovered: Many people do both obedience and conformation. Others compete in obedience, but have done conformation in the past. And still others have experience with your breed and can offer advice or commiserate when your cute puppy becomes an obnoxious adolescent.
  • Handling classes -- This could be something formal, or a group of owner-handlers meeting in an empty parking lot. Either way, it's worth the time. In handling classes your dog experiences running around the ring with other dogs. He has to learn to stack even with distractions, and stand for exams from strangers. It's great practice! If possible, hand your dog off to somebody else from time to time so he learns to work with someone other than you. You never know when you might need an emergency stand in. (Think "twisting your ankle the day before a show." It happens!)
  • Handling workshops and seminars -- These aren't always easy to find. They're usually hosted by clubs and spots are limited. Even when you do find one, they're often expensive. (I've seen $150-300 for a day or two, as opposed to $5-8 per handling class.) But don't be discouraged! Get yourself on as many mailing lists as possible. Network. Do your research. Ask yourself "How valuable will this be to me right now?" before signing up. Sometimes you can get a discount if you help set up/clean up. Budget. 
  • Internet groups and forums -- There are LOTS of groups and forums online. You can find some that are breed specific, some that are just for beginners, some for breeders, and some for rating judges. There is even a Facebook group where fanciers trade/sell used show clothes and equipment. Check them out, but be careful. For every gem I find, I also find an angry troll spouting hate and discouragement. Like everything else on the internet, caveat emptor.
    What's with that right hand?! ewww . . .
  • A friend with a video camera. -- Seeing yourself on video can be uncomfortable, especially when you're not as young, thin or coordinated as you remember. Watch anyway. Be critical. This is a great way to see if you're moving at the right speed to get the best gait, if your stack is uneven or -- and I speak from experience here -- if you're concentrating so hard on not tripping that you don't notice your free hand flopping around like fish out of water.
Just remember: Everybody was new once. And to be honest, most people are so preoccupied with their own dogs (and nerves) that they probably won't notice your mistakes. That's what I keep telling myself anyway! So keep asking, keep learning, and share what you know with someone greener than you -- even if it's just a silly little blog with two dozen readers. -- K

Tomorrow's Topic: Name That Dog!