I was recently asked this question by Pat Trotter for a Dog News “10 questions” profile. My automatic response was, my mom. She is the one who taught me how to *act* as a breeder… Stand behind your dogs, treat people fairly, make your puppy buyers part of your family.
But that’s only one part of the picture.
What about my dad, who taught me the value of bird dogs, hunting and game management? Who taught me about gun safety, how to train hunting dogs and to eat what we shoot. Who paid me minimum wage in high school to train dogs at home, so I could concentrate on my education.
How about my 4-H club leader who taught me the rudiments of dog training and gave me my first taste of responsibility and leadership? She surely counts, although to be honest, I remember the lessons more than I remember her name.
When it comes to my own breed, German Wirehaired Pointers, I picked the brains of every long-time breeder I could. I was mentored at some level by every one, from Pat Laurans to Ray Calkins to Bernee Brawn; Judy Cheshire to Laura Myles to Joy Brewster to Doug Ljungren; Genevieve Capstaff to Mildred Revell to Betty Stroh. I asked about old dogs, old lines, old pedigrees, as well as the current dogs being shown or run at field trials. Make no mistake, these folks all had vastly different opinions and ideas. That’s why I asked them! They each contributed to the accumulated treasure of knowledge that allowed me, for better or worse, to make my own, informed, decisions. I have files upon files of pictures and untold hours of talk time — on the phone, on a horse, in a restaurant or in the living room — with these and many more influential breeders who were kind enough to share their time, their thoughts and their memories.
What about Pat Trotter herself? How can I call her a mentor, when I never even talked to her? But the “Born to Win” book came out a couple years before the first litter I whelped on my own was bred. I read it cover to cover, complete with highlighted sections and dog eared pages. I can clearly remember watching her show one of her famous Elkhounds at the dog show in my hometown when I was a dorky little kid. I was just scanning the book again today after loaning it to a friend. I couldn’t believe how much of what I say and believe and do in regards to this sport are verbatim from that book. I had no idea how strongly it had affected me until now.
But, again, breeding is only part of the equation. I worked off and on for different handlers over the years — Bob Perry and Don Rodgers and Brian Clegg. And learned different skills from each one. I could always count on Tad and Bobbie Duncan to be honest and tell me what I needed to do differently with a specific dog. But mostly, I watched. I tell all my assistants to do the same thing. Each day, pick a handler and watch him or her in your spare time. I’ve learned more, unbeknownst to them, from watching Beep Lee and Andy Linton and Gabriel Rangel and Tim Brazier and Taffe McFadden, to name just a few, than I can ever begin to relate. How to handle a situation, set a foot, strike a pose, move well, make a statement without ever opening your mouth.
I enjoy “talking dogs” and learning. Whether from breeder, handler or judge. One of my most powerful memories dates to when I took my BIS Clumber to the Garden. I thought I was pretty cool…. Hah! We didn’t even make the cut in the breed. Ok, I was handling the disappointment pretty well. Then Ric Byrd, recently retired from handling and starting on his judging career, pulled me out of line as we were getting ready to load out. He said, “Don’t you worry about it. I came to this show six years running with the number one dog in it’s breed and walked away empty handed each time. You’ll do just fine.” Honest to God, I cried all the way back to the Hotel Pennsylvania. It was the first and only time in five days anyone was *nice* to me. A great many more conversations followed, poking, prodding or just observing. I will always count Ric and Nancy as mentors, whether they knew it or not.
How about the Irish Terrier client and the Airedale client, who taught me so much about hand-stripping? Or the ages-back Irish Wolfhound gal who introduced me to the concept of carving a picture of the standard using grooming techniques. Even the pet groomers who gave me new skills and the opportunity to polish the ones I had? Those folks count, too!
When you understand that everyone in your circle is a potential mentor of some key element, you are well on your way to building a larger skill set, becoming a better handler and acquiring a deeper appreciation of our sport.
As always, this is JMHO.