Some lessons that I have learned over the years seemed so small when I learned them and yet have stood by me better than anything I was ever tested on in school. One of these came from a college psychology professor more decades ago than I care to admit. I won’t try to quote him – because my recall is not that good – but in essence it was this: “If you can take a statement or joke or circumstance involving a particular group of people, insert another group of people, and you suddenly feel uncomfortable or the joke isn’t funny, you have prejudice.”
I am struck by this lesson often in my dog show travels, because when I am showing, especially in Best of Breed, my fellow breeders and breeder/owner-handlers treat me differently than they treat my professional handler counterparts. So I have to ask, “Are we hurting ourselves and our peers, but openly maintaining a lower set of standards for the owner-handler? Here are a few of the – sometimes subtle – ways I see this.
A Lesson in Sports Psychology
When I first started showing dogs, I took George Alston’s seminar and bought his book. Like many lessons along the way, I incorporated some things and left others. One of the things that stuck with me is Alston’s message that 90 percent of dog showing is mental. I also bought a book on sports psychology, and in between the visualization and methods to handle nerves was the lesson that talent gets you only so far. The difference that makes a great athlete is mental –often the reason talented individuals don’t succeed is because they can’t cross the mental threshold to greatness. So we humans are often our own worst enemies, and when we don’t succeed we have to learn to take a good hard look at ourselves and ask, “What am I doing that may be causing this issue?”
So when I think about this and how we as breeder/owner-handlers watch our sport fall further and further into the hands of moneyed individuals and lose more and more to professional handlers (sometimes on mediocre entries), instead of just pointing fingers and railing at the “system,” I find myself asking, “What are we doing that is hurting ourselves?” And more importantly, “What can we do about it?”
Unification Through Competition
Over the years, I have noticed some overriding behaviors in the dog show world that are key to understanding our psychology. On one side, we have the professional handler. This is the point where I reiterate that I don’t think that professional handlers are the devil that should be exorcised, but they are kind of the opposing team, to continue the sports analogy. So while the Phillies and the Braves may not consider each other the enemy, so to speak, and may be friends on an individual basis with opposing players, they still try to beat the other team when they play each other. I am pretty sure that the pro handlers are not colluding with each other in the RV park after judging, plotting their ultimate conquest for world domination. (I have no proof of this, but if they truly are plotting an overthrow of civilization, they are certainly taking their time about it!) They are, however, unified in their goal to keep their profession viable.
We breeder/owner-handlers, on the other hand, are only unified by our desire to beat each other and the total conviction that we alone among all of our peers stick to the standard and are producing the best specimens of our breed. We have our passion for our breeds and incredible convictions, but in the end we act as a group of individuals.
Neither of these two things is going to change. For my part, I think the give and take in the breeding community, coupled with a plethora of opinions, strengthens each of our breeds by challenging us to rethink our beliefs and strive for perfection. It is not necessarily a bad thing. But when we want to take back our sport, we need to be mindful that individuals going up against a unified group are seldom effective. We have to ask, “What can we/I do?” While most will talk about big plans and changes in AKC regulation, etc., (all of which may have to happen), I would like to propose something small. I think we need, as a group, to make a mental shift when it comes to how we view ourselves and each other.
A Tad Glib
My parent club added a Top 20 event to its National Specialty a few years back. For a while our bitches were having a tough time in the specials ring – most judges wouldn’t consider them for Best of Breed. Happily, that is no longer the case, but at the time we decided to bring the Top 10 bitches into the competition. A fellow breeder’s response to this was: “If people want to get their bitches into the Top 20, they should just spend the money and hire a handler.”
At another show, I ran into a breeder outside the Corgi ring where she was watching while waiting for a friend. She proclaimed that the competition was not as serious as our ring because “It’s mostly owner-handlers.”
First, let’s not be too hard on my compatriots here. They are merely expressing out loud what may be spoken of quietly all the time (for the record, though, I think the Corgi people are quite serious). It serves to bring to light how we think of things and makes us ask the question, “Do we really only think that those hiring professional handlers are ‘serious’ about showing their dogs?”
You Should Smile More
I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten this one. I will get out of the specials ring, and one of my peers will go, “Rhoda, you should smile more while you are showing. You look too serious!” And in handling class, an instructor will say, “Smile! You’re supposed to be having fun!”
Admittedly, I have never heard anyone ever say this to a man who was handling, and there definitely is a social pressure out there for women to have a pleasing expression at all times. Still, I respond the same when I hear, “Count how many times you see a professional handler smile while they are handling their dog.” I am not talking about when the handler is joking around with other exhibitors in the ring or when getting a ribbon from the judge. I am talking about when handlers are stacking, gaiting or free baiting their entries at the show. I’m sure they’re out there. I know of one on the West Coast in our breed, but for the most part these guys are dead serious! They are working, after all.
Think about it. When’s the last time you smiled all the way through a business meeting, especially when you were trying to make an important point? In fact, someone grinning like a fool for that long would get more than a few sidelong glances. So why would we expect this from the owner-handler and expect it to the point of going out of our way to mention it?”
One Dress Code or Two?
Nothing seems to elicit quite as many comments as my apparel. I have yet to wear a leopard print jumpsuit or an “I’m with Stupid” T-shirt to a dog show (or anywhere else for that matter). Yet I have gotten comments in two different veins pretty often. Fortunately, neither are in the “That’s inappropriate” or “Did you dig that out of the Goodwill bag?” category.
The first is, “You should dress sexier.” I am often left speechless by this suggestion. Because nothing screams, “I’m not taking this stuff seriously!” more than a short skirt and a low-cut blouse. Right? While there may be some judges out there where a little cleavage could tip the scales in my favor, I’m thinking we all know that being overtly sexy is inappropriate.
And the second comes in a few forms, but mostly is along the lines of me looking too professional or too business-like. It is my understanding that the dog show dress code is business attire. I have managed to find quite a few brightly colored suits to spice things up a bit that I wouldn’t wear to a job interview. Certainly things should be clean, pressed and in good repair when presenting your dog.
But too professional? Is there such a thing? Most weekends, I see the heavy-hitting professional handlers out there in suits and ties or dresses or skirt suits. Why be critical of the owner-handler who dresses the same way?
Congratulations or Concession?
Here I know I will get disagreement, but I hope you will hear me out.
Recently a fellow breeder saw me at a dog show and proceeded to congratulate me for going Select the previous weekend. I was a tad incredulous and have to admit that I wondered for a moment if she was joking. After all, I didn’t go Best of Breed. So, following the lesson of my old professor, let’s see how we really react when asked a question. You don’t have to say the answer out loud or admit it to anyone. But be honest, at least with yourself. So here it is: Would you ever – ever – consider going up to any of the big time professional handlers that you know, who is campaigning a special, and congratulate them for going Select at last weekend’s all-breed show? I’m betting your answer is “No.”
To be fair, there are those who are only interested in gaining the latest title that the AKC has created – the grand championship – and seem to be OK with getting Select “Whatever” weekend after weekend. And there are those who are being supportive; they may think it is an accomplishment to get anything in a ring filled with professional handlers with seemingly limitless war chests. But I really get the feeling that people – my peers – believe that I should be happy settling for any ribbon on a given day. In the specials ring, if you don’t win Best of Breed, you’ve lost. You don’t get any points toward your national ranking, and you don’t get to go to the Group ring. Even when I am in classes, I try to go Best of Breed every time. I am there to win, and I assume everyone else in that ring is there for the same reason.
Let’s Help Ourselves – and Each Other
Part of George Alston’s lessons instructed to always believe that you are going in the ring on the best dog. He also said there was nothing scarier to the professional handler than a good amateur on a good dog. It is a mental shift you have to make when going into competition. If we treat each other like minor league players, then others will follow suit. Judges, handlers, show committees, the AKC and on down the line will have no trouble thinking of us as the minor league as well. We need to make a mental shift in how we see ourselves and how we treat our peers.
Some of us like to walk into the ring on our own dog. Let’s not assume that our fellow breeder/owner-handlers are competing in a different tier of competition. The next time you are about to make a comment to one of your peers, ask yourself if you would say the same thing to a professional handler. Because as long as we remain complicit with the idea of being second class citizens, that is where we will remain.
Rhoda Springer entered the dog show world by accident in 1993, finishing her first Rhodesian Ridgeback in 1994. She has remained addicted to the show scene ever since, despite numerous family intervention attempts.