After being asked to write a regular column for Dogs in Review, I thought it best for one of my first essays to begin with an introduction of sorts. Actually to phrase it better, an “induction.” The sport of purebred dogs encompasses years of an art form perfected by all of its predecessors. My so-called life in dogs began at a young age with my parents and me breeding German Shepherd Dogs and Great Danes. As a youngster, barely able to see over the shoulders of many of my companions, I attended dog shows as a novice to say the least. The swirl of activity in and around the rings brought a state of wonderment and euphoria to every show I attended. As we all know, after that first show you’re hooked.
Competing in the Great Dane ring was a challenge. In the days when I began, I would easily see entries of more than 100 dogs and classes that topped 20 to 30 dogs. The classes were full of breeders who had been in the sport for decades, as well as professional handlers. The deftness with which both exhibited their charges was awe-inspiring. I quickly realized that in order to show my dogs well, I needed to study all of these people and learn everything possible so that I could present my dogs like the masters I was witnessing.
This is where an apprenticeship in the sport of dogs began. I talked to everyone and listened to any story they told. It was remarkable to hear the pillars of the sport reminisce about days gone by. Our history of dogs lies within the yarns told by the veterans. If you don’t understand the history and the past of dogs, you will never become a great success in our sport. Understanding tradition is what truly makes the sport of dogs evolve.
As I began to grow up, I realized there was more to the sport than just my single breed. I made a conscious effort to study other breeds and follow the handlers who I felt exhibited outstanding specimens. There was a whole new world out there to be understood. I decided I wanted to work for all-breed handlers as this would be my best learning opportunity for me. Now, as you can imagine, responsibility given to me at such a young age was minimal. I would bring spray bottles to the ring, fetch a comb from the setup, and if the moons aligned just right, I would be permitted to actually hold a dog ringside. It sounds so trivial, but this is the way I learned. I would wait ringside for the handler to send me on another errand. Showing a dog for them was not an option considering my lack of experience. But, oh the joy of just holding some new breed ringside, doing my best to keep the canine composed and ready for the handler to take him away and enter the fray. If that dog won its class, I had done something amazing! I was a part of that. Imagine the thrill!
As time progressed I would actually start to be able to get dogs from the setup and possibly comb them ringside, always aware that I was being watched by the handler and possibly the owner as well. Both were intimidating. Mindful of the sun and elements, I was the one who made sure the pro would have his dog in perfect form before entering the ring. Month after month I would slowly get more responsibilities; after all I was just kid. I really wasn’t a true assistant, merely a child who showed passion about dogs and had some semblance of ability to not completely destroy the handler’s dog in the few minutes I had it in my grasp. Eventually, more professionals took notice of me if they saw that I had some talent, and they too would ask for aid. I can’t tell you the times I was sent to a setup for bait by different handlers. What I realized is that I was bringing a treasure back, this perfect tool that all handlers used to make their charges perform as if they were ready to win Best in Show at Westminster. It was not a task ever to be taken lightly.
The ringside assisting was the beginning but far from the end. At a certain point in one’s life, you realize that you have to commit to a path, a career. For many of us, it was to choose to actually go work for a handler and master the sport we love so much. This is no easy task. It’s akin to choosing a college major. You could apprentice for an all-breed handler or perhaps fine-tune your skills with a handler who solely specialized in one breed. I chose the all-breed route, which would allow me to finally have access to all the amazing breeds I had admired but never had any exposure to. The choice I made allowed me to travel to the West Coast to begin my tutelage.
Moving from Pennsylvania to California was quite a culture shock for me as a teenager. The shows out West were of a different sort than the laid-back East Coast mentality. I began right away working with another assistant and was surrounded by 30-plus dogs every weekend. At this point I had no knowledge of what made them a quality representative of their breed. I was in charge of feeding and also conditioning them. To be responsible for the proper weight of the dogs and their condition was daunting. It’s a monumental learning curve. There were Goldens, Siberians, Whippets, Dachshunds, Fox Terriers, Tibetan Terriers, Ridgebacks, Briards, and the list goes on and on. Not one of which I knew anything about. I was in heaven!
Then came the grooming: line brushing some breeds, blow drying others, trimming whiskers (the task that could cause much consternation if done improperly). It was one minuscule task followed by another. That is called learning your trade. Cleaning up after the dogs, learning when they are sick and how to treat them. Every task imaginable was taught by our mentors. I never stopped learning. They would always have a solution for me to implement when I was at a loss; like me, they had learned the trade from their predecessors before them.
Once I proved my skill in the setup, I was then ushered into the ring by my tutor. Rarely in the beginning would I take the viable winner into the ring. Typically it was the green puppy that the owner hadn’t trained while my boss showed the Open class winner and usually beat me. But it was the experience and the fact that I had been entrusted a paying client’s dog to take into the ring that made everything worthwhile. Now I won’t forget there were days when I made grievous errors. Forgetting to get a dog ready, leaving chalk in a dog, etc. It happened, and that was also an invaluable learning tool. If I had never made mistakes, I wouldn’t have known how to avoid the pitfalls that lay ahead.
In my career I worked for many handlers, and in California I worked for two in particular for a long time. They became family and helped me hone my skills to the point where I could go out on my own and become a professional. While I was in working out West, I was surrounded by young apprentices like myself, all of whom have become wonderful successes, such as Amy Rutherford, Doug Carlson, Andrew Peel, Gabriel Rangel and Tracy Szaras to name a few. If you ask any of them, they will all have the same feeling that I do. Without study and mentorship, you simply cannot learn your trade.
Since being a professional handler, I have been approved as a Group judge and have been licensed to judge breeds in six different Groups. The knowledge I use to judge breeding stock came from the mentors in my past. The knowledge they shared with me will hopefully allow me to continue on in this sport of purebred dogs and allow me to mentor the future of the sport as well while continuing my studies, as that is never-ending.
From the March 2013 issue of Dogs In Review magazine. Purchase the March 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs In Review magazine.