When I used to think about a vacation, I was typically getting ready to go to the City of Lights — Paris. One of my favorite places, I got to know it well over the years, going there as often as I could. When Cathy and I spent our honeymoon there, she remarked that I knew my way around Paris better than I did Sacramento.
Taking a carriage ride in Versailles, lounging around in a café enjoying a great aperitif was how life should be led, or so I thought. When Cathy and I got married several years ago, I fell down the rabbit hole of dog shows. Many, many dog shows.
Now the vacation is more likely to be at the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona, Calif., for the five grueling days of the Mission Circuit.
The Rookie Discovers a Secret World
Like most people who have one of the 75 million dogs that inhabit this country, I grew up with dogs as pets and enjoyed the simple pleasures and devotion that come from a canine companion.
I considered myself a perfectly good dog owner who took responsibility for the animal in my care. I mean, of course I had heard of dog shows and Westminster and wondered who those crazy people were who took that kind of stuff so seriously.
Cathy has been breeding dogs successfully since 1987 and when we were seeing each other I got a glimmer of what the show universe was like. One of the first dog shows I attended with her was in Pleasanton, Calif., a pleasant enough place east of San Francisco.
Wandering around a county fairground on a hot weekend, I began to think, “What the hell is this all about?” There were people, dogs, vendors and officials everywhere, all working with deadly focus and concentration, while dogs and handlers swept in and out of a show ring in some kind of incomprehensible order.
I tried to follow and understand what was happening to no avail. Cathy tried to fill me in on the rules, classes, breed standards and dog judging, why some dogs got ribbons and others did not. She had a dog named Olivia who won sweepstakes and Winners Bitch out of the 9 to 12 Puppy class, whatever that was.
I was appropriately pleased and impressed even though I didn’t know why. I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m a lawyer with an MBA and a Master’s in psychology, how tough can this be to understand?” I was clueless. I was a long way from being a good show dog owner, much less a great one.
Cathy had been breeding dogs for many years and prior to that had bred and trained horses. Aviator Kennel finished several champions every year, almost always shown by Cathy or a friend of hers. She went to dog shows almost every weekend competing with good dogs and winning the occasional big championship. She rarely used a professional dog handler and was considered a successful breeder and owner of show dogs.
She did virtually no marketing and had a small workmanlike website. She spent a lot of time on her dogs and genuinely enjoyed the experience. Still, looking back over the last few years, we both realize that Cathy wasn’t a great show owner yet, even with her experience.
So What is a Great Show Owner?
Once we got married and I was fully committed to the life of dogs and shows I began to look at the business of pedigreed dogs and the world they live in. With my legal and business background, as well as a stint as an officer of a web development start-up before the Internet bubble burst, I began to sort out some of the variables of the competition.
Ever the statistician, I looked at the numbers, comparing what it cost to show your own dogs every weekend, traveling all over the West Coast competing with professional handlers and dealing with the vagaries of conformation judging.
I noticed that hardly anybody did any real marketing of their kennels, dogs, expertise or reputation. It was so, well, casual and civilized, or so I first thought. I began to realize that beneath this calm veneer of polite applause as dogs won in the ring was a caldron of fierce combat. Cathy won far more than other competing breeders, but she didn’t win Best of Breeds all the time, much less Group and Best in Show wins. One of my first suggestions, carefully presented to the expert, was that going to dog shows constantly and showing your own dogs wasn’t cost effective.
I had quietly compiled and compared two business models for the competitions. The first one was the way most people show their dogs; just as Cathy had done for years. The other model moved to a different level. At that level you hired a regular professional dog handler, carefully planned which dog show offered the most promise, judges and points, managed which dogs were going to compete when and developed goals and benchmarks to monitor success.
In this model, you had the handler show all of your dogs except for those in Bred by Exhibitor or very young class dogs. Instead of going to shows constantly, we sent our dogs to show every weekend with the handler. We were going to shows in places like Monterey, Calif., and let the handler go to Bakersfield, Calif.
Believe it or not, the second model was actually less expensive than the usual practice. More important, our dogs finished faster, allowing Cathy the luxury of better planning about when dogs were actually ready to go into the ring. She had always carefully planned breedings, generally looking three years out to think about what she hoped to get out of a particular breeding.
Next, we started finishing seven to 10 dogs per year, instead of two or three. That gave us a larger pool of champions and expanded the opportunities for breeding our own dogs in the future.
We also began to look at marketing, beginning with our website AviatorKennel.com. We had had a perfectly suitable static website, as do most small businesses. What we did not have was a “portal,” a large, up-to-date website that offers a huge amount of information about us, the dogs, the kennel, PWDs, shows, health links and articles.
We started to think about advertising and developing better links and contacts with our dog owners, our customers. As with any business, our customers are our best source of positive marketing and sales. A happy dog owner walking around San Francisco with an Aviator dog is our best billboard. An owner invited to attend a dog show with us and watch as their pup wins a ribbon is very happy, indeed.
At some of the big shows like the Golden Gate show in San Francisco, we started bringing as many as 17 dogs for competition and nearly 30 owners there for the party. With a formal setup, 30 feet wide with banners, photos, dogs on the bench and owners, Aviator presented our best face forward to the 20,000 people who attend that show every year. At our annual Puppy Party at Aviator we generally have 30 dogs and 50 owners show up for a fun day of hot dogs and adult beverages.
Even with the move to the next level, we still weren’t fully prepared for what it takes to be a great show dog owner, prepared and willing to advance a unique dog like Ladybug. We had to really think about our answers to the hard questions confronting us to go to the next level.
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