Old School: Reviving Breeder Education

Qualified mentors in individual breeds grows smaller as the need for education grows larger.

I recently read a public comment online from a breeder who said she was proud to have “changed [her] breed for the better.” I was tremendously disheartened to read something such as this. This attitude goes against everything I was ever taught by my long list of mentors. I was taught that my charge was to preserve my breed for future generations of breeders, not change it and then brag about having done so. 

 Kathy Lorentzen

 Author Kathy Lorentzen and her Springer, ‘Benny,’ totally enjoyed the Breeders Showcase experience. Photo courtesy Diana Hadsall. 

Many longtime, well-established breeders lament the current lack of breeder education in America. In some instances, it seems unavailable even to those who seek to learn. In others, we watch as total newcomers to the world of breeding take off running with little or no guidance from experienced mentors. The pool of truly qualified mentors in individual breeds grows smaller as ours becomes a graying sport. Those of us who are seriously invested in keeping our breeds true to their standards stand by and watch as uneducated (or uncaring) people produce animals with glaring faults and failings and then promote those faults as being correct. And with promotion comes acceptance by many in both the breeding and judging community.  

We Were Like Them Once

We cannot force people new to a breed to go sit at the feet of the masters and learn. Recently, I was having a conversation with someone who was one of my best mentors, someone who I believe taught me the most about my breed and what it should be. We were reminiscing as she was looking at a dog of my breeding and I commented that I was so grateful that all those years ago she was willing to take me under her wing. Her response was, “Well, at the beginning you really weren’t interested in learning, you know,” to which I came back with, “But you made me want to learn.” Her response, so typical of her, was, “Well, then I guess it was all worth it.” 
I’m sure she was correct when she said that at the beginning, I really wasn’t interested in learning. I had already had a modicum of success in another breed, and I started in my new breed with a dog that became a multiple BIS winner and a top producer. So what did I need to learn? Turned out, pretty much everything.

I made a lot of mistakes. I remember I had a class bitch at a show and the above-mentioned mentor commented, “That bitch doesn’t have a good puppy in her.” I was so offended! How could she make such a sweeping comment about a bitch that I thought was a pretty good one? Well, I finished that bitch, she had three litters, and guess what? She didn’t have a good puppy in her. Oh, she made some champions, but that doesn’t mean they were correct specimens of the breed! And by then I had learned enough to realize it and ended up not going forward with a single one of her offspring. 

I find it fascinating that 35 years later that comment has stuck in my head, and now, 43 years into my breed, I can look at dogs and make the same prediction and most often am correct. I can do it because the picture of real type and true quality in my breed is tattooed in my brain thanks to the people who were willing to take the time to train me. I came to realize that dogs lacking true type and real quality will just make another generation like themselves. 

Ways to Revive Breeder Education

How do we revive breeder education? Here are a few ways that people in my breed are attempting to do it. And they seem to be working. 

A year or so ago, a bright young woman who has a passion to learn set up a “Students of the English Springer Spaniel” group on Facebook and invited everyone she could find (from many countries) to join and participate. She set guidelines for conduct and structured the group in a manner that would encourage discussions from longtime breeders. Over the past year, we have discussed dozens of issues, posted hundreds of photographs, offered learned and varied opinions on a multitude of questions, and most importantly, we have done it with great civility and have all learned many things. We have discovered that many people around the world are interested in bringing our breed together again. There has been no separatism; instead there has been much more unity than most of us thought could ever happen. The group has been, and continues to be, a wonderful tool for both teaching and learning. 

We recently had our annual National Specialty. This year we made a move to bring fun, fellowship and learning back to our National. It was a wonderful success. The night before judging began, we had a welcome party, and after everyone had stuffed themselves with food and drink, we had a “Parts Competition” in the breed ring. We had 10 tables labeled with different parts of our breed: Best Head Planes, Best Coat Quality, Best Proportion, etc. Two members of the Judges Education Committee judged each Part, and we had to agree on which dog was best in our category. We worried that no one would participate. We were thrilled to see that almost everybody participated! Dogs went from table to table to have their parts judged, and what was so encouraging was the comment made by so many people when they put their dogs on the table, which was, “I’m here to learn.” This competition turned into an old-fashioned, stand around and talk dogs evening of the sort that happens so rarely now. I looked around the giant ring and saw legends in my breed and newcomers to my breed talking, laughing, looking at dogs, sharing knowledge and totally enjoying themselves. 

Three days later, we held our first-ever truly organized Breeder’s Showcase, also in the giant breed ring. It was fashioned on the one held yearly at the Flat-Coated Retriever National Specialty. What an incredible idea, and our first was a huge success. We had grooming tables lined all the way around the ring and a row down the center. Each breeder who had registered (at no charge, mind you) could bring up to three dogs. There was a placard with our kennel name taped to one of our grooming arms, a Breeder’s Showcase embroidered towel for each participant and a Purina towel donated for every grooming table. 

We had a ring-bound book that contained a cover page for each kennel, with contact info, year that the kennel began, breeding philosophy, a list of mentors in the breed (and the sport), a list of the kennels whose dogs the breeders used to begin, a list of what health clearances they routinely do on their dogs, and a listing of what they consider their most influential dogs, dogs currently at stud and upcoming litters. Behind that cover page, there was a page on each of the dogs present at the showcase, listing date of birth, health clearances, a three-generation pedigree, two color photographs of each dog, its show information, best virtues, wish list (what they would improve or change about each dog if they were able) and finally, the dogs’ production records. 

The participation in this was beyond our wildest dreams. We had perhaps 70 dogs on tables in that ring and hundreds of people going over dogs, studying pedigrees, talking type and structure, and sharing and learning. We hope to make this an annual event at our National. I cannot imagine a better learning experience than this. 

To top off the show, we also had some fun competitions for things like Best Decorated Grooming Space, Best Dressed in the Sweepstakes and Best Dressed in Best of Breed. The decorations in the grooming area were extensive, elaborate and educational, as many people created banners and posters, brought tons of photographs of their dogs in books or frames, and others created handout cards or keepsakes to pass around. I was lucky to be on the committee that judged the grooming room contest, so I got to study and applaud everyone’s efforts!

We can bring breeder education back into our sport. I firmly believe that, and I hope that other clubs and individuals might find inspiration in the things I have described here. It takes a donation of time and talent, and a collaborative mindset and effort, but the rewards are so worth it. 
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