Where Are All the Teachers?

How to find a mentor in dogs and have a healthy productive relationship between mentor and student.

Nature hadn’t given me Lundehund ears that I could close at will. More the pity, I thought, wedged as I was among spectators standing ringside at a dog show. It was all but impossible not to overhear the conversation of two people sitting in front of me, dog on the floor between them. Evidently sophomores in the dog fancy, the couple seemed to be equal parts enthusiasm and puzzlement as they sorted out what they were seeing in the ring. At one point, one of them shook her head, sighed wearily and lamented, “You’d think after a couple of years, I’d understand more of what I’m seeing, but it sure would be nice to get some insight,” to which her male companion replied, “Where are all the teachers?”

I didn’t doubt the chap’s sincerity, but I confess that the way it was asked made me find his question a bit naive. It reminded me of someone asking a grocer, “Where will I find apples?” Apples are to be found where one would expect to find them: on an apple tree or in the produce section of a grocery store. Likewise, mentors are found in “mentor habitat.” They’re at seminars, conferences and workshops because the longer they’re “in dogs,” the more they realize there is to learn about genetics, reproduction, structure and nutrition. They can be found running all-breed and breed clubs so that national specialties, judges’ education, breed statistics and perpetual trophies can remain in existence. They’re chairing committees, editing newsletters and keeping the club books. They’re doing it because not enough newbies to the dog fancy are volunteering to work behind the scenes to keep the sport running. These “gurus” of the dog fancy are keeping the legacy of their respective breeds alive for future generations. They are the keepers of the flame.

Unlike apples, there is no “mentor tree” ripe for the picking, but if the fellow asking the question had only looked, he would have realized that mentors have been right in front of his eyes all along. They were the ones setting up ring standards the night before a dog show, sitting in board meetings, poop-scooping the remains of dogs they don’t own to protect the club, and stuffing hospitality bags at specialties. They were the folks going over dogs in parking lots or grooming areas and watching other breeds being judged. They were the folks staying until Best in Show was over even if they didn’t know any of the dogs competing. Mentors are working, researching, stewarding, learning, judging, breeding, evaluating and studying. They’re talking with other dog people in restaurants, hospitality rooms and hallways, sometimes reminiscing about when they were new and hung on the words of people more experienced than themselves. Now they’re wondering where the heck all the new people are. If the fellow from the dog show wasn’t able to find mentors, perhaps it was because he wasn’t where the mentors are.

Most often, mentors don’t even regard themselves as such because dog people are perpetual students. There’s always something new to learn, a different breeding to try, a new goal — and one day, the people who stayed with the sport beyond the five- to seven-year average “life span” suddenly realize they’ve been in the sport for 30 years.

Many newcomers to the sport rely on their breeders to learn how to navigate this new world, but competition is a funny thing, and it may be better to learn the ropes from someone unlikely to be a competitor in the same breed ring. Sometimes the best mentor is someone with a different breed altogether. Some things are universal to all dogs regardless of breed. By learning to follow movement in a fully corded Puli or watching structure-in-action on a hairless dog, we train our eyes how to see. The “old timers” are right; there’s a lot to learn about our own breeds by watching other ones — and just maybe a future mentor can be found by sitting outside those rings, watching, listening, and when possible, asking questions. There’s nothing dog people like more than to talk about their breeds.

Not everyone had a mentor as they entered the sport, and many fanciers learned through trial and error, mistakes and successes, broken friendships and new allies. Sometimes the best mentor is actually several people, each of whom can offer wisdom from different points of view. Not all breeders excel at handling, not all great handlers have a track record in the whelping box, and the marvel with a brush and a pair of scissors who can teach us how to groom may be none of the above.

A great mentor might be an “old timer” who no longer sets foot in the show ring but whose knowledge could fill one. These veterans are gems, in my opinion, people who can bring alive what it was to compete with or have their hands on great dogs that are now only distant names on a pedigree. It’s been my experience that, health willing, these people seldom miss a specialty, but also that they rarely get to meet new club members, as they tend to gravitate to more familiar faces from the show ring.

There is simply no substitute for endurance in this sport. While mentors don’t actively seek out students, they are keen to pass along knowledge because at some point, time catches up to us all and certain is the knowledge that without “new blood,” the fancy and our respective breeds will wither and fade away. To catch the eye of a potential teacher, one needs not only to be where they are, but also to show evidence of an eagerness to learn, to make mistakes, and to roll up one’s sleeves and get to work.


Advice for Students and Mentors

Perhaps you’ve already found a mentor who has agreed to take you under his or her wing, and if so, congratulations! You would be mistaken, however, if you think the hard part is over. While relationships tend to become more authentic with time, a mentoring partnership is unlike any other and requires a bit more effort to grow organically.

Each party must understand the expectations of the other for a productive outcome to be realized, and to that end, a frank conversation is in order to avoid misunderstandings. A student should express his or her goals, and an honest discussion has to occur not only about how to recognize when those goals have been met, but how to know when it’s time for the relationship to evolve beyond a schooling level.

There are instances, however, when what seemed like a good idea at the time just doesn’t work out. Sometimes the person thought to be great mentor material is very knowledgeable but simply can’t teach. Other times, two people just aren’t compatible. On those occasions, it’s best to concede early on that ending the affiliation is best for all concerned. If, however, the future looks promising, there are things that should be addressed at the onset of a mentoring “marriage” from the perspective of the student:

  • Trust is crucial, and it’s earned with discretion. In as much as a student reveals his or her lack of knowledge and experience to a mentor, a mentor exposes him or herself just as much by sharing secrets such as breeding plans, faults in his or her own dogs, and grooming, nutrition and conditioning tips. As I see it, as long as activities aren’t illegal or inhumane, a mentor’s business should remain confidential for the duration of the relationship with a student, if not longer. To act otherwise is not only ethically borderline but also foolish. Revealing confidences never ends well.
  • Realize your role as a student. Admit what you don’t know, be receptive to a different way of doing something, and remain open to suggestions on how to improve yourself and your dogs. No one likes to appear ignorant, but remember that it was you who sought a mentor because you wanted to learn, not to show off how much you already know. This is tough enough between two adults, but when one adult has years of experience and the other is still wet behind the ears, it’s easier said than done. Remind yourself that it’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”
  • There are no “mentor police,” and your relationship is largely what you make it. That said, it’s wise to remember that your mentor isn’t your mother, your shrink, your personal cheerleader or even your new best friend. A good mentor doesn’t need to be liked, and as such, the mentor’s job is to focus on increasing your knowledge and giving you the benefit of his or her experience.
  • Don’t burden your mentor with personal problems unless you’ve been invited to share them, and even then it’s probably best to keep them to yourself until (if ever) the relationship grows into something more personal. The burden of a good learning experience is on you, the student, because you have the most to gain. Being positive and receptive to learn can only encourage a mentor to give more of his or her time, but if you whine about grievances or perceived slights by people in your breed, guess what will happen.
  • Speaking of time, don’t waste it. If you promised your mentor that you’re going to be somewhere, be there. If you’ve agreed to have a dog ready for the ring, have it ready. Turn off your phone, tune out your problems, turn a deaf ear to the competition and pay attention to the person giving you his or her time. As the old country and western tune goes, “Dance with the one that brung ya.”
  • Never put your mentor in a difficult position ethically or legally by asking him or her to keep a secret he or she would be obligated to divulge at an AKC committee hearing or even in a court of law.
  • Remember that while mentors are often older, wiser and more experienced, none are perfect. Don’t fall into the trap of not recognizing bad advice for what it is just because it came from a mentor, or having unrealistic expectations that a mentor’s connections will fast track you to rosettes.

Right about now, it might not hurt to offer mentors a few reminders, as well:

  • Inexperience isn’t the same as stupidity, and a little respect can go a long way with a student, especially in the early days.
  • A good mentor doesn’t force opinions on a student but helps the student form his or her own. A true dog person never stops learning and doesn’t discriminate based on the source of knowledge.
  • Your pupil isn’t in your life to make you feel better about yourself, provide point fodder for your dogs or deflect criticisms from your detractors.
  • At some point, the pupil will “grow up” and spread his or her wings. The student will have developed his or her own eye and be on more equal footing with the teacher. To some mentors, this can feel like rejection. Remember that from the beginning, this independence was always the desired outcome. Be proud of yourself and regard your student’s growth as “mission accomplished.”
  • Chances are that your pupil has the same breed as you and will likely become a competitor, maybe even one who beats you in the show ring. If this becomes the case, step up to the maturity plate by having the dignity to admit a loss, congratulate the winner and relinquish control over someone who once sought your wisdom.

None of us live forever. If we truly love our breed and the show fancy, we will help the next generation perpetuate both.


From the August and October 2013 issues of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase these digital back issues or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine.

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