I had been bullied much of my junior year in high school and reached “critical mass” the day my tormenter threw a fork at me during lunch and narrowly missed my eye. It was the final straw of a difficult year, and I’d had enough.
I hoisted a leg over the picnic table bench and stood up, smoothed down the pleats of my Catholic school uniform skirt, walked to the table where Mary Gavin sat and yanked her off her seat with the ferocity of a wolverine. And then I decked her. She hit back — I counterpunched — she head-butted me. And then things got really serious. We started to fight like girls.
Rolling around the floor of the school cafeteria, we slapped, scratched, bit and punched each other silly. It took four nuns to separate us, another two to keep us apart. We were marched to the school office like criminals, our classmates shocked. The small Catholic high school had never seen anything like it, and to this day it remains the only time I was ever in a brawl, let alone one I started.
The experience forever shaped my definition of what a bully is and isn’t, and I would have been happy to leave the miserable memory buried in the past had it not been for a recent comment that made me ask myself: Are there bullies at dog shows, too?
The comment was made by a reader named “Kara” responding to a blog I’d written that asked if the show dog fancy was at a tipping point. She described an experience she felt was a reason the fancy is in trouble. She had been a lifelong dog owner when she purchased a puppy good enough to show in the conformation ring. Kara entered the world of conformation a complete novice, excited at the chance to realize a childhood dream of owning a show dog. She took conformation classes, and at only her second show, her dog won its first point by defeating a show dog exhibited by a professional handler. Kara remembered the day: “Suddenly, all of that joy was destroyed when the handler started screaming at me… [The handler] continued to terrorize me for the next five months until I walked away from dog shows just points away from my dog’s championship.”
As dog fanciers, we’ve all likely experienced or witnessed the occasional display of poor sportsmanship or fierce gamesmanship, but in my view, Kara experienced true bullying: She was targeted and subjected to repeated, relentless and consistent harassment that resulted in a dog show bully’s end game: She cried “uncle.” She walked away from the sport.
Novices to dog shows often feel out of their element and unprepared to deal with aggressive competitors; in a “balance of power,” they’re sometimes perceived to be the weak end of the equation, and bullies target people they believe won’t fight back. This changes if a novice’s dog tilts the balance of power in their favor, and therein lies the rub.
Ours is one of the few sports in which novices compete with professionals, which can make for misunderstandings and hard feelings. Exhibitors chasing breed rankings or Group points don’t always exude the “warm and fuzzies” to the competitor behind them who either doesn’t have as much at stake or may be someone struggling just to understand ring directions. To that end, I suspect some exhibitors do have more perceived “power” than others by virtue of their experience, the quality of their show dog or, in the eyes of some, politics.
For dog show bullies like Kara’s, however, suffering a loss is deeply threatening, often because their self-esteem is determined by the success of their dog — a significant burden for the dog! Not content to let a judge’s decision be the final word, a bully has to consistently diminish the other handler or his or her dog in order to justify the loss.
George Alston has said in his dog handling seminars that common handler tricks include “accidentally” blocking a judge’s view of a competitor’s dog, crowding and flustering a novice, or starting a group gait around the ring before other handlers are ready to move their dogs. Are these really “tricks,” are they displays of poor sportsmanship, or are they the tactics of a bully?
Some bullies are typically a bundle of insecurities for whom terrorizing others is about power and control. They pick on people to feel better about themselves and often single out people in their breed in order to be the bigger fish in their own pond. Sometimes what threatens them has nothing to do with dogs. They could be threatened by a competitor’s popularity among peers, the importance of their job in a breed club or a long-held grudge over something that happened years ago. Other bullies feel rather good about themselves. Masterful manipulators, they may be well connected with judges, AKC reps or show chairmen who never see the face a bully shows to his or her victim. Surrounded by peers only too happy not to be at the receiving end of their menacing behavior, the bullies are rarely challenged and never called out for bad behavior. This bullies interpret as a tacit endorsement of their actions. Bullies continue to bully because they can.
If you feel you’re the victim of a dog show bully, it’s important to do a bit of soul searching to rule out jealousy or your own sensitive nature in a competitive sport. It’s also essential to recognize that “gamesmanship” is not the same as bullying. However, if the same person consistently, repeatedly and unrelentingly intimidates you over a period of time by harassing you and/or diminishing your wins, your dog or you personally, I believe you are the victim of bullying, and it’s no laughing matter.
How many junior handlers are learning that it’s OK when they see the adults doing it? How many dogs are suffering at the hands of bullies who, with no human target in sight, take it out on the dog? How many good people has the sport lost because of dog show bullies?
If you are in a position of authority and a complaint of bullying reaches your ears, don’t be too quick to dismiss the charge. With your position comes an expectation of fairness.
For everyone else? Do the right thing.
From the May 2013 issue of Dogs In Review magazine. Purchase the May 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs In Review magazine.