By William Given
In any serious conversation about the future of our sport, we have to acknowledge the importance of our youth and the need to bring more young people into our sport. Today’s junior handlers are the “future of our sport.” They will be the exhibitors, breeders, mentors, professional handlers, judges, stewards, show chairmen, superintendents, field representatives, as well as Kennel Club and AKC leadership of tomorrow.
Simply talking about the need to bring more young people into our sport does nothing. Just offering junior showmanship classes at our Specialty, Group and All-Breed shows is not enough. A new emphasis on junior showmanship is required. We must take active steps to recruit and encourage young people by making it easier for them to become an involved member of the dog show community.
Recruiting More Juniors
We must first ask ourselves, where might we find young people who may be interested in participating in junior showmanship?
• Amongst Our Own: The most obvious place to begin looking for future exhibitors is amongst the children of those currently participating in the sport of purebred dogs. Many of them have grown up having used a large crate as a pretend castle to play in. They have helped feed, condition and groom dogs. And many, like my children, have spent hours doing their homework while sitting in the whelping box.
• 4-H Clubs: The 4-H organization has some of the very best animal husbandry- and canine-oriented programs that children can participate in. Create an educational program about dog care and dog shows. Google your County Extension Service 4-H website to obtain a list of the 4-H clubs in your area. Volunteer to speak at one of their meetings about participating in junior showmanship and be prepared to facilitate practical exercises with demo dogs for the children to use.
• Boy/Girl Scouts: Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops have often participated in dog shows as fund raising events. These young people have helped with a number of show activities from poop scooping the fairgrounds to ring stewarding. Create a program about junior showmanship designed to help them earn a badge and volunteer to present your program at a troop meeting.
• Masonic Youth Groups: Job’s Daughters and DeMolay are self-supporting, masonic youth groups. The young men and women who belong to these groups earn all the money necessary to support and run their group. They are almost always looking for new fundraising opportunities to finance their activities. Your club can offer them the opportunity to steward and you can use the opportunity to provide them with information on junior showmanship and the sport of purebred dogs.
Education And Encouragement
Once we have some young people interested in exhibiting in junior showmanship the real job is just beginning. We must be prepared to take the extra steps to help educate the kids so the dog showing will be both a positive experience and personally rewarding.
For those children who have no experience with dogs or dog showing a great deal of mentoring or coaching will be needed for them to be successful. And they will need to experience some early successes or they will likely lose interest. Our preparatory program must include the following:
• Proper Nutrition
• Exercise and Conditioning
• Appearance and Conduct
• Ring Procedure
• Grooming – the proper grooming of a child’s chosen breed may best be taught by a breed mentor.
• Fundamentals of showing with emphasis on proper breed presentation
Finding A Suitable Dog
Once the youngsters have expressed their interest in participating in Junior Showmanship, they are going to need a dog. While some may have a dog that is suitable and can readily be prepared to exhibit, most juniors will need or want a quality dog that they can show in the regular classes as well as in the juniors’ ring.
Be prepared to suggest a breed mentor and make the necessary introductions until a partnership that meshes is established. The breed mentor may have the perfect dog for the youngster or may be able to help him or her find the right dog. The breed mentor will have contacts and can canvas other breeders to find a young dog or retired champion that can be donated to the junior either temporarily or permanently in support of the cause.
Support At The Show
We must provide prizes for the junior showmanship classes. A ribbon and a prize allows the kids to touch their success. We need to let as many club members and exhibitors as possible know that the club is trying to encourage junior showmanship. Ask them to make a special effort to welcome the youngsters to the show and the sport.
We should have these young people introduce themselves to some of the other kids, especially those other kids who may be showing the same breed. They will feel more comfortable since they already have something in common. And, we must make sure that there is an audience to cheer and applaud when they go around the ring.
Notify the media in advance of the show. Make sure the local media is aware of the dog show and the junior showmanship classes, the children participating, and the club’s involvement in promoting junior showmanship. It makes a great human interest story for the newspaper and it is good public relations for both the kennel club and dog shows in general.
If after all of our efforts, only a few young people decide that this is the sport for them and want to become more involved in showing dogs, then we have made a positive impact on the future of the dog fancy.