Most of us can remember a special school teacher who had a profound influence on our lives during those formative years. In our lives breeding and showing dogs, a great mentor can have an equally powerful influence: teaching us, guiding us, and inspiring us. Talk to the iconic figures in our sport and they will be quick to acknowledge the mentors in their own lives who generously shared the dog knowledge and work ethic that guide them today.
Where to Find a Mentor?
In the best of all possible worlds, your mentor would be your breeder. In reality, that’s not always possible. You may have purchased your dog from across the country, or across the world. While tutorials via Facetime are useful, it’s definitely beneficial to find a more local mentor, who will be attending the same dog shows or is close enough that you can visit occasionally for in-person learning.
Look for two mentors if you can, one who is successful in your breed and the other a longtime participant outside your breed. The mentor in your breed can help you study pedigrees and learn about the influential sires and dams behind today’s winners and producers. You’ll get advice on purchasing the right shampoos and grooming tools, and how to put them to best use giving your dog that professional look.
In time your breed mentor can guide you in choosing a complementary stud dog for your upcoming litter. Join your regional breed club to find a suitable mentor, and attend specialties where you can chat with longtime breeders as well as observe dogs from many different bloodlines to find those that catch your eye.
The mentor outside your breed is your rooting section; the friend who will be unconditionally supportive at ringside, applaud your wins and console you in your losses without getting bogged down in the minutia of breed details. The outside mentor will guide you in making the big-picture decisions: should you enter that distant circuit to exhibit to that panel of judges; should you breed your bitch (after her health clearances) before finishing her, or later? When your very pregnant bitch is digging frantically in her whelping box, it’s probably that nearby outside mentor who will be there to hold your hand, make coffee, help the bitch whelp her puppies and take notes on their size, weight, and sex.
Your local all-breed kennel club is an excellent place to network with breeders, make new friends and find potential mentors you click with. Many of the clubs maintain Facebook pages. If your veterinarian and groomer have breeders in their clientele, they, too, may have names to recommend.
Compatibility is Key
Sometimes, finding a mentor can feel like going on a blind date. On paper, you are totally compatible. But in person, you may rub each other the wrong way. Since much of your relationship will take place away from dog shows, invite your prospective mentor out for coffee to chat about your goals in the sport. Get to know one another away from the stress of a show, where everyone is brushing, fluffing, and preparing to get in the ring. How do your personalities seem to mesh? Does the mentor seem willing to help even though you bought your dog from another breeder? Is she pushing you to buy a new dog from her kennel before you’re ready?
Breeders are naturally partial to their own dogs but good ones don’t bad mouth other kennels, particularly to a novice who is trying to learn. As a new exhibitor, you should be encouraged to politely communicate with everyone in your breed and form your own opinions. A good mentor never tells a protégé not to talk to so-and-so because they are rivals or have an unpleasant history between them. That is too great a price to pay for mentoring. You don’t need to be in anyone’s camp. Some mentors burn out after a few bad experiences with ungrateful protégés and become bitter. Others are more pragmatic, less emotional, and wisely realize that the future of our sport lies with dedicated newcomers who must be welcomed.
Choose an easygoing mentor who seems genuinely interested in helping you learn her breed. Of course, you must be appreciative of the mentor’s time, be professional, and at all times respect information shared confidentially.
The Right Combination
When a sincere newcomer pairs up with a giving mentor, that magical combination can achieve greatness. Road trips to specialties, shared litters to advance multiple breeding programs, and strong friendships are very real benefits. Experienced mentors know when to let go and encourage their protégées to make more independent decisions but they are happy to remain lifelong advisors.
Take the time to find great mentors. They will be among your greatest assets in the sport.