Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Handling Advice - Take it or leave it?

One of the most challenging parts of my job as a trainer who specializes in coaching people with their show dogs is preparing them for what they can expect at the dog show. The dog training piece is not always the hardest part. The hardest part can be how to accept and deal with the people who go along with the dog show experience. How a person is treated by judges, by professional handlers and by their peers can make or break whether or not they decide to continue in the show ring. The support of their breeder and friends in the breed can greatly impact if they enjoy the sport or decide it just isn't for them. While some feedback can be helpful, it can also create more stress and anxiety depending on when and how it is delivered.

Many of the clients that I work with are first time owner handlers who are new to the sport and have never shown a dog before. A lot of people are bound by a contract to show their dog and some begrudgingly do it because it was required in order to get the dog, but some people are genuinely intrigued and excited about this whole new world that they didn't realize existed.

My clients range from longtime breeders who have been doing this for decades to people new to showing such as accomplished horse riders who are looking for a less expensive and less dangerous hobby to empty nesters who are looking for something new to do with their free time. With this variety of situation comes a variety of skill and all different personality types.

Some people are excited to show their own dog. They are willing to take the time to learn, to practice and understand that getting skilled at something means starting out unskilled at it! It usually takes a while to be as skilled as someone who has been doing something professionally for 30 years. People don't always realize that many professional handlers started out as kids, literally, in the juniors ring. It is fascinating to me as I watched kids grow up at the dog shows. I saw them start out as juniors showing right alongside their parents every weekend, showing client dogs and growing up into adults with their own clients and now bringing their own kids to the show. So, many have been doing this a very long time. It takes time and sometimes quite a bit of not winning in order to get there. I purposely use the term "not winning" instead of losing because if you are in this to enjoy an activity with your dog, it is entirely possible to have a good time even if you aren't winning. I have gotten to the point where I can enjoy going to a dog show, hanging out all weekend with friends, being with our dogs and supporting one another and having all that matter as much as winning. But, I digress...

So, we have all of these different personality types coming to this sport that while very familiar to many of us, is very new to them. How they are treated by this community will help to determine whether or not they remain in the game. In my own experience, I have to say that for the most part I have been treated so well by professional handlers. When I started out showing dogs I remember feeling that a few of the big handlers were almost protective of me and would remind me that it was okay to make sure that my dog and I were being seen. The biggest issue with unsolicited advice generally seems to come from peers, other owner handlers and friends and sadly, judges. When someone is already nervous one of the worst things you can do is to start shouting instructions from ringside to them. If they have gone into the ring with a plan and are feeling pressure to derail and do something else it is likely going to cause them more stress and anxiety. They may not have the ability and mechanical skill to just bust out a new move that they haven't practiced or learned to do. People should take care to offer advice once the person is done showing and only when it is invited. Running up to someone as soon as they come out of the ring to tell them everything they did wrong is not helpful.

I recently had a few clients come to me with experiences that they had at dog shows from professional handlers and the contrast in approaches is like night and day. Have a read and see what advice you would likely take.

An owner handler is at her first show with her working breed puppy. She is an experienced obedience and rally competitor and is training her new puppy for the show ring. As she is waiting to go into the ring a professional handler approaches her and begins to offer some advice. First, he recommends that she use a choke chain on her dog. She has chosen a different type of equipment that is working for her and her dog and thanks the handler for the tip. The handler then tells her that someone should be teaching her how to tape her puppies ears. She explains that his ears usually are taped and are improving, but that she took them off for the show. He asks her where her puppy came from and she answers him and tells him who the sire is, he replies that he never heard of that dog and thinks she got duped and walks away.

Thankfully, she has enough confidence in herself, her puppy and her breeder to not take this exchange to heart, but this could destroy some people. You could say that maybe he is just a gruff man and didn't mean anything by it, but it doesn't make it okay and it certainly doesn't make it helpful or welcoming.

I have another client who is an owner handler. She comes from horses and understands competition. She is training and showing her own dogs, but has also occasionally used a professional handler. She is waiting to go into the ring with her dog and is struggling with something. A well known and highly successful handler is also waiting to go into the ring and asks if she needs help and proceeds to show her a tip that will help her in the ring with her dog. She finds the tip very helpful and uses it in the ring and in the future.

Another client of mine is a first time owner handler who has a natural ability and has managed to not only put a Grand Championship on her sporting dog, but also to garner specialty wins as well as multiple group placements. She is doing so well that her dog is in the top 10 and she wins her first Group One with him. Waiting to go into the BIS ring she is nervous and unsure. Two top professional handlers who will be competing in the group with her talk her down and let her know that it will be okay, just like any other time in the ring and calm her down.

There is a way to offer advice and a way to accept it. If you are offering advice to someone keep the following in mind:

  • Wait until the person is out of the ring, do not shout instructions from ringside or in the ring
  • Do not offer unsolicited advice
  • Do not be offended if the person doesn't use all of the advice, what may work for you may not be helpful to someone else
  • Speak kindly, not condescendingly
  • Respect it if they decline
Here are some ways to deal with advice that is offered to you:
  • If the advice is welcome but offered at a time that you cannot accept, thank the person and let them know you will talk to them later when you can better focus 
  • If you do not want the advice simply thank the person and move on
  • If you are actively working with your dog or handling your dog and need to concentrate on your dog, tell them that
  • Say and do nothing, simply listen
So, in closing, I want to say to take advice with a grain of salt. Listen to people who you respect, who treat their animals appropriately and put their dogs first, to people who look the way you hope to look in the ring as you improve at handling. Take what you need and leave the rest!