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Mentoring: Its Value

By Joan B. Guertin

I have an assignment for those of you reading this article.  Sit back in your chair, close your eyes and just for a moment, think back to that time when you obtained your first dog.  Remember the joys, the frustrations, the highs and the lows.

Now, take just a moment to reflect on where you are today: what you know and how you got your education.  Did you have to learn through trial and error?  Or, were you fortunate enough to have a mentor, someone who smoothed over the rough spots.  That person who let you watch while they groomed, and answered the myriad of “stupid” questions that more experienced dog people would take for granted. For those of us blessed with a helping hand, the trip was considerably easier.

My introduction to the world of dog shows began with my first German Shepherd. She joined me in the spring of 1955.  She was my best friend and constant companion.  Having been raised with family dogs all my life and having read almost every dog book ever written, I thought I was pretty savvy. Actually, I was a really good pet owner.  I didn´t know I didn´t know much until 1957 when I decided to join a dog training class with Kadee.  That class led to membership in a dog club.  Then I discovered that attending dog shows was really fascinating and was an endeavor in which my entire, young family could participate.

Wow, this was neat.  But in fact I was really ignorant.   I knew nothing about showing.  I didn´t even realize that my dog, although AKC registered, wasn´t a show dog.  I didn´t know what to do in the show ring!  I was a rank amateur!  Fortunately a wonderful couple recognized my interest; appreciated my lack of knowledge and took me under their wing.  They became my mentors and the time they spent with me; the hours spent pouring over GSD Reviews in their den on Sunday afternoons, are indelibly imprinted in my memory.

They talked to me of bloodlines. They showed me how to read pedigrees.   They introduced me to genetics and we spoke of genotype and phenotype in breeding.  They helped me in handling classes (even though my wonderful Kadee´s conformation couldn´t have won her a booby prize in a sanction match); they didn´t even laugh at me when I took Kadee into the ring.  They were helping me by encouraging me to work at handling a dog that was far from easy to show.  They taught me to love the art of showing whether I won or lost.

That´s how I learned about my chosen breed.  My mentors were right there helping when I needed to select a stud that would improve my plain bitch.  I was like a sponge, soaking up every morsel of information that they were willing to share.  I read the books that they suggested.  I took their advice in the ring.  And, because I was willing to learn, others started sharing what they knew about the breed.  It wasn´t long before people were asking me to show their puppies for them. Soon I was getting to handle dogs that did have a chance of winning.  Eventually we went on a search for a really good dog, one I could show with pride and that I won with!

Today, I show Corgis.  Most of what I know about breeding and showing I can still attribute to my friends in those long ago days who were willing to help a rank amateur.  Today, those friends and what they shared meant so much to me; they still impact what I do in terms of dealing with newcomers to our breed.  Thanks to them, I learned the value of having a mentor.  Now I am in a position to return that favor to others.

I am sure that most of us have been at ringside and heard the grousing about the way someone was handling his or her dog.  Or how that newcomer crowded someone else in the ring.  Or how poorly groomed that dog was.  Or look at the equipment those folks are showing with.  Or, too bad the dog is too fat/too thin/out of coat, etc.  We criticize others and what they are doing, how they are breeding.  But do we offer a kind word, a bit of advice and even more, become a truly interested person with more experience who could be a mentor.

One of the problems with many dog clubs is that the “old guard” leads the way.  After a while the club dwindles in size as those folks get burned out from having to do most of the work.  One day we wake up and there is no one left and the club folds.  It is a pretty simple problem to remedy.  Just mentor new people.  Help them learn, assist them in becoming knowledgeable members of the club and the breed.

Everyone who sells a puppy has an opportunity to mentor a new member.  Not everyone who buys a puppy is going to show it.  Great, that means that there will be workers to do tasks that those of us showing can´t do!

A number of years ago, a lady joined one of my training classes with her Corgi.  She had no intention of showing, as it didn´t interest her in the least.  However, I encouraged her to attend the Golden Gate PWCF meetings with me and she found she enjoyed socializing with other Corgi people.  She became interested in titling her dog in obedience.  Then she attended a herding test and qualified her dogs (yes, by then she had added a second Corgi to the family).  Now, years later she has held several offices in the organization and she has chaired the annual Herding Instinct Test for several years!  Not only that, she is always available to help with club information booths at various events because not showing leaves her free to help other places and being involved in many aspects of the breed, she´s become a valuable resource person. I am proud to have mentored her.

We are missing the boat by not mentoring new people. But, to mentor new people, we first have to get to know them. Sometimes I think that we become so insulated in our cocoon of familiar faces, that we fear reaching out and broadening our horizons.  Some of the best friends I have in the world of dogs exist because I said hello to someone I didn´t know.  It is easiest around the Corgi ring because at least there is a common denominator right there.  It takes no effort at all to approach a new face and introduce oneself.  When I show in a new area, I automatically say hello to people I don´t know and introduce myself.  Admiring their dog is a guaranteed door opener. When I see someone at ringside with that blank “I wish I knew what I was doing” look, I definitely stop and strike up a conversation.  When I see someone struggling, I offer to help.

Yeah, your helping just might help them beat you in the ring.  It has happened to me, and it has happened the other way around.  Back in the German Shepherd days I took a five-point specialty major from the American Bred class at the American Royal Building in Kansas City because a breeder offered to help me with my handling technique.  The lesson was valuable and I went on to beat his class dog the next day.  Thankfully he was laughing when he said that “damned if he´d ever help me again”.  But that is also part of the sport of dog showing. Win with grace and style and lose the same way.

If you don´t want to mentor someone, at least graciously be willing to offer a helping hand when someone needs help.  Remember you didn´t come into the game knowing it all.  The choice is to learn it the hard way (which may not be the best way) or to have help in learning it the right way.  We with experience can help pave the way for the next generation of breeders, handlers and competitors. My theory has always been that if we are going to have competitors, let them be worthy competition.  We can help them along that road with a friendly word,
a valuable piece of information or by becoming their mentor.  In the long run, we help ourselves as well as others. And that just makes things better for our beloved Corgis!

[This article was originally printed in the 2000 GGPWCF Corgi Tracks Annual and is reprinted with permission of the Author, Joan B. Guertin, All Rights Reserved.  This article may not be reproduced in whole or part by any means without permission of the Author, Joan B. Guertin, ]