There’s a lot you can learn on your own, but having a good mentor (or a bunch of them) is the best way to expedite your success. A mentor has years of experience to draw wisdom from, saving you time, money, irritation, and even heartache. They also have connections to dozens of people who could become great assets to you.
Marion and Wayne have proven to be invaluable to my own growth in the sport of dogs. There’s no way Wally and I would have seen such success without their help! When it came to handling and grooming, Wayne took me from zero to sixty in a few months. Marion has given me a ton of insight into the breeding and whelping of puppies, plus insight into showing and general management. Because of this foundation I was then able to learn even more from other people who crossed my path: Cathy Soule, Valerie Nunes-Atkinson, Peter Atkinson, Danielle Green, Gabriel Rangel, Carmen Ruby, and others.
A good breeder will mentor you, so keep that in mind when shopping for one (I bet you thought you were shopping for a puppy, huh?). If your breed requires specific grooming or handling techniques it would be even more important to have your breeder nearby They already know the ins and outs of everything from grooming to handling to which judge likes their dogs. Granted, it’s not always possible to find a good breeder 10 miles away (I was incredibly lucky), but your breeder is by far the easiest person to develop a mentor/mentee relationship with.
- Check out the AKC mentoring program. Although it’s not breed specific it may be a good jumping off point for showing.
- Contact local, regional, and national parent breed clubs. Most of these will have some kind of mentoring system in place or can put you in touch with someone in your area.
- Take a handling class. Again, not likely to be breed specific but it will provide you experience and contacts.
- Shadow a professional handler or groomer. You might have to pay them or be their bucket bitch for the day, but you could learn a lot!
- Join online forums and groups. This has it’s limitations since it’s online, but there are plenty of folks who are more than happy to share their knowledge. Just be discerning since everyone becomes an expert online.
- Contact local breeders. Even if you didn’t buy a dog from them they might be willing to mentor you. Maybe offer to be their unpaid kennel hand in exchange for mentoring.
- Chat with owners/handlers at shows. Not all owners know anything about their breed, but it can’t hurt! At the very least they might be able to direct you to someone more knowledgeable.
- Find a long-distance mentor who is willing and able to teach you via Skype or gChat.
Something to keep in mind is motivation: what’s going to motivate this person to teach me? Breeders want the owner to succeed so the dog (and thus their kennel) will succeed. Some people will do it for personal satisfaction. Other people will need something to entice them, like money or free labor. If you don’t want to clean kennels think of a skill you have that they could use, such as fixing cars or doing taxes or photography or web design. Don’t be afraid or unwilling to pay for their services just to get the door open. Eventually you may have enough of a relationship that you won’t have to pay them. Or you might realize that they don’t have as much to teach you as you thought!
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask. Politely push yourself into the consciousness of every dog person you know! I found Marion and Wayne because I was talking to my friend Dawn about getting a dog, mentioning that I was considering a Border Terrier. Dawn knew Marion from 4H and immediately provided me with her contact information. If I had said nothing to Dawn I would have never known Marion and would have never gotten Wally, and we all know a Wally-less life is not a life worth living. So put aside your shyness and make yourself known. It all comes down to who you know and who they know. Something like that 6 degrees of separation thing.
Equally important, say YES! If someone asks you to come down and handle one of their pups in a handling class, say yes. If a handler says they need an assistant for the show this weekend, say yes. If somebody needs a ring steward for a show, say yes. The more you say yes, the more people you’ll meet and the more people will think “hmmm, this person is actually serious; I might want to help them out.”
Finally, be careful who you choose or allow to mentor you. Newbies especially don’t know the history behind the long-timers and you may unintentionally get involved with someone who ultimately will hold you back, even if just by association. Get to know people and how they are regarded before you hitch your own reputation to that particular wagon.
It sounds like a lot of effort, and it is, but having a good mentor is like winning the lottery: it creates a lot of opportunities and hastens your progress by leaps and bounds.