From my ‘Crossing the headlines’ column in Dog World (9th July 2014).

What’s that old adage, ‘You wait an age for a bus and then two come along at once’? Well, it wasn’t a bus that I had been waiting for but an article – an article that would start a meaningful conversation on what is really affecting the popularity and growth of our wonderful hobby – and then two cracking, hard-hitting ones come along in as many weeks.

So, congratulations to Sheila Atter for her article on ‘Bullying’ (June 27th) and to Andrew Brace for his article on ‘The root cause of exhibitors’ dissatisfaction’ putting down in black and white what has so desperately needed to be said.

As many of you know I’m a complete novice to the show dog world (and being relatively young – one of those the KC is apparently desperate to attract and retain). However, despite never before owning a show dog, I have been regularly attending dog shows since the age of 14, my ‘baptism of fire’ coming at the Great Joint Dachshund Show then held at Picketts Lock.

So, now the good and the great have put their heads above the parapet I thought I would share my experiences of my first year of showing to illustrate exactly what it’s like to be a ‘newbie’.

Finding a puppy

We decided last year that we would like to show a dog. It was to be something different for us to do at weekends – just a bit of fun – so I began the search for a puppy. Initially I approached a kennel that I have held in high esteem. I sent off an email saying that I had long been an admirer of their dogs and outlying my plans to show. I also asked if they had any suitable show quality puppies (now or in the future) and said that I would be very grateful for any advice or help they could give.

I received a very curt response of no more than five words that they had no puppies. Now, this was a perfect time to offer words of advice or assistance but none were forthcoming.

Little did I know that I had experienced the first barrier for any newcomer to the show dog world. A number of exhibitors seem very reluctant to sell to another exhibitor and especially a novice. Fortuitously, this reply pushed me in the direction of Fran Mitchell and ultimately to Alfie.

Fran and her daughter Emily gave us nothing but positivity and good advice and, knowing our desire to show, they suggested joining a local ringcraft class and it was there that we met Gina Salisbury. She gave so many tips and invaluable advice and really boosted Marc’s confidence (remember, his one and only previous dog was a much loved Labrador-cross) so much so that when Alfie was a mere six months old he entered him for Southern Counties! I wasn’t sure Alfie (or Marc) was ready for such a big show but as Marc paid the entry fee, I went with it.

‘Listen, it’s no big issue if you come unplaced – it’s all a learning curve,’ I said before he walked into the ring. But he didn’t lose; he had a spectacular win. We were both clearly shell-shocked but Gina was there willing us on. She took us around introducing us to everyone and strangely enough also introduced me to the person whom I’d emailed and received such a rude response from months before. I was willing to put that particular indiscretion down to computers as emails do not always read as they were intended or maybe they simply weren’t proficient in modern technology.

However when introduced they just grunted and didn’t even raise their eyes; hilariously they were just as brusque in real life! Marc later spoke enthusiastically on DogWorld TV about “how welcoming and encouraging people had been”.  As he spoke someone whispered in my ear, “That will soon change the more he wins…” and sadly they were quite right.

Marc went on to win RBPIS at Southern Counties and the cheers that went up as Ron Menaker pointed in his direction were deafening. A crowd had stayed behind to watch the result and the majority were thrilled by his big win.

However a few most definitely weren’t amused. It’s quite amazing how just a couple of nasty people can affect the mood of a room. I have watched as this little group – who at the time were totally unaware who I was in relation to Alfie – giggle, point and whisper as Marc would enter the ring. I often thought how I would feel as a complete newcomer; would I continue doing this, and paying for the privilege, week in and week out? Thankfully our friends in the breed (who have seen this type of behaviour happen before) rallied around and continued to support us.

And with their support we were able to laugh as new tactics were employed to put us off. While Alfie was being shown we’d have someone thunder up close behind loudly jangling keys. Then we noticed someone ringside pulling out a bag of smelly crisps and start to loudly eat them. None of these things stopped ‘bomb-proof’ Alfie showing his socks off however so ‘they’ thought they’d adopt a new tactic – trying to knock the handler’s confidence.

“Oh, that dog’s far too skinny…” bellowed one fellow exhibitor loudly to another. “Don’t you think he’s too skinny?” they shouted in earshot of the judge just as he was about to walk into the ring. Again and again, the same thing would happen; this exhibitor would eye our dog, tut and shake their head. However, again and again, Marc would resolutely stick to his guns, walk into the ring and win.

Fair play

Suddenly I (the most uncompetitive of all people) began to root for my dog. When beaten, it was often by a beautiful dog (and at the moment competition is fierce with many beautiful dogs in the breed and when that happened, defeat was always easy to accept) but on occasion I have to admit to being completely baffled by a judge’s decision. Yes, I may be a newcomer to the show world but one thing I do know inside out is my breed’s Standard and I have to admit, seeing apple-headed, weedy, slab-sided, tummy-tapping or toyish dogs top a class has been particularly galling. New exhibitors are not stupid; they soon get told about the manipulation that goes on and the exchanges of ‘favours’. This isn’t new. Katherine Raine wrote a fantastic little piece for the Dachshund Handbook back in 1980 entitled ‘A hotch-potch of thoughts’ about judges and judging and warned, “Do not return a top honour with a similar one as a matter of course. We have lost a lot of our British identity but our sense and need for ‘fair play’ still burns strong.”

And it has always struck me that those who are fully confident in their dogs (and their wins) are always the most friendly and encouraging. At SKC, our little fella once again won spectacularly beating a fantastically talented breeder who I have looked up to for many years. She was so gracious in defeat, giving a beaming smile and a heartfelt ‘well done’. This is exactly how the dog world should be and if there were more like her around I’m convinced our pastime would be far more popular and certainly more enjoyable.

Eventually Alfie was awarded that magical third CC, accompanied by hearty cheers and claps from our supportive friends, to become our first champion and we were deluged with congratulatory messages, emails and cards from people in our breed and many others but rather tellingly not from the giggling whisperers. It appears the rule of the playground is very much in evidence, ‘if you are friends with them then you can’t be friends with me’. All rather sad and I had hoped that this was something confined to my breed but unfortunately that doesn’t appear to be the case. I recently spoke with a young lady who shows a toy breed and was ostracised because she spoke out about their movement and a young man whose aspirations to become a judge are not being encouraged. I’ve witnessed tears from younger and newer exhibitors bullied and intimidated by those who should know better.

Once again these problems aren’t a sad reflection of modern times. Books from the 1920s and 30s warn of “entering into the veritable hotbed of gossip that abounds at the ringside”. Competitive instinct and pride of possession rank high in the human character and with these sadly come jealousy. The problems now being discussed aren’t solely confined to the dog show scene.

If anything, Alfie’s wins have proven that it is possible to win as a ‘non-face’ and that the system – solely reliant on the integrity of a good judge – can work. I’m not convinced that a KC working party can achieve anything as the problems are so difficult to quantify. Things need to speed up in the dog world; change is so tortuously slow. Allow the judges of the future into the ring to learn and study the ‘old hands’ – something that already happens on the Continent. It’s ridiculous that it appears to take longer to become a judge than it does to train to be a doctor or a vet! Encourage those who wish to become judges, even if they are under 30, promote them and break up the backslapping little cliques who share out the prizes among themselves.

Surely change can only come from us, the paying exhibitor, speaking up and speaking out when we see obvious wrongdoing. It’s certainly happening more and more of late and we need more mentors for our newer, not just the younger, exhibitors. I’m optimistic for the future because I know that for every mealy-mouthed gossiper or bully there is a Fran Mitchell, a Jeff Horswell, a Gina Salisbury and a Jeff Crawford (who has kindly gifted us so many much-treasured breed handbooks). Experts who put their breed and the future of pedigree dogs first, who have been genuinely delighted to see a newcomer succeed. These people have given so freely of their time and experience to support us through all the trials and tribulations of the past year. If only every newcomer could be so fortunate.

See more on Dog World’s website