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This was published in the Sheltie Pacesetter, Fall 2008 issue and has undergone a few edits.
Why Can't Kids be Kids?
It was one of those moments that would burn into your memory. I was at a match with my first real "show" dog, Ryker. Juniors were getting ready to go into the ring nearby. I watched a woman I knew from other shows verbally and horribly dressing down her daughter. The dog was nervous, the child was visibly not happy. The mother kept drilling "Yank that lead if the dog does not listen!" and "You had better do well!" The child, a young teen, was miserable and the dog, now terrified. Mom was a total banshee. I was glad my mother never pushed me like that.
The first dog I formally worked with was far from show quality. Mom put in her order for a blue female, good dog for a house with kids. Muffin had the background promise of greatness, but the genetics fairy had a sense of humor. Muffin was great with kids though! I was twelve when we started working in Obedience. Big, overshot, but a great dog - her faults and flaws for show mattered not to me!. I eventually decided to try my hand in Junior Show. I learned how to groom and handle her on my own. Other Juniors teased me, "Why are you showing that?" I also remember one boy actually taking the time to be nice – Paul Dustin. He was encouraging and also did not care my dog was not a perfect Sheltie. This was longer ago than watching that Mother ensuring her child would hate Juniors or become a nasty exhibitor who would be out to win at all costs. What was happening to an arena that was supposed to be for preparing children for a possible future in dog shows? The more I watched parents and children as I showed Ryker over the years, the more I heard of parents (and overheard some bragging about) buying finished Champions or finishing a dog and then handing the critter over to the child. At least the child would not be involved in training or grooming. What happened to expecting a child do the work, or at least the bulk of it?
Sadly, this attitude is in all areas of children and sports and even other competitions. Just watch any sport children are in. Watch the parents, the coaches and even the kids. How many poor sports do we see on and off the fields? I judged a Science Fair a few years back. It was obvious parents did the bulk of the work of at least half of the projects. No fifth-grade child could build a six-foot trebuchet alone! You could tell the projects the children did themselves. Those projects got more consideration than one that was a high school caliber project in a field it was known dad worked in. More and more we hear of bad behaviors on the field and less of the opposing team carrying an injured player across home plate because her team cannot assist her. I swore that if I ever had children, I would never force them into the world of dogs.
Eventually I would marry, have children and in 2008, find myself standing ringside. Sarah, just four years old, would be handling old D'Argo in a non-licensed United Kennel Club Junior Handler class for younger children. Parents were allowed to assist if needed. She was trying to get D'Argo to stand when he was doing a Heel/Sit. I called in "Honey, would you like some help?"
"I CAN DO IT MYSELF!" she announced, loudly, as a four-year-old can. The judge jumped slightly.
"Did you get that, Mom?" he laughed, "She can do it herself." I glanced over at Connor, all of nine and a half, getting ready to go into the ring next to us - he was showing Foster in a puppy class. Connor was anxiously watching the board, counting how many breeds and individual dogs were in front of him. This was his second show weekend. My poor husband was trying to take pictures and make sure Connor was ready to go into the ring while I wrangled the other one.
That weekend, watching them both in the ring was a proud and terrifying moment for me. Yeah, both of my children are showing dogs. Connor was nine and a half and Sarah is four.
One thing parenting and observing other parents has taught me is we have to do our best not to live vicariously through our children. It just adds extra stress. I make sure my children know that they do not have to show dogs if they do not want to. There are days I wonder how much Connor wants to do this, but he keeps asking about upcoming shows, what he needs to do, etc. It bothers me when I see children forced into any activity because Mom or Dad could not do it, feels "I did it so Johnny has to", or because they have an image of what the child should be. Children are not us. They are individuals. We need to cultivate that. If Johnny or Janie does not want to be he next big name in dog shows, cheerleading, football, etc., so be it.
I have also learned the importance of patience and clarity. As parents, we need to be patient with children and very clear. We must remember they are children and not little adults. None of us, not even the best handlers out there, is perfect. We should not expect that of our children. We have to set reasonable expectations for them. They will fidget. They will get bored. They will whine. They will forget. They will lose and they may win. They will be good sports and they may be bad. We help determine what type of competitor a child will be. When a child makes a mistake, we have to be careful with how we correct the child. Belittling a child for not placing a foot properly or having the dog gait too fast is wrong. This is a child. We want to point out mistakes without destroying a child's interest in the world of dogs. It is what we do and how we do it that can make the difference between a child growing and loving a sport and a child doing it only to please us. It can also make the difference between a child becoming a fair competitor and one who will set out to win at all costs - even if it means resorting to cheating, bullying and being a poor sport.
I watched a little boy in the same ring as Sarah. The boy was several years older than Sarah. He was handling, or at least trying to handle, a young, goofy setter. The child moved the dog to his right side. The mother kept yelling to put the dog on his left. Then she would say "Right!" when the child performed correctly. The child would look horrified and put the dog on his right. Mom would yell again "I SAID LEFT!" I whispered to the Mom, "Next time he gets the dog on his left, say 'Correct' or 'You got it!'" She did and the child relaxed a bit. Mom looked at me, smiled and shrugged. I laughed and told her that I really confused my son when he was learning left and right, until I realized that using the word "right!" when I meant what he did was "correct" was very confusing to a child learning left and right. She slapped her forehead and laughed. Sadly, the lesson was lost. The boy still had issues handling his dog and Mom became a banshee. This was only show one of two that day for the poor child. Mom did not relent and began her verbal barrage in other ways. Remember, Mom had sent her child in with a dog he just could not handle and that was too large and out of control. Remember, in this class, parents or even others are allowed to assist.
Finally, Mom sent an older child into help the boy. A second lead was attached to the setter's collar. The older boy got brusque with the younger child and setter. The setter dragged the smaller child all over when the older let go. The younger child could not succeed at any level between Mom and this poorly suited dog then the addition of older brother's lack of good help..
Even the judge had a lesson in clarity that morning.
"OK, now take your dog around the ring." Sarah did so with pride and made several circuits. The judge looked at me. I just said, "You did not tell her where to stop." Yes, we have to be clear with the little ones.
I feel when starting a child out, we must start with a dog suited to the abilities of the child. The wrong dog can be a nightmare for a child. A child who starts out frustrated will not enjoy an activity as much. Yes, frustration is part of learning, but again, we have to be reasonable. An untrained dog with a learning child can be a world of woe and well, frustration. I found when Connor wanted to start handling, that my younger dogs were a poor match. I sent Connor to classes with D'Argo until Connor had enough confidence to start with one of the pups. Since D'Argo is a huge Sheltie, Connor cannot safely lift him, but D'Argo is fine for learning how to gait, stack and communicate with a dog. Before starting with a pup, I had Connor practice just picking up a pup and holding the critter. Once the pup got used to that, we started putting the pup on table and eventually, Connor started to learn stacking on the table. If I had shoved a pup into Connor's hands from the get-go, it would have been too much stress for both. Now Sarah has the other end of D'Argo's leash for Sub Juniors.
Yes, the ultimate goal of Juniors is for the child to work the dog him or herself. However, parents have to have some common sense. If you have a smaller child, can that child safely manage getting a dog to a table? Even if the dog is not a table breed as the setter was not a table breed, can the child safely handle the dog overall? No matter how well trained an animal is, he is still an animal and not a robot. Can the child safely control the dog should that dog lunge, jump or pull? Yes, adults talk about that outgoing SHOW ATTITUDE of great dogs, but we must remember, most of us are mentally and physically able handle such a dog. We have to remember that children, no matter how mature they seem, are still children. A child has to learn before he can start to train his own dog. Combining a child who needs to learn with a dog who needs lots of training, it can be overwhelming.
Little bugs me more in the world of Juniors than the parent who goes out a buys a finished champion for a child to show. There is little for the Junior to do except snap on a lead and go. At a recent show, a woman commented on my attitude with my children. Connor was getting ready for his first AKC show and not in Juniors. He wanted to show against the adults. The woman commented that it was nice to see a parent not push a child into the ring, have a healthy attitude for showing and using every experience to teach as opposed to beat my children down. It was nice how I emphasized that chances are the judge would not choose Foster for Winner's Dog. I emphasized you win with humility and lose with grace. Learn from both experiences. It was obvious to her that Connor had worked "his" little Sheltie himself and I did not buy him a finished show dog to give him an edge nor did I hand him a fully trained, older dog to show. Foster is on the smaller end of the Sheltie height spectrum, he has attitude and is just a funny little dog. I had barely started training him for showing when Connor jumped in - after working with D'Argo.. For the months the boys were been together. It was fun to watch the two. Connor learned how to handle Foster's attitude and Foster to handle Connor's quirks. They are a cute team and were well matched. Foster was just over a year old and had a lot of maturing to do. Connor had progressed a lot but still had a long way to go. The woman turned, I saw a badge that said "Judge." After the dogs finished, she whispered that the two little boys would do well together eventually. Connor would go on to show Foster to a UKC Championship, a UKC Best of Breed and Group 1.
Sarah now had D'Argo to play with and have fun in non-Licensed UKC classes. At her first show, an old Sheltie person watched her from ringside. The United Kennel Club often holds two shows a day. After the second show, the woman came over and said "Watch that child, she is a natural." I laughed that it also helped she had a dog that worked in two speeds: slow and coma. Eventually, Sarah will progress to another dog. D'Argo was never worked for a Junior's dog. Therefore, Connor and Sarah still had to teach him gait and stand as opposed to heel and sit. He was just an adult, laid-back dog who took direction well. He allowed a child to succeed but still have to do work and learn how to handle a bit of frustration at a level that was not discouraging. Tossing an inexperienced child with a goofy, out of control (lack of self-control) dog, may be too frustrating not to mention potentially dangerous. Then we have to look at other aspects of our individual children when starting them out in dog showing.
"Why is your son not in Juniors?" another woman at Connor's first AKC show asked. Oh how to reply to this... "Connor is Hyperlexic." "Huh?" "Autism Spectrum, high functioning, it overlaps with Asperger's and Pervasive Developmental Disorder." "Oh… He does well…" "Yes, but watch him and compare to Juniors." Part of working effectively with a young, upcoming handler is knowing what that child is ready for. Academically, Connor shines. He is sweet, well mannered and enjoys life. Connor is working well above grade level in all classes. However, he also has a few social delays, overwhelmed easily when younger and takes things to heart. He lacks some of the finesse that a good Junior Handler has. He lacks things that are the difference between him being in the ribbons or not. He is heavier on his feet than other kids, he may not make eye contact with the judge and he may misinterpret an instruction or take it to the extreme. Connor was also very sensitive. He learned to handle that life was not fair but a cruel child could send him sobbing as a youngster. We have never hidden the Hyperlexia from him, nor do we use it as an excuse for things. Rather we use it and try to understand how to best work with Connor so he can excel. It is an explanation for why he may do things differently - but still do it. "Good for you, Mom." The woman commented. "I have seen some Juniors, and sadly, they can be brutal to the competition."
No matter how kind we think our kids are, they can be very cruel. It is just the nature of a child. When you toss in a parent who is teaching a child to win at all costs and be cutthroat in the ring, a child like Connor, at this point, would be toast. However, he is held his own in the regular ring in the United Kennel Club. The first couple of times Connor was in the ring, I had a steward alert the judge that he was Autism Spectrum - just in case. When I went in the ring later in the regular classed, the judges often commented on what a sweet child Connor was, how well he does and that he showed as well as many adults just starting out. One judge said could go far with that little dog in UKC if he wanted to. Connor and Foster would eventually end up on Animal Planet's Dogs 101. The dog show videoed would also be the one where Connor and Foster took the breed and a Group 1. Sadly, when Connor entered Middle School, the academics became so much that dog showing was put aside. Connor showed one last time at about age 14. His little goofy dog that really started him out. They did well in Juniors.
As a parent, we have to know when our child is ready for something or not. I want to raise my children to be fair competitors, understand that a loss is a loss and there will be another show and congratulate with sincerity the winner. Also, I want my children to learn to win with grace. I have seen too many children, and parents, in various sports that are just nasty. Winning must be done at all costs, even if it means being poor sports and bad competitors is not what I want to teach my children.
I now watch Sarah, now ten at the time I updated this. She has been working hard and now has two dogs of her own (well she co-owns). Sarah has been traveling to shows with other people and is working hard. I hope she stays in this world. She is getting so much out of it - and maybe, just maybe, she will add back to the sport.
Juniors should be fun. We parents must make it fun and educational. Our children may follow us into dogs; they may not. So be it. If the decide to, we must mold them into honest and fair competitors who will credit our breed and our passion. After all, they are the future of our sport.
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