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This was published in the Sheltie Pacesetter, Fall 2008 issue.
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 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, 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. She had the background, but the genetics fairy had a sense of humor. I was twelve when we started working in Obedience. Big, overshot, but a great dog. I eventually decided to try my hand in Junior Show. I learned how to groom and handle 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. That 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 as I showed Ryker, 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 parent would basically train the dog for the child. 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 involved 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. 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 with Foster. He 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 regular classes.
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 is 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 next to Sarah, in the ring. 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 it is "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. 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.
In the UKC, non-licensed Junior Handler classes, it is permissible for someone to assist the Junior. Finally, Mom sent an older child into help the boy. A second lead was attached to the setter. 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 young boy was not ready mentally or physically for what Mom was demanding of him. He could not succeed at any level between Mom and this poorly suited dog.
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. 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, 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 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 a dog. Combining a child who needs to learn with a dog who needs 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. 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. For the past few months, the two boys have been together. It is fun to watch the two. Connor is learning how to handle Foster's attitude and Foster is learning to handle Connor's quirks. They are a cute team and well matched. Foster is just over a year old and has a lot of maturing to do. Connor has progressed a lot but still has 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.
Sarah has 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 is just an adult, laid-back dog who takes direction well. He allows a child to succeed but still have to do work and learn how to handle a bit of frustration at a level that is 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. However, he also has a few social delays, overwhelms easily 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 also is very sensitive. He is learning to handle it but he takes a bit more time to process some things. A cruel child can send him sobbing. 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. "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 holding 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. When I went in the ring, 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. At his last UKC show weekend, Connor went on to handle Foster to Best of Winners (over Mom and Ravyn) and took Foster in for the breed. I offered to take the dog in, nope; Connor was going to do it. He had his own cheering section by the time the breed was over. He understands that he may never do superbly in Juniors, but he wants to show. He has a good little dog to start with.
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.
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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