The Novice Process
Recently, I was at a show watching Junior Showmanship from start to finish. The Juniors in the Novice classes and those who had recently moved up into the Open classes captured my attention. I was watching how well the Novices were trying to interact with their dogs, the judge and their competitors. Then I thought about how the more experienced Juniors, some of whom I even competed against, had started out.
What did some of those Juniors whom I considered to be the best have in common with each other? Is there rhyme or reason for how they got to that successful point?
In my opinion, it all began in the Novice class for them. In this class, they began building a foundation, acquiring skills that eventually led to their success.
I believe one of the very first steps to a successful start for a beginner is to have a trainer or perhaps even a mentor. So for those of you who are just starting out with little or no experience, I would really encourage you to try to find someone who would be willing to help get you started. A good mentor may even be the breeder of your dog or a local conformation instructor. And by the way, a mentor doesn’t necessarily have to have the same breed as you or have much experience with your breed. If a mentor understands handling in general, he can identify what pleases his eye in that particular breed. However, if you do find a mentor with experience in your breed, all the better.
Actually, one of the very first things I remember when starting in dog shows was the two local training classes we attended each week. One of our trainers, Mrs. Joan Krumm, had Miniature Pinschers, which I quickly grew to like. And eventually, she gave my little brother and me some Min Pins to practice with. Long story short, they became our first Junior dogs. My mentor Mrs. Krumm is still my mentor today — coaching and giving me advice, even though I’m out of Juniors now. Although you’re only in Juniors for nine years of your life, you can develop lifelong friendships. I cannot tell you how much it did for us to have a mentor like her. We still have fun calling our mentor at the end of the show day — a lot of times having a good laugh, or other times being given a boost of encouragement to press on.
There is another factor to success that is available to most every Junior — the advice from your parents, family or friends. Because these people may not have as much experience as trainers or mentors, it may be easy to disregard their opinions and write them off, but you shouldn’t! Most likely, these people take you to the training classes, watch your lessons with your mentor, and watch probably every single performance you do, as well as the performances of the Juniors you are competing against. They are able to see a bigger picture as they sit ringside supporting you. And if you’re like me, your mentor/trainer is not at every show, but these people are. These people take in so much more than a video recording of your performance captures; they see firsthand the emotion and energy between the competitors, their dogs and the judges. These people who are taking all this in from the front row will be able to really give you good ideas or advice, or work through issues with you that they might have observed. Just as in any other sport, if you watch the game enough, you will start picking up on the mistakes and good moves of the competitors. As it is in these other sports, so it is in our own. The things they notice can be very valuable to you having success.
Lastly, learning and practicing the basics are very important.
When I was maybe 10 or so, I had to go back in the ring to compete for Best Junior. The judge had told us to go to the far corner and free-bait our dogs. After a few kids went, it was finally my turn. I took my Min Pin around the ring, came to the corner, turned my dog back toward me, and kneeled down on one knee facing my dog. Bam! I looked at the judge. He then motioned me to move on; and at the end, I was awarded Best Junior.
I came out of the ring to my parents, who were shocked, since I had never practiced that move with them — or with anyone, for that matter. I had watched some other handlers do the same “move,” but I didn’t fully understand the reason for it at the time. It wasn’t just something to show my dog’s training or obedience; rather, it had a basic purpose to improve the profile: by baiting low, it created an extremely elegant arch in the neck. This “flashy move” was actually part of a tactical performance.
As a beginner, you probably watch your peers and professional handlers do showy performances. You may try to copy these flashy performances, like I did. But understand the purpose of a move you would like to try. And to understand that, you must understand the basics. So, I would encourage you to stick to the basics until the basics become basic to you! They should become second nature. Things like ring procedure, a good understanding of the leash and how to use it effectively, hand-stacking correctly, baiting with intent, vocalizing commands, praising and correcting — all are foundational to any flashy or polished move you will learn later. Judges are not expecting Master-type flare from beginners; most just want to see them perform things in the right manner.
I feel these factors are very important in respect to a beginner’s growth and success in Junior Showmanship. Every situation is different, and everyone learns differently. So I am not claiming this is some special recipe, but I am saying — from experience and observation — that these factors can help.
If you are a beginner, I hope this helped. Just remember to thank all the mentors and teachers out there who work so hard to help others succeed, as well as all the engaged parents and supportive families and friends. I wish much success to all you Juniors eager to learn!
But until next time ...