This was original called “Why Can’t Kids be Kids? Junior Handlers” and was published I do not remember now long ago in the now defunct Sheltie Pacesetter magazine. Somewhere in my boxes I think I still have a copy of the magazine. Over the years I have added to this as my children grew in dog sports. The most recent edit of this was when I decided to blog this (thought I had earlier but I could not find it in the archives – so today I am blogging and adding to it) May 15, 2016 – Karen Peak
It was one of those moments that would burn into your memory. I was at a match with my first real “show” dog, Ryker. (This would have been around 1993/1994). 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. I can only wonder what she grew into. She was bullied by her mother every time I saw her at a show.
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 for greatness based on her pedigree, but the genetics fairy had a sense of humor. Big, overshot jaw, but a great dog in temperament. I was twelve when we started working in Obedience. 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?” In Juniors the dogs do not have to be show quality. Muffin certainly was not. Some kids were downright cruel. I also remember one boy actually taking the time to be nice – Paul Dustin. That was longer ago (I was in Juniors in the 1980’s) 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 a young adult 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 train the dog for the child. What happened to expecting a child do the work, or at least part of it? Then listening to some parents teach kids how to be cutthroat, crowd other competitors, etc. Ugh… These are kids.
Here is an early video of the kids. Sarah was showing Ravyn who was just not digging it. Ravyn was retired from showing for the most part. No matter how much we tried, it was not for her. You will see Connor and Foster. Connor is Autistic and Foster learned to handle Connor’s sometimes forgetting a few fine points – like you do not have to plop a dog on the table. We were working on finished UKC Chs on the dogs so Sarah also took Ravyn in for Sub Juniors.
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 once. It was a big one. It was obvious many 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. (Now that being said, my daughter was the overachiever in a science club and came up with great projects that she was able to build herself – save for having Dad assist with a pressure valve. If it was not in correctly it could explode so yes some kids are capable of a lot of things!).
Those projects that we were pretty sure were done by the students 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. Because of what I experienced as a Junior and what I saw from Juniors and Junior parents when I was a young adult, I swore that if I ever had children, I would never force them into the world of dogs.
Eventually Doug and I would marry, have children and in 2008, find ourselves 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. Connor was not doing Juniors that show. He was working on getting Foster’s (he was just a pup a the time) UKC Championship.
Sarah 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. As soon as Juniors was done the breed classes would begin. 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 regular classes.
Sarah and D’Argo – their first show weekend.
That weekend, watching them both in the ring was a proud and terrifying moment for me. Yeah, both of my children were showing dogs. Connor was nine and a half and Sarah was four.
Connor and Foster their first UKC show weekend. If you have my book you will see this picture. 🙂
Connor and Foster in 2011, their last UKC Jr show together.
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 were days I wondered how much Connor wants to do this, but he kept asking about upcoming shows, what he needed 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, are 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 – any 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 but still in the same age bracket (4 but under 8). 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. He would put the dog on his left. Then Mom would exclaim “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 quizzically. 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 was doing 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 as the day wore on. 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 dogs around the ring.” Sarah and the little boy did so and they made several circuits around the ring. The judge looked at me. I just said, “You did not tell them 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. After what seemed like forever watching her son struggle with a dog he was not ready for, 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. To make it worse, Mom and the older child were behaving like bullies. They were downright nasty to the child throughout the weekend.
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 was a huge Sheltie, Connor could not safely lift him, but D’Argo was fine for learning how to gait, stack and communicate with a dog.
Before starting with a pup (Foster), I had Connor practice just picking up the 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. Connor took over the pup and Sarah had 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. Yes the child has to learn the specific dog and the dog to work with the child, but there is far less for the child to do. In Juniors, the child is expected to help groom the dog as well. I have watched parents refuse to allow children to help groom so they did not mess up the dog. Heck, my kids were handed a dog it did not matter if they messed up grooming. How else could they learn? They were handed a partially trained dog for the ring to get started and then they helped train new dogs.
At a show not too long after, in Maryland, 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 beating 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 several months, the two boys worked together. It was fun to watch the two. Connor learned how to handle Foster’s attitude and Foster learned to handle Connor’s quirks. They are a cute team and well matched. Foster was just over a year old and had a lot of maturing to do. Connor had 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 in the ring, she whispered that the two little boys would do well together eventually in Juniors.
Sarah 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.
D’Argo was never trained for a Junior’s dog. We did dog safety work and Rally together. 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 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 has a few social delays, and at that age overwhelmed 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 who has not learned good social graces from a young age. 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, was at that point, would be toast. However, he 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 Autistic. When I went in the ring after with Ravyn, 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 one of 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 understood that he may never do superbly in Juniors, but he wanted to show. He had 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.
Eventually, Connor left dog showing. Sarah took over Foster for UKC Juniors and eventually started out in AKC Juniors with him. Connor was 14 his last show. His last show was the same club as his first UKC show years earlier. He showed Foster one last time. Sarah was stepping up and after that weekend, took Foster over as her Junior’s dog. She had shared him in the non-regular classes (younger kids) when D’Argo was retiring, but now she was almost old enough for the real competition.
Now at 12, Sarah and Foster, 9, show often in UKC Juniors. They have racked up quite a few UKC Best Junior awards recently. Each show Sarah tries to help others. Winning and losing are part of it. We still run into some obnoxious parents and some kids who are downright mean (and a few bullies). But I think it is getting better in some respects. Either that or Sarah has matured enough to ignore the bad elements. Sometimes they get to her – she is a kid after all. But it is more the attitude and rudeness that upsets her and makes losing hard. She wants to win or lose fairly – not because someone was trying to rattle other exhibitors.
Sarah and Foster at an AKC match three years ago. They were in a fun class for kids 6 – 8 (AKC starts at 9).
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 breeds and our passion. After all, they are the future of our sport.
And please read here – Sportsmanship – it is so important for our children to learn. This piece was written last year. Two years after the last video above with Sarah and Foster. Sarah was almost 11 when I wrote this (Sportsmanship) and it happened at the same club’s match where she did her first AKC anything with Foster.
It is now 2018 – Sarah is 14. She is still showing Foster, now 11, in Juniors. UKC mostly. She and Uhura, her dorky Standard Schnauzer, are a great team. In 2017, Sarah and Uhura took reserve best junior at the UKC Invitational and two days later she and Foster took Best Junior at one of the Premier shows. As a parent it is my job to keep teaching her to win fairly and it is OK to be upset when you lose but you need to be graceful. Hard lessons for kids to learn. But they are kids no matter how grown up they look.